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Carmen Sandim: On the Night Shift

To keep composing music, the pianist had to make a major sacrifice: sleep

Carmen Sandim
Carmen Sandim (photo: Mel Haynes)

Raising two young children as a single parent while holding down four teaching positions is more than enough to fill anyone’s days. Trying to juggle all that and compose an album’s worth of new material had begun to feel unachievable for Carmen Sandim. The Colorado-based pianist thought about setting her music career aside—not for the first time—when a viewing of the John Coltrane documentary Chasing Trane provided a much-needed jolt of inspiration.

“I felt like I received a message from that movie,” Sandim recalls. “There’s such an intensity to both single parenting and musicianship, I realized that there’s no such thing as balance. There’s just do what you love or don’t do what you love. Something’s got to give, and balance is what I chose to let go of.”

Sandim’s solution was to forfeit two nights of sleep per week. For the next six months, she would stay up every Friday and Monday night, composing nonstop from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m., when her kids, aged 2 and 4, awoke. “It was a really weird, surprisingly possible endeavor,” she says. “The first couple of years that I had my kids, when I had to stay up the whole night, that was horrible. When I did it on purpose twice a week, the next day would be great. I would be tired but so happy.”

The result of those binge-composing sessions is Play Doh (Ropeadope), Sandim’s sophomore release. Sounding far more celebratory than fatigued, the album offers a vibrant blend of harmonically sophisticated modern jazz, keen-edged rock influences, and rhythmic accents from the composer’s native Brazil. Despite the time that parenthood inevitably took away from music, Sandim intended the title to be a playful tribute to her son and daughter, whose inspiration was even more essential.

“Kids do this funny thing: they just amplify everything,” she explains. “My heart got expanded and I felt things a lot more, including my connection with music. All of a sudden I felt like the muse had become my BFF; I just had stuff pouring out of me and I felt a lot more desire and urgency.”

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Classically trained as a young girl, Sandim fell in love with the Brazilian jazz sound epitomized by Antônio Carlos Jobim, starting her down a path that eventually led to Boston’s Berklee College of Music. Intimidated by her limited English at the time, she focused more on composing than on performance, graduating in 2000 with a B.M. in film scoring. She then moved to Washington, D.C., and embarked on a successful career in composing for radio, TV, and political advertising. The work was lucrative but far from fulfilling.

“I thought that I’d be able to do both [music for ads and jazz], but the reality was that I was constantly on deadline, so I got burned out after just a few years. Not to mention writing music for political stuff is not exactly inspiring. Back then it wasn’t as nasty as it is now, but it still didn’t feel very clean.”

In 2005, she left that life behind and relocated to Boulder (she now lives in Denver), where she soon encountered the vital local scene centered on the likes of Art Lande and Ron Miles. Many of the key figures of that scene appear on Play Doh, including Kneebody trumpeter Shane Endsley and recent transplants Khabu Doug Young (guitar) and Bruce Williamson (reeds). Lande served as producer, continuing the mentorship role he’s played since Sandim’s arrival.

“I pretty quickly realized that I’d come to the right place,” Sandim said. “I feel like I found my musical family here.”

Shaun Brady

Shaun Brady is a Philadelphia-based journalist who covers jazz along with an eclectic array of arts, culture, and travel. Brady contributes regularly to the Philadelphia Inquirer and JazzTimes and Jazziz magazines, with subjects ranging from legendary artists to underground experimentalists. His byline has appeared in DownBeat, Metro, NPR Music, and The A.V. Club, among other outlets. He studied filmmaking at Columbia College Chicago and continues to spend too much time in the dark.