I saw Steve Sandberg and his quartet completely by chance; sometimes I think it’s fun to see musicians totally unfamiliar to me, which is what I did this past winter at the Side Door in Old Lyme. I enjoyed the show so much that I got in touch with the bandleader and asked if he’d be willing to be interviewed. Fortunately, he’s a very good sport and after a few attempts to schedule getting together (musicians lead complicated lives, as do culture editors), we finally met up recently at Village Natural, a vegetarian place in the West Village. Here’s what we talked about.
Date: April 19, 2018
Current town: Upper West Side, Manhattan
Thanks for taking the time to meet and talk with me today, I really appreciate it. So, when I saw you perform at the Side Door earlier this year, I wasn’t familiar with your music at all. And as I was listening to it, I didn’t feel that it fit very neatly into any specific genre or category. How do you describe the music you’ve been performing with your quartet?
I call what I do classical world music. The background: I studied classical piano. I’ve done a lot of things since then. I’m interested in world music, Latin salsa, Brazilian music, working with Bebel Gilberto and other musicians. I worked with David Byrne on tour. My music brings together Latin, African, Brazilian, Balkan music with odd time signatures, jazz, and classical.
So you are doing a synthesis of musical styles.
Yes, that’s a good way to put it! Synthesis. I have to write that down.
Well, “fusion” is overused, and that usually covers jazz/rock in the 1970s. You’re doing something different.
For me, music is about spiritual uplift. Music and the arts are important…it’s a devotion, a way to lift people up. I think western culture is in trouble. Money is not enough to live for. We are too commercial, too money-oriented. There are other things to live for, spiritual pursuits. This is something I especially became aware of in studying raga, singing North Indian Classical music.
I think that many of our problems in our culture come from applying a capitalist marketplace system to things that should not be commercialized—medicine, education, government. They’re not businesses and they shouldn’t be. They shouldn’t be about buying and selling. And I think it’s also a problem for music and art.
That reminds me of…there’s a book called Another Life by Michael Korda. Are you familiar with it?
It’s his book about working in the publishing industry in the 1950s and 60s, about his life. When he started his career in the publishing industry, there was a concept of
public trust. It wasn’t entirely a commercial, market approach. Money was an issue, of course, but also the development of writers and creating something meaningful. And at that time companies started to become interested in buying and selling other companies, a company could become a black box, and it set us on the path to where we are today.
It sounds like a really good book, I will have to take a look at it.
When I was listening to you, I thought of a number of other artists: Vince Guaraldi, David Sanborn, Claude Bolling, Dave Brubeck, George Winston, and the Beatles. Was I at all correct in my guesses of your influences?
Somewhat — I do love Vince Guaraldi’s theme for Peanuts, and the Beatles! For my own part, I would say the classical composers I love (Ravel, Bartok, Bach, Chopin), Bill Evans, the Bulgarian Women’s Choir, many Brazilian composers, pianists, and of course people like Keith Jarrett and Brad Mehldau.
So I looked at your website and was impressed with the sheer variety of musical projects that you’ve worked on. I had no idea that you worked on “Dora the Explorer.” Dora was on heavy rotation in my house for a while, there! (My older daughter, now 11, was a huge Dora fan when she was little. And my four year old likes Dora now.) Are you going to do any more television work?
I enjoyed working on “Dora the Explorer” and “Go Diego, Go!” Yes, I am going to do some more work in television. I’m not at liberty to say what, but it’s in the works.
And you have also worked in live theater, performed salsa, bossa nova, Afro-Cuban music. What have been some of the highlights, and some of the musicians you felt most privileged to work with?
There are two. One was Mario Rivera, a Latin jazz master. He was larger than life. He played with Dizzy Gillespie, with Tito Puente, he was an old school jazz musician. He was dedicated: his home was a temple to music. He was encouraging to me as a jazz person, he put me on the bandstand.
And Seymour Bernstein, my classical piano teacher. There’s a movie called Seymour: An Introduction, it’s an Ethan Hawke movie, about him. His devotion to music is an inspiration.
It sounds like you were very lucky to have these mentors. What led you to your latest project, your quartet? And what is next with this lineup?
I was ready for the next thing. It was the end of my mom’s life. I played classical piano for her, while she was in assisted living, and the question for me was what to do next. At that point I came up with the idea of combining my love for classical music with original compositions using world music rhythms based on the classical composers. Seymour completely transformed how I play, he uplifted the level I was performing at, being devoted to music.
We’re working on getting our name out there. We’d love to do some tours. We played at Birdland, at the Side Door (where you saw us), we played at the Deer Head Inn. We’re going to be playing at the Allentown Symphony as part of their jazz festival, which is great.
It’s interesting that you perform with a violinist…the instrumentation is a bit unusual.
We have also played the music with sax. But with the violin it stands out more, it’s different. There are some other violinists that play jazz…you do hear it more and more. There was Stephane Grappelli, of course, but also newer people like Regina Carter.
The violinist in my band, Zach Brock: it’s a pleasure and a privilege to work with him. He plays with a band called Snarky Puppy—he’s a busy guy! I’m honored that he plays with us. His music is extraordinary and unique.
And the other musicians in the quartet..Mauricio Zottarelli is an extraordinary drummer. And Michael O’Brien, the bass player…they’re great musicians. Wonderful to work with and great people. Easy, no ego, really cool.
They come with different styles, there’s a hard book of music, but you have to grok how to approach this.
The producer of our album, Sandro Albert, he’s a great producer. He was dedicated to the approach. And he’s playing with us, sometimes on guitar.
So it becomes a quintet sometimes?
Yes. I’ve also been playing duos, just piano and violin. But it’s sill a work in progress. After the album, going over the tunes, I’m still changing chords.
What has been the response to your album, Alaya? What have critics and audiences had to say about this music?
People love it. It’s gotten some good reviews, a good review in All About Jazz. The response generally has been that it’s sophisticated but universal, and that’s what distinguishes it. People who don’t love jazz love it, people who listen to classical, or only to pop, like it.
That’s great…I’m glad that it is getting such a positive reception. Where do you get your ideas and inspiration from as a musician and composer?
I’ve been very lucky. I can just write melodies. It’s a gift, they come to me. It’s why I like writing for kids. There are only so many notes. I have the gift of being a melodic composer. I write when I am motivated..sometimes I’m motivated by art. My piece “Weeping Bear” was based on a Francesco Clemente painting. It affected me deeply, and the piece does. It’s very simple, but something was there.
I’m also inspired by classical composers. They were working at a high level. It was a spiritual thing for them. Bach was inspired by the church. And the romantics were inspired by beauty, nature, and spirit.
That reminds me, I know a drummer, Jibrail Nor, who performed in a hip hop band, and they had an album called Believe in Something (Greater than Yourself). A reminder about what’s important. Who are your favorite working musicians now?
Jay Rodriguez—I saw him at Smalls recently. He’s a sax player, brilliant. His style, it’s like Coltrane’s jazz, post-bop. Like A Love Supreme.
On a different topic, is there a book everyone should read?
Yes! Lizard Music by Daniel Pinkwater. It’s a children’s book.
I think I read that one when I was a kid, it sounds awfully familiar. I will have to look for it again.
You should! Also Momo, by Michael Ende. They’re both children’s books. But they’ve held up!
I think good books are for everyone, regardless of age. Good literature doesn’t discriminate on that basis! Is there a movie everyone should see?
Is there a song or an album that’s for everyone?
I don’t think there’s one song or one album for everyone now. You can see everything you want on YouTube.
I am a bit wary of YouTube. As a parent, you can have your kid watching the most innocuous stuff, something sweet or educational, something from Sesame Street about the alphabet. But if you aren’t careful, one, two, three clicks away you can find some really dark stuff…violent, offensive, disturbing, completely inappropriate. It’s really worrisome.
I have a problem with it because it’s hurting musicians. People get their music for free, but the people who create it are hurting, they’re not being paid.
I think sometimes we’re getting used to getting things for free that shouldn’t be, and we don’t value them enough. Musicians should get paid—they bring so much to our culture. What is the best advice that you have been given?
There are two things. When I was at a turning point in my life, didn’t know what to do, I was told: Just keep putting it out there.
And the other thing, kind of the same thought: Do the next right thing. It’s hard to argue with. It’s advice that fits all situations.
As an artist, you have to be persistent all the time.
If you could go back in time and do one thing over, what would it be?
Oh wow…I would have studied jazz improv formally and at a younger age. I learned it on the bandstand, but the level of education now has just jumped.
What’s something most people don’t know about you?
I’m pretty much an open book. There are things on a continuum of private to public, but I’ve got no secrets.
I love to dance to house music. I think most people don’t know that!
What’s your strangest phobia or superstition?
There’s no irrational worries about my life. Why be afraid of imaginary things? There are enough real things to be afraid of!
That’s true! What’s the best or the worst thing that happened to you this week?
Best thing is getting the gig at the Allentown Symphony. It’s more confirmation of my direction, classical world music. I’m always tempted to do different things, but that’s the world that will welcome us.
Worst thing? Humans are difficult. That’s all I’ll say about that.
They sure are sometimes. Last but not least, is there anything else you’d like to pitch, promote, or discuss?
It was getting later and Steve decided what else he was going to do that night…he was heading to Smalls (a jazz club close by) to hear his band mate Zach Brock perform with a different lineup, the Phil Markowitz/Zach Brock Quartet. He invited me to join him, and as I wasn’t in a hurry, and had never been to Smalls, I tagged along. I’m glad I did. We walked to the club, chatted about music and books, and writing about music, and dancing about architecture, and harpsichords, and museums. We waited outside for the doors to open, paid the cover, ordered the requisite drinks, met a very sweet woman playwright who was also friends with Zach, sat elbow to elbow with the rest of the people in the front row, and generally had a tremendous time. The music was great, the band was fun to watch, and the audience was engaged. I especially liked their take on Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday.” I had to take off after the first set, having a long commute and young kids that would need attention in the morning, but Steve stayed longer…maybe even until 4:00 when the club closed, I’m not sure. No doubt, he was getting more inspiration for his continued musical journey. I am looking forward to seeing what he comes up with next.
Videos & Image Courtesy of Steve Sandberg
Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.
Laura can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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