Steve Sandberg Quartet Blends a Puree of Jazz, World and Classical with Flavor + Spice

steve sandberg video screen

Zach Brock from the Steve Sandberg Quartet

**Newsflash: The Steve Sandberg Quartet’s new release “Alaya” has just been submitted by ArtistShare for a Grammy nomination!**

Hailing from New York City and becoming enamored with the piano at a very early age, Steve Sandberg has gone around the world and back in terms of musical studies and tastes. The global experience – plus his years of scoring/directing children’s shows “Dora the Explorer” and “Go, Diego, Go!” – has made him the multi-layered musician he is today.

The spot-on, in-sync and sonorous Steve Sandberg Quartet plays with a level of joy that’s immediately transferred to the listener.

How did music capture you so young – 4 years old at the piano?

Just drawn to the piano like crazy. Earliest memory – crawling by the piano. I had a ritual, every time I passed it, I had to reach up as high as I could and play one note!

Did you grow up in a musical household?

Not really. My Aunt Fanny reportedly played silent piano in the Yiddish Theatre in the East Village, and my Uncle Arthur was an amateur pianist, but I didn’t have much contact with them. 

Were you in ensembles at school?

I didn’t really start improvising until I was 17. I played some classical chamber music in high school and four-handed piano, but didn’t really play in bands or ensembles until I was in college.

When did you start composing? What was the first song you wrote?

The first song I wrote was called “Nonsense” and I wrote it with a girl named Michelle in second grade. I started composing more seriously in high school, when I studied privately with William Hellerman and composed a kind of avant-garde classical music; then at Yale, where I composed for ensembles and also electronic music.

Were you interested in world music before it was hip; before it was recognized here in the US as a genre?

I was very interested in world music in the 70s when Nonesuch came out with its explorer series. I was captivated particularly by an early release of Bulgarian vocal music and I found this song unbelievably evocative and moving:

Nonesuch also released a lot of African and Indian music at the time. I found it all fascinating and very moving. I loved playing classical piano but also felt constricted by its limitations and found the emotional expressiveness of world music very appealing. Also, the Beatles and Stones etc. 

How do you meld classical with jazz and then with world influences?

This “classical world music” I write is a very natural thing for me. I started out as a classical pianist; and after that, Latin and Brazilian music was the next part of my evolution.

I got back to classical music a few years ago playing for my mother in her last years (she insisted I play the classics when I visited her in her senior residence). Then I became a student of Seymour Bernstein (as in the Netflix movie “Seymour: An Introduction”). I feel much more natural with classical and Latin music rhythms than swing rhythms – just something in my DNA maybe (as my parents danced to Tito Puente at the Palladium when I was in my mother’s womb)?

In the spring of 2016 when I was looking for a new project, I thought of doing concerts beginning with straight-up classical piano. I’ve done several of these two-part concerts in NYC, at the DiMenna Center (sponsored by Project 142), followed by this classical world music with a quartet.

Writing the pieces is actually a very comfortable process. Basically, I analyze the harmonic structure of the classical piece, choose a rhythm to compose my own piece in, and write a new melody over the harmonies of the old piece. Then there is usually an editing process: the new piece morphs and wants to become its own thing. I edit and change the harmonies/melody so it becomes an organic composition and not a slavish reconstruction of something else.

Do the different styles of each member of the quartet complement each other?

Absolutely! Mauricio Zottarelli, the drummer, is so fluid with a mastery of so many styles of music – Brazilian rhythms, Afro-Cuban, odd time signatures (from Eastern European music), and swing and rock – and is able to imply many different rhythms in a fluid way without being obvious.

I think fluid rhythm is a major characteristic of our music. Just yesterday a batá drummer friend of mine was talking about the CD, and he said, you have batá (Afro-Cuban ceremonial rhythms, very sophisticated) all over the CD! But they are not repetitively stated. Mauricio is playing around them, with constant variation.

Zach Brock is just a phenomenal musician, with a serious background in classical music and jazz. So he understands the classical side of what we’re doing. It’s already in his playing, and he has a great rhythmic sophistication in his playing, from both the jazz and the world music side. He interacts with the rhythm section in a very fresh way.

Michael O’Brien is a great bassist who really locks in with Mauricio, finds exactly the right notes to play, understands many styles of music (jazz, Latin, Brazilian) and is able to flow with all of us to create this fluid world music stew that we are making.

How did it occur to you to invite these musicians to form a group?

In the spring of 2016, I was casting around for a new project. At that time (no longer working in TV, as “Dora” was now out of production) I started to bring musicians together to try things. I had played with Michael O’Brien in Jean Chardavoine’s group (a Haitian fusion guitarist), and loved his playing, so we were jamming with some different people.

Zach I met through my friend Ron Lawrence from the Sirius Quartet, and he was part of these jams too. When I decided to form a group (for the first concert, the Project 142’s 2016 debut on June 22, at the DiMenna Center), all we lacked was a drummer.  Michael recommended Mauricio, and when Mauricio joined it was magic.

Why does raga singing appeal to you?

