A musical melting pot: Composer David Sanford brings the eclectic sounds of his Big Band to Florence

  • Composer and Mount Holyoke music professor David Sanford leads his Big Band in a past performance. The group, which plays a mix of jazz, classical, funk and more, comes to the Bombyx Center in Florence on Sept. 11. CONTRIBUTED/AMERICAN ACADEMY IN ROME

  • Sanford, who started his musical career playing trombone, switched his focus to composition and theory while in college. PHOTO BY JOANNA CHATTMAN

  • Composer and Mount Holyoke music professor David Sanford, seated near music papers at center, with members of his Big Band, which plays at the Bombyx Center for Arts & Integrity in Florence on Sept. 11. PHOTO BY JIM GIPE

  • Composer and Mount Holyoke music professor David Sanford has been gaining wider attention in the past year, including being inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. PHOTO BY LAURA STRAUSS

  • The David Sanford Big Band in a past performance, circa 2005. PHOTO BY LAURA STRAUSS

  • David Sanford Big Band’s “A Prayer for Lester Bowie” was a hit with jazz critics when it was released last year.

  • David Sanford arranged the music for this Grammy-nominated album by cellist Matt Haimovitz, the former Valley resident, on which Haimovitz and other cellists played jazz standards on their instruments.

  • Dave Sanford and the 20 members of what was then called the Pittsburgh Collective squeezed onto the stage at the Iron Horse Music Hall in 2005. Photo by Jim Gipe

Staff Writer
Published: 9/2/2022 8:49:27 PM
Modified: 9/2/2022 8:45:49 PM

David Sanford has a pretty clear memory of the day that sparked his first real interest in music. He was in elementary school, and he’d gone to hear his older brother play in his junior high school jazz band.

“I remember almost immediately thinking ‘Wow — this is great!’ ” Sanford recalls. “This is something I’d like to do.”

Fast-forward roughly 50 years, and Sanford, a professor of music at Mount Holyoke College, has long since realized that goal of getting involved in music. In particular, he’s gained notice as an innovative composer who blends a host of influences — jazz, classical, funk, rock, Latin and more — in some of his work.

Along the way, he’s written music for players such as cellist Matt Haimovitz, who previously lived and taught in the Valley, as well as for modern classical orchestras and smaller ensembles. And then there’s the work he creates for his own Big Band, a 20-piece group that serves as the primary vehicle for his musical fusion.

Sanford’s Big Band will make a rare local appearance when it comes to the Bombyx Center for Arts & Integrity in Florence on Sept. 11 at 7 p.m. The concert, which Sanford will conduct, will focus on the compositions from his most recent album, “A Prayer for Lester Bowie,” and will include some guest musicians as well.

The concert is presented as part of the eclectic Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares season, which runs from September to June.

In a recent phone call, Sanford said the Big Band, previously called the Pittsburgh Collective, played a handful of gigs in the Valley, including at Mount Holyoke, in the early 2000s. But between teaching, composing and raising a family — he and his wife have two children — trying to schedule additional gigs has been a challenge, he said.

“Plus the [Big Band] members all have their own careers, playing with other groups, and a lot of them are also teaching,” said Sanford, who lives in Northampton. “I’d love for us to go on tour, to be able to play more often, but it hasn’t happened yet.”

Nevertheless, Sanford, a Pittsburgh native who grew up partly in Colorado, has been winning broader notice in the past year. Last fall, after “A Prayer for Lester Bowie” (Greenleaf Music) was released, the New York Times profiled him, writing “Few composers have a broader stylistic reach. But on [his] new album … he makes it all cohere.”

And this past May, Sanford was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which noted the originality of his compositions. As the organization states on its website, election to the academy “is considered the highest form of recognition of artistic merit in the United States.”

Sanford has received plenty of other honors, including a Rome Prize, fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Radcliffe Institute, and awards from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) and BMI. The range of these organizations would seem to speak to his versatility as a composer.

Sanford says his musical career started when he picked up the trombone, playing through junior high and high school. He sang in a couple of school choirs as well, and he also began arranging and transcribing music for marching band while in high school.

In college, though — at the University of Northern Colorado, the New England Conservatory, and then Princeton University (he did his doctorate in New Jersey) — he switched his focus to composition and music theory.

“I wasn’t sure how far I could go as a performer,” he said with a laugh. “I didn’t know that I could get that much better. There was more room for expanding as a composer.”

When it came to composing, he was already bringing in a number of influences to his work. He points to the jazz/funk fusion sounds of the 1970s, such as clarinet great Woody Herman’s mid-1970s recording “Crosswinds,” as well as movie soundtracks and some rock and roll.

“I liked grunge, too,” he said. “Nirvana, Soundgarden, Rage Against the Machine … they were in the mix.”

He wrote the doctorate for his Ph.D. at Princeton on the different elements in the music Miles Davis created during his jazz fusion phase in the 1970s.

In 2003, he formed his Big Band, which consists of five trumpets, five trombones, five saxophones, and piano, electric guitar, bass, drums and percussion (guest musicians, including string players such as Matt Haimovitz, are also part of some performances). About half of the original members are still in the group, which is based primarily out of New York City.

The big, bold sound of multiple brass instruments is central to cuts on “A Prayer for Lester Bowie” such as “popit,” which opens with a flurry of trumpet and trombone and then adds an authoritative rock beat on drums, with a bit of wah-wah guitar and a thudding bass, before the piece comes to a sudden end.

Listening to “popit,” the New York Times writes, “you can hear how Sanford might appeal to jazz, punk and contemporary classical listeners in equal measure.”

In addition to his own compositions on the album, Sanford offers a fresh arrangement of “Dizzy Atmosphere,” the noted bop piece that Dizzy Gillespie recorded with Charlie Parker in 1945. The album’s title track was written by trumpeter Hugh Ragin in honor of Bowie, the late trumpeter and co-founder of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, an avant-garde jazz group of the late 1960s.

Ragin, a soloist on Sanford’s album, will also be at the Sept. 11 concert at the Bombyx Center, as will saxophonist Anna Weber, another soloist from the record.

Sanford, it turns out, is also a big fan of roller coasters — not surprising given the dramatic twists and turns his music can take.

The thrill of riding a roller coaster “is something I’ve never outgrown. And that translates to music … I still get a thrill, a real bit of adrenaline, from the band when we’re really pushing and taking things in different directions.”

He’s got some new compositions he’s hoping the Big Band can record next spring — “A Prayer for Lester Bowie” was actually recorded in 2016 but for various reasons wasn’t released until last year — and maybe after that there will be some more performance opportunities.

“We’ll see,” Sanford said with a chuckle, noting that he has other compositions he’s been commissioned to write that are in various stages of completion. “I’ve got some work here I need to finish.”

For tickets to the Sept. 11 show by Dave Sanford’s Big Band, visit bombyx.live.

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