Randy Sandke: Ellingtonal to Metatonal

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Randy Sandke in rehearsal with Ken Peplowski, Scott Robinson, Jack Stuckey, Byron Stripling, Joe Ascione, John Allred and Howard Alden
By Ed Berger
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Randy Sandke
By Ed Berger

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Indiana University has a jazz tradition going back to the 1920s when Hoagy Carmichael matriculated and brought his friend Bix Beiderbecke to play with him there. But by 1966, traditional jazz was far from the most commonly heard music on campus. So in the fall of that year, as an incoming freshman, I was considered a bit odd for playing tapes of swing and traditional jazz at high volume in the dorm to compete with the sounds of the Association, the Beatles and other groups emanating from the surrounding rooms.

One afternoon, while I was listening to a tape of Louis Armstrong, a tall, lanky, dark-haired kid stuck his head in the doorway, listened for a second, and then said, “Town Hall concert, 1947.”

That was my introduction to Randy Sandke.

Today Sandke has become one of the most eclectic figures on the jazz scene. He’s steeped in early jazz, and a true scholar of the work of Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke, but Sandke is equally committed to creating his own challenging music, both as instrumentalist and composer. His recent release, Inside Out (Nagel-Heyer), aptly subtitled Mainstream Meets the New Music, and his provocative new book, Harmony for a New Millennium: An Introduction to Metatonal Music (Hal Leonard), may surprise those who know him only as a skillful interpreter of older styles. Yet despite setbacks and stereotyping, Sandke has never wavered from his musical vision.

Sandke was born in Chicago in 1949. His father was a professor of English at Roosevelt College and his mother an administrator at the University of Chicago and an amateur pianist. Randy and his older brother, Jordan, also a talented trumpeter in New York, discovered some jazz 78s around the house. “They had a deep and lasting effect on both of us,” Randy recalls. When Jordan started on drums, Randy followed. But when Jordan brought home a trumpet, Randy knew he had found his instrument. He also began collecting jazz records: “I practically wore out the Columbia Louis Armstrong Story, which George Avakian put together, along with The Bix Beiderbecke Story and Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool. I guess traditional jazz is my first love, but I pretty quickly went on to listen to Clifford Brown and Dizzy Gillespie.”

Sandke was already playing at dances and private parties by age 14. “I could see that my father’s life as a professor was a little confining to him, and the idea of traveling around and playing music seemed like the most thrilling lifestyle I could imagine.”

He attended the University of Chicago Laboratory School, where the band had no less than Ray Anderson and George Lewis in the trombone section. Sandke won a stage band competition that entitled him to study arranging for two weeks with Oliver Nelson at a summer program at Indiana University. That fall, he enrolled as a composition major.

When I first heard Sandke play at 17, he was already a remarkably accomplished musician, one of a group of talented jazz players on campus that included saxophonists Michael Brecker and Bruce Nifong.

In 1967 and 1968, Sandke attracted national notice during two appearances at the Notre Dame Collegiate Jazz Festival. Writing in Down Beat in 1968, Dan Morgenstern described the performance of the Sandke septet (with Michael Brecker) as “the most original, creative and stimulating combo-jazz heard at the festival, avant-garde but together,” and singled out the leader as “a trumpeter with great promise combining a fine, bright tone and flawless execution with real musical intelligence.”

At Indiana I remember seeing Sandke in a variety of groups, but his greatest exposure came with the very popular Mrs. Seaman’s Sound Band. “Mrs. Seaman was the ‘dietitian’ in Wilkie Quad,” he recalls. “Her passion was throwing people who weren’t properly attired out of the dining hall. We were always at each other’s throats, so we ended up naming the band after her.”

1968 was a time of great turmoil and political activity on college campuses and Indiana was no exception. Mrs. Seaman’s played often on Dunn Meadow, the site of all manner of rallies and demonstrations. Rock bands with horn sections à la Blood, Sweat and Tears were just coming into vogue, and the group was in that basic mold. Competing with the amplified rock sounds exacerbated some flaws in the young trumpeter’s technique and almost cost Sandke his career. “Although I had some teachers when I was young,” he recalls, “I was very bullheaded and thought I could teach myself, since most of my heroes were self-taught musicians. But the trumpet is very unforgiving, and if you don’t do it right it becomes your worst enemy.”

Eventually, the bad habits led to a hernia in his throat, making it more and more painful to play. “It got to the point where I was wrapping gauze around my neck just so I could continue,” Sandke says.

As luck would have it, just when his throat problem was becoming more acute, Sandke received an intriguing offer. “I was in Chicago to see a doctor about an operation when I got a call from Janis Joplin about joining her band. A friend of my brother had recommended me. When I told her I would love to but I had this problem with my throat she asked, ‘What are you, some kind of hypochondriac?’” Still, the trumpeter flew to New York only to discover that Joplin had failed to inform her band about the newcomer: “They were one big happy family, and suddenly there’s this outsider with his horn. I was getting a very chilly vibe.”

Sandke returned to Chicago and had the throat operation. Although it was successful, he was unsure about what had caused the problem in the first place and was apprehensive about playing again. The then 19-year-old trumpeter put down the horn and didn’t pick it up again for a decade.

Sandke dropped out of college in the spring of 1969 and took up the guitar while working a day job at the University of Chicago to support himself. He moved to Vermont, where he spent three years as a piano accompanist for the dance department at Bennington College. In 1972 Sandke headed for New York, where ASCAP’s television department hired him. His job was to watch tapes in order to log the music used on the programs. He also did some teaching, played guitar in funk bands and piano for singers on the cabaret circuit. He ended up with a steady job as guitarist at Clifford’s Lounge on West 72nd St. with a group that included the highly original pianist Herman Foster. “I was beginning to feel competent on the guitar,” Sandke says, “but I never had the emotional connection I did with the trumpet. It always bothered me that you were playing in one location and the sound was coming out somewhere else. For a trumpet player that can be very disconcerting.”

Disillusioned, Sandke was contemplating getting out of music altogether when Mike Gribbroek, a trumpet player and an old friend from Indiana, moved into his apartment. Gribbroek assured him that he could play trumpet again and promised to help him avoid the problems that had led to his throat injury. Sandke, now 29, had literally not touched the horn in a decade. “I realized immediately that the connection was still there. I thought, ‘Damn! I really enjoy this!’”

Almost immediately, Sandke began writing and thinking more deeply about music again, and he studied with Vincent Penzerella of the New York Philharmonic. “My attitude toward a teacher had changed 180 degrees, at least for the technical aspects of playing the trumpet. I put myself in his hands and tried to do everything he told me.”

Six months after starting to play again, Sandke began getting gigs. “A lot of times, I know I sounded pretty terrible, but New York was the fastest place to learn because I was working with good players.” The constant work and study began to pay off. “My endurance and range improved to the point that I felt I was playing better than I ever had before the operation,” Sandke says.

After having to virtually relearn his instrument, the trumpeter now faced a new problem: typecasting. “Until that point my main influences were people like Clifford Brown and Freddie Hubbard, although I always listened to Louis and Bix,” Sandke says. “But when I came back in the early 1980s, I kind of stumbled onto this traditional scene. My first job was subbing for my brother in Vince Giordano’s band. Then Billy Butterfield got sick and I subbed for him on a tour.”

Sandke worked often at Condon’s and played with Bob Wilber on the Cotton Club soundtrack and in Wilber’s Bechet Legacy band. In the mid-1980s, he worked with two original giants of swing: Benny Goodman and Buck Clayton.

Clayton, the former Basie trumpet star, was no longer playing. “I found it so inspiring that at the age of 70, he formed his first big band and proceeded to write a whole book of original compositions for it,” Sandke says. (One of those pieces, “Randy’s Rolls Royce,” was a feature for him.)

Goodman also inspired Sandke. “He was always coming up with something new right to the end. In fact, I think his style was changing, and not due to old age. He was getting into a more abstract conception. And when he wanted to, he could still out-blow anybody in the band!”

Despite these invaluable associations and his abiding love of early jazz, Sandke has steadfastly resisted attempts to cast him solely as a repertory specialist and has always pursued his own musical conception, especially his interest in “metatonal” music. “I’ve been struggling my whole career to do original creative music,” he says, “but I’ve been like a fish swimming upstream.”

Until recently, Sandke’s recordings have only hinted at the full range of his talents both as instrumentalist and composer. His first album, New York Stories with Michael Brecker and Jim McNeely (Stash, 1985; rereleased on CD in 1993 as The Sandke Brothers), was a set of originals that included “Brownstones,” on which Sandke explored his new improvisational theory even before it had a name. From 1993 to 1998, Sandke recorded five superb albums for Concord, mostly in the mainstream mode and featuring a plethora of top-notch players. His last release for the label, Awakening, was a milestone in unveiling his true musical persona. Much of the album was recorded in Sofia with the Bulgarian National Symphony, and it shows Sandke as a mature composer with his own orchestral approach. “I’m very proud of that record,” he says. “It’s the most ambitious thing I’ve done. Hearing my works performed by an orchestra was the greatest musical experience I’ve ever had.” Sandke has also written many works for the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band and conducted the orchestra on several occasions.

As with much of Sandke’s original music, Awakening incorporates the metatonal concepts he lays out in Harmony for a New Millennium: An Introduction to Metatonal Music. “It’s a way to order a new realm of harmony that hasn’t been ordered before,” Sandke says. “The harmony I’m dealing with is built on half-steps whereas tonal harmony is based on thirds. There’s a wealth of harmonic combinations that haven’t yet made their way into the jazz vocabulary. There’s been a gap between the language of contemporary classical music and jazz, and metatonal harmony bridges that gap.”

Gap bridging is something that Sandke has always strived to achieve by bringing musicians together to make music that transcends artificial boundaries and cliques. “One of the things that bothers me about the jazz scene is that it gets so parochial sometimes,” he says.

