Music Review: Dominique Sanders' 'A True Story Based On...'

Jun 23, 2015

Dominique Sanders
"A True Story Based On..." (Innate Sounds, 2015)

The people who hear Dominique Sanders perform tasteful jazz at venues throughout Kansas City have little reason to suspect the bassist is an active participant in a sonic revolution. But Sanders’ audaciously ambitious new album, “A True Story Based On…” reveals that mainstream jazz is merely a portion of his musical interests. The sprawling project includes cosmic funk, freaky jazz fusion, sultry neo-soul, hip-hop beats and jarring bursts of ambient noise.

Sanders, 25, comes by his eclecticism honestly. He attended Alexander Hamilton High School in Los Angeles, an institution that also produced saxophonist Kamasi Washington, whose latest release, “The Epic,” is one of the most acclaimed jazz albums of 2015. Washington also provides much of the music on “To Pimp a Butterfly,” rapper Kendrick Lamar’s latest chart-topping album.

“A True Story Based On…” is of a piece with those recordings. Sanders and Washington are among a new generation of jazz-based musicians who perceive modern forms like hip-hop as natural extensions of the music of Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. While the absence of celebrity rappers and the lack of a marketing budget have prevented Sanders’ project from attaining much traction, the bold artistic statement serves notice that Sanders is capable of holding his own with the most important voices in popular music.

Working in relative isolation has allowed Sanders to take chances, but the lack of oversight also created unwelcome excesses. His album’s skits are tedious, and a muddled concept that may be about a near-death experience following a car accident doesn’t work.

At 75 minutes, “A True Story Based On…” is 15 minutes too long. Sanders seems more intent on demonstrating the full range of his formidable skills than in creating a cohesive album. The first three minutes of “What If They Come In Peace,” for instance, are an ominous soundscape. The second half of the selection, however, features stellar classically rooted playing by pianist Harold O’Neal and gorgeous accents from saxophonist Andrew McGhie.

The brief sketches “5th Dimensions” and “Jazz and BBQ” demonstrate the skills that recently helped Sanders win an iStandard producer contest. Other tracks draw on Sanders’ experience in locally based ensembles including the Afrobeat band Hearts of Darkness.

Sanders isn’t in a hurry to express his ideas. His leisurely pace reaps enormous dividends on “Visible Galaxies,” a spacious piece that serves as a showcase for several of Kansas City’s best musicians. Pianist Andrew Ouellette, saxophonist Steve Lambert, trumpeter Hermon Mehari and drummer Ryan Lee are featured on the kaleidoscopic composition. “Visible Galaxies” concludes with a psychedelic eruption from guitarist Danny Embrey.

Other selections yield mixed results. “Dreaming” opens with a cringe-worthy skit (a man awkwardly hits on a stranger at a beach; Sanders might be trying to depict a suave player, but the overbearing ladies' man comes across as a sleaze). That's quickly forgotten once Reggie B starts crooning on the sensual R&B ballad. Elsewhere, on “Awakening,” a deep groove and enchanting riff are marred by ditzy lyrics and Miles Bonny’s incongruous scatting.

Sanders celebrates “late-night post-game” jam sessions at the Mutual Musicians Foundation and features the young sax phenomenon Ernest Meltonin in “Foundation,” while “Inner Dimensions,” the album’s meatiest acoustic jazz track, reflects the excitement young musicians have brought to Kansas City’s jazz scene in recent years even as the music's core audience continues to dwindle.

And Sanders is aware of jazz’s lowly status in popular culture. “Jazz Jokes” begins with a sample of comedian Paul F. Tompkins’ disparagement of the form. “Jazz is all about making the common man feel dumb,” Tompkins suggests. “It’s like a whole genre of music is defying you to like it.”

By expanding the range and possibilities of jazz, “A True Story Based On…” acts as a convincing rebuttal.