Jazz and humor usually don’t go hand in hand, even though the stereotype of a jazz club is one where everyone is laughing and enjoying themselves and having a great time. The Nick Sanders Trio goes against that generalization on Playtime 2050, their new album. Humor is often difficult to convey if no one is singing funny words, so the listener is going to have to be savvy to “get” the purely musical jokes here. In order to discover the humor in Playtime 2050, you need to know things about jazz such as how Thelonious Monk‘s phrasings were so surprising, or how juxtapositions of classical music in the jazz canon can bring a silly smile to your face if you recognize them but weren’t expecting them.
For those not in the know, Playtime 2050 is still an uncommon joy. Pianist Nick Sanders doesn’t sound like most jazz pianists, even though he’s fond of channeling Monk and Ornette Coleman and Herbie Nichols. He was raised in New Orleans, which also comes through in his playing–if any single location can foster the idea of jazz humor, it’s that location. His steady playing always takes a slightly different track from the ordinary and the melodious, and sometimes the Nick Sanders Trio wanders into peculiar scales and you wonder if they’ll ever find his way back out. He adopts the angular vision of Monk, the way his notes burst through the door and bounce around the room before jumping out the window. At other times, he seems to crawl inside his piano and play from the inside out.
Fortunately for Sanders, his trio is in on the joke. Drummer Connor Baker knows when to take Sanders’ cues and follow him around that room, much like Chico used to follow Harpo when the sparks started to fly. It’s fascinating when Sanders and Baker lock into a dance of sorts, swirling around each other in circles like two stray mutes getting ready to fight. I’m reminded of the Wes Anderson film Isle of Dogs, and how the frequent dogfights were simply illustrated by a big cloud of dust, punctuated with an odd canine part. This pianist and this drummer can often look like that, and that’s when bassist Henry Fraser, the peacemaker, comes in and stops the fracas. He’s both an anchor to the other two and a willing straight man–he’s the Zeppo of the Nick Sanders Trio.
The cover art of Playtime 2050, from New Mexican artist Leah Saulnier, captures the spirit here with its theme of “adorable dystopia.” Nick Sanders immediately connected with her image: “I liked its tongue-in-cheek look at the state of the world today, with the silver lining being that it’s clearly about surviving.” The music of the Nick Sanders Trio is precisely that, about bringing in challenging ideas from the history of jazz and readying them for a comeback tour in the 21st century. If you think you know your jazz well enough, come on inside and have a few laughs with the rest of us jazz misfits.