Born: June 27, 1964 Primary Instrument: Violin
Violinist Sanders leads Conjúnto, perhaps the most adventurous jazz latino band in the country. Moving confidently from Afro-roots to free improvisation, James Sanders and Conjúnto are equally at home at a salsa dance party or on stage at the Velvet Lounge, a south side Chicago club known for its fierce new music aesthetic.
Sanders attended a magnet school that drew students from all over the city. Being of a mixed Black/white/Latino background, he was not confined to any one social group or identity, so his friends at school were from all those cultures. His mother viewed the violin as a sophisticated instrument that carried a certain status, and James began lessons early, thoroughly absorbing the rigors of western classical music, eventually earning a scholarship to Yale University and a degree in violin performance. This led to soloist appearances with orchestras around the area and a violin chair in the Chicago Sinfonietta, a remarkably diverse symphony orchestra (over a third of its members are Black or Latino) that includes several noted jazz improvisers in its ranks, including flutist Nicole Mitchell and cellist Tomeka Reid.
James, an admirer of Stéphane Grappelli, began improvising on the violin shortly after completing his Yale degree, at first sitting in with various ensembles around Chicago, and then forming the James Sanders Trio in 1990. Developing his jazz chops through constant work, he became a regular member Alfonso Ponticelli’s Gypsy Jazz ensemble Swing Gitan in 1995. At some point he began to explore the neighborhood music of his youth, and he formed Conjúnto in 2001.
Conjúnto started as a fairly conventional Latin jazz unit, fusing Afro-Latin rhythms to jazz harmonies and improvising. A nucleus formed around Sanders and reed player extraordinaire Steve Eisen. At one point the lineup featured a vocalist and a more hard core salsa approach. Meanwhile, Sanders continued to work with other jazz musicians, gradually finding gigs with some of the city’s vaunted AACM collective of improvisers, including Dee Alexander, Hamid Drake, and Harrison Bankhead. At the same time, he was on call to support touring salsa stars from New York, including the keyboardist / arranger of the legendary Fania All-Stars, Larry Harlow. There was no let up in his classical schedule, either. Just like back at the magnet school, Sanders refuses to confine himself artistically to any one culture.
All of this found its way into Conjúnto. As the line up solidified, James concentrated on hiring players who not only thoroughly understood the fundamentals of Afro-Latin traditions, but possessed the improvisational chops and musicianship to follow his lead into, for Latin jazz, uncharted territory. The result is an approach that, at its best, completely absorbs the vast repository of African and western music into a unique and original vision.