We continue our interviews with musicians with a spotlight on drummer Ryan Sands. Hailing from Orange, CT/New Haven County, Ryan has worked his way to becoming one of the top young drummers in his field. His emphatic performances have landed him performances with contemporary Jazz artists Terell Stafford, Geoffrey Keezer, Wayne Escoffrey, Tamir Hendleman, and Lucy Yeghiazaryan. We had the pleasure to discuss his introduction to music, his collaborations with some of the most celebrated Jazz artists, and his advice to budding musicians.
Ryan, thank you for catching up with Benslow Music. For readers unfamiliar with you, please tell us more about your background and what drew you to a career in music.
Greetings everyone. To those who know me professionally and personally, my name is Ryan Joseph Sands. And to those in my faith in Islam, Abdul-Rahim Saboor Sands. I was born and raised in Connecticut. Lived in the Westville neighborhood of New Haven for the first couple of years of my life and then moved out to Orange, CT for the rest. I attended Turkey Hill Elementary School, Amity Middle School Orange, and Amity High School (shoutout to Eva Santacapita, Ms. Waller, Philip Dolan, and Christopher Hickerson). I got my BA in Jazz Performance from the New England Conservatory and an MA in Jazz Arts from the Manhattan School of Music.
I got my start in music at the age of four. My earliest teachers in music were Jeese Hameen II and Varick AME Zion Church on Dixwell Ave. The church taught me how to feel, shade, and colour in the music. Jesse showed me how to put it all together and what’s possible in the world of drums.
I was drawn to a career in music through my brother, Christian, and his peers. Just being young and watching how he came alive playing music and how he touched spoke to me. In my teenage years, Christian would take me to his shows with him and make sure I met everybody, watched rehearsals, learned the music, and more. The life-changing moment for me was when I went with him to Smalls Jazz Club to watch Jimmy Greene. Xavier Davis on piano, Ugonna Okegwo on bass, and Gregory Hutchinson on drums. Hutch tore those drums apart! Sealed for it me.
You spent your formative years at the Educational Center for the Arts and Manhattan School of Music. Please tell us more about these institutions and how they prepared you for a music career.
ECA and MSM Pre-College were great building blocks for me. ECA is where I learned the fundamental role and value of the drums. ECA gave me the green light to bring the drums into the front to be seen and felt. They showed me the importance of playing solid time and feeling. After transferring to MSM for the remainder of High School, they polished everything. MSM worked with me on composition, showmanship, Jazz Theory, Jazz History, and the history of my instrument.
You’ve collaborated with many recognized musicians in the jazz world, including Geoffrey Keezer, Phil Markowitz, and Christian Sands. Please tell us more about your collaborations and how they’ve shaped your appreciation of the industry.
The group originally started as a trio with David, Isaac, and me in late 2018. I moved away to Shanghai for a little while and they kept it going with another drummer named Amir and added in Nate and Neta. When I came back I’ve been in the band since the pandemic.
During the pandemic, we challenged ourselves with the task of doing a remote record. At the time doing a remote recording was the move due to conditions but doing an entire record remotely was a wild idea. We tackled the assignment with grace and excitement. Isaac would start with the bass line and bass part, then send it off to all the horns, and then me. The result was our first recording, Riot Cycles. What I always appreciate about being in this band is that we believe in taking risks. We don’t like to play it safe. Every rehearsal or show we try to be as flexible and spontaneous as possible. It makes it fun for us and fun for the audience.
Another special collaboration that's special to me is Farayi Malek, Nedelka Prescod, Robert Pate, and Joe Copeland. We go back a decade. These musicians are why my melodies and ballad writing sound the way they do. They got me thinking about melody, transitions, space, pacing, emotion, and dynamics.
In this industry, I’m blessed I get to work with amazing musicians. These folk, whether they are aware or not, have changed my life for the better. Honored that my best collaborators have been my friends.
Can you share with us some of your most memorable compositions, and what did you learn?
Walking the Middle Path is the song that comes to mind. The process for this tune was one of the most emotional things for me. Around October, a relationship I was in ended. I was spiraling for days and weeks. Couldn’t write, didn’t practice, can’t focus. Distanced myself and closed off my emotions to everyone. I was consumed by anger, guilt, sadness, and anxiety. Spent more time hating and being dismissive than I did healing.
One day I was in session with my therapist, and we talked about this skill called The Middle Path. The Middle Path is about seeing the balance between two opposing extremes, validation of others and self, and mindfulness. With this new skill that I learned- and still learning- I began to write the song one piece at a time. Started with the melody and mood. Slowly added in the harmonies to help capture my experience and how I was feeling. The song took about a week or two to write.
This song taught me patience, grace, how to turn this experience into art, and how to heal from it. When this song gets released, I want the listener to hear, understand, and feel this song in that way.
As a professional musician, what have been your career challenges, and how have you overcome them?
Self-doubt crippled me big time in my career. Questions of ‘Am I good enough’, ‘I can’t compete’, ‘I’m not worthy’, and ‘I’m not worthy’, have cost me opportunities and relationships. What snapped me out of it was knowing that I was stronger than my anxiety. Knowing I’m stronger than my doubt. Knowing that Allah has blessed me with life, a purpose, a support system, and the Deen to pull through.
I’ve experienced people, men and women, being fixated on what society tells them what a man or an artist should be in this world or space of Jazz. Some of those exact people try to push their views onto me and want me to assimilate into their way of thinking or being. For my life and music, I want to do me and be happy. I live the life that I desire to live centered around my morals, values, and faith to become the man, and artist that I want to be.
Benslow Music provides inspirational lifelong learning for all ages. What advice would you give to budding musicians, particularly young students of music?
Never stop learning and asking questions. Knowledge is power. Study your craft and your instrument. Go to as many live shows as possible and take notes on stage presence, mic skills, how to put a set together, and how the band is playing together. Go meet your heroes and soak up as much game as you can.
A loss isn’t a failure. A loss is a preparation for the victory and the joy that is coming your way.
Be as humble in your losses as you are in your wins.
Patience is key. Focus on the journey, the work, and the goal. The best rewards come to those who are patient and prepared.
You have nothing to prove. Needing to constantly prove yourself to others stunts your growth, stresses you out, and undermines your worth. Learn to love yourself. Be your authentic self and walk in your truth. The right people will see you for you and love you for you.
What projects are you working on?
I just recorded my second album, Forest Road: Live at Side Door, back in November. On the record, I have David Adewumi on trumpet, Max Light on guitar, and Kris Monson on bass. We recorded mostly my original material. The new album is about refinding that love for music, walking into my manhood, and healing. Be on the lookout for that in 2024.
I’m hitting the studio with Geoffrey Keezer to record a couple of tunes for a project of his. Be on the lookout for that sometime next year.
My friends Jaimie Berlyn, Wes Lewis, Alexis Robbins, Nick Serrambana, and I are partnering with Neighborhood Music School in New Haven to bring a Jazz Workshop/Jam Session to the city. Giving back to the community that gave so much to us is huge for us.
There is a big photo project I’m working on with an amazing photographer from CT. We’re trying to have a CT version of ‘A Great Day in Harlem’ with CT-based musicians. It’s going to be historic! Can’t wait to execute it.
We, Altus, are releasing our studio debut album in Summer 2024. It’s called Mythos and it’ll be released on Biophilia Records.
Where can reader find out more about you?