How classical pianist Nick Sanders went over to jazz

MUSICAL CONVERT

From his early childhood through his late teens, pianist Nick Sanders spent hours a day memorizing, studying and practicing challenging classical pieces by the likes of Bach, Beethoven and Prokofiev. He entered competitions, too, winning many of them.

Sanders was deep in classical music studies at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts when he noticed that the school’s jazz students performed far more often than he did. And the jazz musicians, not bound by note-for-note faithfulness to the musical score, were having fun.

“It was a whole different dynamic,” Sanders, 25, said last week from his Brooklyn apartment.

An encounter with Grammy-winning pianist Danilo Perez at Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro helped the then 17-year-old Sanders change his musical course.

“I told him I was thinking about switching to jazz,” Sanders recalled. “I wondered when I should do that. Danilo was like, ‘Do it now!’ So I took the plunge.”

That jazz plunge included an impromptu Snug Harbor performance with saxophonist Wess Anderson. Still in his teens, Sanders expected to listen rather than play that night. He was dressed in camouflage pants and a Chucky the killer doll T-shirt, a fashion mismatch for the nicely attired professional jazz musicians on stage.

But Anderson’s pianist failed to show up for the gig. So the saxophonist asked if there was a piano player in the house. Sanders raised his hand.

“Wess,” Sanders remembered, “was like, ‘All right, let’s play one tune. If I think it’s cool, then you can stay for the rest of the gig.’ ”

Sanders performed standards he knew with the group as well as some simple blues tunes. He played the whole show, with the exception of some selections that Anderson and his group performed in a trio format.

“I guess I did OK, and he paid me at the end,” Sanders said.

His performance with Anderson boosted the fledging jazz pianist’s confidence and got him a solo show at Snug Harbor.

Sanders grew up in Metairie with music-loving parents. His dad, a drummer in a rock band, taught him to play a second-line beat at 3. By the second grade, Sanders had begun piano studies. Exposed to the music of Mozart by a school play, he became a classical music fanatic.

“I would bring CDs of Beethoven symphonies to my friends’ houses,” he said. “I was like, ‘You’ve got to listen to this! This is so great!’ My friends would be like, ‘Wow, this is kind of weird. It doesn’t have any words.’ ”

Although classical music was an early passion for Sanders, his parents’ eclectic tastes ensured that he got a broad musical foundation. The family’s playlist included John Coltrane’s landmark jazz album, “A Love Supreme,” jazz vocal great Billie Holiday, blues men Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson and folk music from Cuba, Sanders’ mother’s homeland.

New Orleans music affected him, too, the pianist said.

“Especially going to see parades and stuff and just the whole culture. It lends another element to my playing,” he said.

After his jazz conversion and NOCCA graduation, Sanders received scholarships for undergraduate and graduate studies at the New England Conservatory in Boston. His teachers included Danilo Perez and, another great jazz pianist, Fred Hersch.

Last year, Hersch produced Sanders’ debut album, “Nameless Neighbors.” Sunnyside Records released the recording last month.

The Nick Sanders Trio, featuring bassist Henry Fraser and drummer Connor Baker, will play an album release show Sunday at Snug Harbor.

“It is very exciting,” Sanders said of his debut recording. “But I’m trying to look at it as a steppingstone in a bigger picture. I’m going to just keep playing and writing more new music.”