by Phil Freeman
Joe Sanders is a bassist who’s been quietly making a name for himself over the last 15 years or so. He can be heard on albums by trumpeters Ambrose Akinmusire, Theo Croker, and Christian Scott; saxophonists Charles Lloyd, Jure Pukl, Walter Smith III, Dayna Stephens, and Greg Ward; pianists Gerald Clayton and Simona Premazzi; and more. Back in September, he self-released his second album as a leader, Humanity (get it from Amazon), the follow-up to 2012’s Introducing Joe Sanders, on the Criss Cross label.
The band on Humanity is impressive: John Ellis on saxophones and bass clarinet, Aaron Parks on piano, and Eric Harland on drums. Eight of the ten compositions are Sanders originals—the other two are a version of Joe Henderson‘s “Afro-Centric” (from 1969’s Power to the People) and Pat Metheny‘s “Travels” (from the 1983 album of the same name). It opens with “The Colonel,” a bass-drums duet that’s got snap and an almost African feel at times, bouncing and swinging to a groove that feels internal, like you’re hearing the sound of Sanders’ heartbeat. When the full band first appears, on “Quantum,” the collective sound is a blend of jazz simmer and alt-rock intensity. The piece is similar in mood to “Nemesis,” from pianist Parks’ Blue Note album, 2008’s Invisible Cinema (which also featured Harland on drums).
Sanders is a vocal player, frequently singing along with his bass. And since he’s the leader, he’s prominent in the mix. This isn’t as annoying as when Keith Jarrett whimpers along with the piano, because Sanders has a lower, more mellifluous voice, but it can still be distracting during relatively gentle moments like his solo on “Travels” (a track which Parks sits out). And when Ellis’s meditative bass clarinet re-enters, he and the bassist almost seem to harmonize.
The version of Joe Henderson‘s “Afro-Centric” is a percussive master class; Harland is all over the kit, building a swinging, polyrhythmic beat like he’s finding things all around him and gradually stacking them up, returning to a few favorite corners but maintaining a general sense of surprise throughout. Ellis’s solo, too, is a magpie-like collection of scattered phrases, while Parks surges in and out when he’s needed, and Sanders throbs along at the core of it all.
Its cover art, and Sanders’ liner notes, which speak of universality and human connection, might make this album seem like an overly earnest, even hippie-ish effort. It’s not. It’s a melodic, swinging collection of pieces that any fan of high-level mainstream jazz ought to enjoy. It’s been out since September, so here’s hoping that 2018 brings Humanity, and Joe Sanders, the attention they deserve.
Stream the album on Spotify: