Let's start by acknowledging the elephant in the room. JC Sanford - the go-to music conductor for the forward-looking bands of John Hollenbeck, Joel Harrison, Alan Ferber and others, including the legendary Alice Coltrane - has been overlooked as a trombonist.
This is partly JC's own doing. For the past decade and more, when not conducting someone else's band, JC has spent much of his energies writing and arranging for his own equally forward-looking large ensembles: first in conjunction with David Schumacher (Edge of the Mind, 2009), then on his own (Views from the Inside, 2014). He wrote and performed and conducted a luminous score to accompany all 143 minutes of the original 1927 silent classic Ben-Hur for the Syracuse International Film Festival. (Forest Hills, heard on Can You Believe It?), became Ben-Hur's theme for that score.) JC also was busy curating "Size Matters," the weekly, much-heralded, cleverly-titled large ensemble series at the Tea Lounge in his Brooklyn neighborhood of Park Slope.
And yes: intuitively as well as trivially, size does matter. But it's not everything that matters. We can agree that sound matters, too, and we can then hone in on JC's trombone tone. It's one I find I crave even as I'm listening to it, like relishing a friend's voice you haven't heard in years. It's not the effortless sound of a JJ Johnson; not the frictionless tone of JC's mentor, the great valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer; but also not the extroverted, rough-edged sonority of a Ray Anderson or Craig Harris. JC's tone suggests the human voice in all its expressive texture, occupying about the same conversational range as the voice of this thoughtful, vegan, animal-loving adult male. There's breath in it, not breathlessness. It's a sound reflective of the understated Upper Midwest ethos of his youth, seasoned with the aesthetic smarts of a Boston-trained city-dweller repelled by all sorts of showboating BS. When JC solos - as you may have heard on Andrew Green's Narrow Margin (2008) or on Views from the Inside - you hear a sound that is (weirdly) distinctive yet familiar, exploratory yet grounded like home.
Aristotle, that ancient student of jazz interaction, notes that the best friendships (like the best bands) are rare because they take time, and men can't know each other "till they have 'eaten salt together'." You can hear that these four musicians have eaten salt together. (Also dim sum; ask David for the best spots in Queens.) Russ Meissner was drumming back in '03 for JC and John McNeil's retro-radical My Band Foot Foot, a group that pays quirky homage to The Shaggs. He and bassist David Ambrosio have recorded as co-leaders for the SteepleChase LookOut series; as JC puts it, their "hookup is so nice." David goes back even further with JC. He plays with a striking authority and solos with a gymnast's controlled intensity, often revealing - as in Ja-chan on Patrol - elastic strands hidden in the melody. Guitarist extraordinaire Mike Baggetta and JC met up in "a series of these weird fancy men's barbershop gigs near Wall Street." They graduated (for less pay) to this distinctly non-barbershop quartet, where Mike "helped give the group a certain dirty personality that I liked." What he does on DumPac? The dirt shines through.
All the tunes, save one, are JC's: Can You Believe It? captures the scrappy fortitude of JC's beloved 2004 Boston Red Sox team and their astonishing come-from-behind World Series victory. That's BoSox announcer Joe Castiglione opening the proceedings, after which Mike's distorted guitar enters as if on steroids. (Here's looking at you, Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz?) The shifting meter will throw you off like a good slider.
The lovely line of Forest Hills dates from JC's New England Conservatory days. It recalls his peaceful walks in that Boston cemetery with his dog Pepper, who liked to pause and sniff the redolent air.
DumPac is all about that 7/4 drum groove that Russ sets down. Sometimes it's accentuated by its melodic surroundings, but elsewhere - as in the opening of JC's brilliant solo - it seems to hover stealthily in the background.
Ja-chan on Patrol is a stop-and-start, melodramatic tale whose hero is Jazu, JC's mouse-stalking cat. The slide-guitar textures at the end of Mike Baggetta's solo make me think some poor creature's lost her footing, scrabbling across the linoleum.
"Yamete" is one of the first Japanese words JC learned from his wife (the composer/arranger/pianist Asuka Kakitani) since she used it so often while they were dating. David spells out the title with a 3-beat riff after his exploratory solo. Then it's as if JC's trombone noodles around for a translation (or maybe feigns cluelessness) until the insistent 2-beat drum riff teaches him the English equivalent. ("Stop It!")
Easy for You, John Scofield's backcountry line from his 90s album What We Do, gets a stunning rubato treatment from all involved. Try to close your mouth as Mike's guitar weaves echoes of Jim Hall and Chet Atkins together without skipping a thread.
Chico's First Date is JC's tribute to the late Chico O'Farrill. The band approaches this tuneful, Latin-dance feel, AABA structure without a whiff of irony, but you still know that the mystery implied by those minor-key outer sections won't last long. JC's soaring trombone on the major-key bridge - especially on his solo and in the outro - is all jollification and merry-making. All in all, sounds like a good first date.
Sanford studied at the University of Northern Iowa and the New England Conservatory where he earned a D.M.A. in Jazz Studies. After relocating to New York in 2000, he became involved with the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop under the direction of Manny Albam and Jim McNeely and remained trombonist/contractor of the BMI/New York Jazz Orchestra until 2016. He has also appeared as a trombonist on recordings with such diverse bands as Andrew Green's Narrow Margin, the Andrew Rathbun Large Ensemble, Nathan Parker Smith's jazz/prog rock big band, and Joseph C. Phillips, Jr.'s new music/jazz hybrid orchestra Numinous. His orchestra's album Views from the Inside received worldwide acclaim as well as a coveted recording grant from the Aaron Copland Foundation. In addition to JC4, he's leads the improvisational trio Triocracy featuring saxophonists Chris Bacas and Andy Laster whose new album That's All There Is is due to be released in 2017.