Sandke, along with regular colleagues Greg Cohen, Wycliffe Gordon, Ken Peplowski and Scott Robinson, epitomizes a new breed of jazz artist who is equally at home at a traditional jazz party, Lincoln Center or the Knitting Factory. They, with like-minded players Marty Ehrlich, Ray Anderson, Uri Caine and Dennis Mackrel, are all part of another Sandke project, his Inside Out CD. “I put the band together for a concert that was to be part of the JVC Festival,” Sandke says. “It didn’t happen, but some of us had started writing music for it and were really excited about it. It took two years before we were able to get it recorded, and we had a ball.” Each member wrote one piece, with the leader contributing four, and, as you might expect with a Sandke project, the music ranges from Ellingtonal to metatonal.

Sandke stresses that projects such as Awakening and Inside Out have been the exceptions and that he has had to self-produce many of the recordings that mean the most to him. Yet he says, “The fact that the major labels are turning away from jazz now I don’t think is such a bad thing. For the past 20 years or so, the marketing departments have been steering the ship, and it ended up distorting the scene by dictating who plays the clubs and headlines at the festivals. Identity and uniqueness tended to be overlooked, and it resulted in a very conservative atmosphere. I think it’s better when the fans and musicians make their own heroes rather than having them foisted upon us.”

Although a student of jazz history, Sandke does not feel today’s musicians should look only to the past for inspiration. “I was listening to the radio the other day, and most of what I heard was recorded in the past few years but could have been done 40 or 50 years ago,” he notes. “I don’t think that’s very healthy.”

Much of Sandke’s recent work has appeared on the German Nagel-Heyer label, which has often cast him in the “re-creation” mold, playing the music of swing greats like Goodman, Basie and Hampton. Yet even in those prescribed settings, Sandke approaches the music with originality and creativity. “I’ve tried to come to terms with the older styles—to treat them as living forms and not musical taxidermy or something academic,” he says. “Ruby Braff is a classic example of someone who shows you can play in an older style and make it sound as fresh as anything.”

Sandke’s critically acclaimed The Re-Discovered Louis and Bix (Nagel-Heyer) is an object lesson in presenting repertory jazz with inventiveness and imagination. The project (a collaboration with the same George Avakian who had produced the Columbia 78-rpm issues that first turned Sandke on to jazz) presents newly discovered music by Armstrong, gleaned largely from Library of Congress copyright deposits in the trumpeter’s own hand, and Beiderbecke material reconstructed from various recordings. “I liked that project because we weren’t re-creating anything,” Sandke says. “We tried to approach the style with reverence but still allow room for creativity.”

In the music (and in his eloquent program notes), Sandke stresses the links between Armstrong and Beiderbecke, culminating in a tour-de-force on “Stampede,” on which Sandke musically fantasizes about what might have taken place when the two trumpeters played opposite one another at the Roseland Ballroom in the mid-1920s.

If anyone knows what that epic meeting might have sounded like it is Sandke. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of early jazz, and one of his hobbies is collecting 78s and playing them on the original equipment: “I recently acquired a Victor Orthophonic, and if you put a clean Victor scroll [disc] on one of these it’ll send chills up and down your spine. It has a presence which is lacking on even the best CD transfers.”

Sandke is currently engaged in several intriguing projects. Already in the can is a ballad album for Nagel-Heyer with Bill Charlap spotlighting the trumpeter’s gentler side. The instrumentation includes a section of viols for which Sandke wrote several pieces. “They’re viola da gambas,” he explains, “and, to my knowledge, they’ve never been used in a jazz context. It’s more ethereal than the standard string sound.” He also plans to record two ambitious extended works, The Mystic Trumpeter, based on the poem by Walt Whitman, and Symphony for Six.

Sandke’s abilities as a trumpeter equip him for all of his diverse musical activities. He is a flawless technician with a commanding full-toned upper register and crackling attack that sparks any ensemble. As a soloist, Sandke maintains his own identity despite the wide-ranging musical contexts in which he finds himself. As both writer and player, Sandke pays meticulous attention to the details without sacrificing the spontaneous edge essential in any creative endeavor. And the trumpeter can certainly rise to the occasion in a jam session.

In recent years Sandke has proven to be as elegant a writer of prose as he is of music. In addition to his new work on metatonal music, he has contributed erudite articles to The Annual Review of Jazz Studies and the Oxford Companion to Jazz, and is compiling material for a full-length book in which he intends to examine and dispel some of the mythology surrounding jazz history. Sandke writes as he plays: with clarity and purpose.

Sandke’s musical gifts are matched by his personal attributes. He has a scholarly air about him, and one could easily imagine him as a professor. Although he is serious about his music, he never takes himself too seriously. He is devoid of artifice and pretension, and treats his fellow musicians and his audience with honesty and respect, qualities that have enabled him to build bridges between often-insular musical communities. In this sense, Randy Sandke hasn’t changed since he first stuck his head into my dorm room in Bloomington, 36 years ago.

Originally published in October 2002

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