I studied raga singing for several years. I went through an odd thing twice in my life. I went through two periods where there was absolutely no music I wanted to listen to. The first of these two times, I discovered raga and fell in love with it. I was also looking for a way to improvise in a flow without playing over changes or jazz standards. (By the way, the second time I went through this, I ended up listening only to Me’Shell Ndegeocello for two years!).

I still love it. The voice is such a primal instrument and communicates emotions so clearly. It is so highly developed in raga singing. After years of study I gave it up, realizing that I could really never be very good at it, but I came away with a huge appreciation of the music. I think what stayed with me the most is 1) music as a devotional path – something you devote yourself to, like a spiritual practice; 2) creating specific moods and emotions with each composition. 

Do you do most of the writing for the group?

I do all of the writing for the group. Occasionally at concerts we will play a cover such as “Faith in You” by Marc Johnson. 

Talk about the track “Black Ivory”- how did you inject so much spirit into it?

“Black Ivory” I wrote back in the 70s, when I was just getting into Latin music. I loved the New York Latin music of that time, especially Eddie Palmieri. Another big influence was McCoy Tyner’s voicings. And I had just had my first exposure to Balkan music’s odd time signatures.

I threw those all together and came up with “Black Ivory”! The meaning of the title – the white and black keys of the piano and perhaps it was an early intuitive reference to the “classical world” music, the black (Afro-influenced Latin rhythms) and the white (European classical). 

How do you play the breath-controlled Yamaha Vl70 synthesizer, and why did you choose that instrument?

My early Alaya music was done entirely on computer with samples and the VL70:

I chose that after my period of raga singing. I was looking for something I could play that would respond to my breath and be able to sustain tones and bend notes like the voice does in raga singing. The VL70 is unique. It’s a physical modelling synth, so it’s very organic-sounding.

I usually play it with a keytar controller where I can stand with it wrapped around my neck, play the keys, breathe into the breath-controller (which will control loudness, pitch, and many other aspects of the sound like overtones, embouchure, etc.) and use the pitch-bend slider to control pitch and many other organic aspects of the sound. I spent quite a bit of time programming the sounds to respond naturally to a combination of breath and pitch-bend slider. 

How has “Alaya” been received?

We’ve had a very enthusiastic reception so far. Audiences love the concerts.

What I love about the music we’re playing is it seems to have a very broad appeal. So many different types of people, whether they are jazz heads or musically sophisticated, or just “civilians”, respond to the music.

The Quartet’s music has many layers so you can enjoy the music on different levels. Melodies are beautiful and approachable, there is a lot of rhythmic interest, and the harmonies and improvisations are more sophisticated.

Reviews have been great! Notably here and here.

Steve Sandberg Ayala cd cover

What are your favorite tracks on this CD and why?

I love them all!

I have a soft spot for “Maurice” because it is the first composition I wrote based on classical music (the first movement of Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin). Also “Iboga,” because it is based on a strong spiritual experience I had, and communicates much of that experience in its many moods: struggle, transcendence, hope. 

Talk about the design of the album cover – prayer? Matisse-inspired?

Prayer yes! I drew it on my iPhone on a program called Procreate. At the time, I was actually drawing a lot of these. They are a kind of active prayer in themselves, or working with symbols of uplifting my life, my higher power helping me go higher. Bypassing thought to pray with visuals! 

What is the feel you were going for when you scored “Dora” and “Diego”?

“Dora the Explorer” was another organic fusion. Obviously salsa-inspired, I combined classic cartoon scoring and a bit of Gil Evans/Miles Davis orchestration (muted trumpet) to create a unique sound design for the show.

I had not done much scoring before Dora so I learned about writing to picture, and also creating very specific moods with music. I never got a note from the director saying, “I don’t like this music,” but I often got notes saying, “The monkey’s not mad, he’s scared!” So I learned about reflecting specific emotions in sound.

Have you ever played the Deer Head before [upcoming gig Sept. 23, 2017 in Delaware Water Gap, PA]?

No. I’ve heard great things about it from Zach and other people who have played there before, and anyplace with a nice piano and a new audience is very exciting to me.

Where do you feel jazz and classical intersect – time signatures, instrumentation, or something intangible?

I think it’s in the sophistication of the harmony. Actually, in the past two years I have been spending most Sunday nights in the company of Paul Ford, who is a retired Broadway musical theater director and accompanist. Paul loves American musicals (something I didn’t have that much affinity with before he exposed me to it) and showed me all kinds of early pre-1960 movie musicals at his house.

In these musicals, I heard the first appearance of many jazz standards, and was struck by how unjazzy most of them were in their debut. They seemed like songs written by classically-trained composers, writing out of that tradition, with very sophisticated harmonies and straight out of classical music. The jazzers eventually adjusted the chord changes to something that could be more easily improvised on.  

What comes first: melody or the chord changes?

Ha! Depends how you write. If I am writing from pure inspiration, I usually write the melody first. However, in the songs based on the classical composers, I tend to abstract the chord changes from the original composer, then write a new melody over his changes, then adjust the changes as I go along.

Favorite venue?

So far, I love the Bean Runner Cafe in Peekskill. It’s run by people who really want to present good music and I’ve enjoyed the crowd when we’ve played there. Very unpretentious!

Place you would like to play but have not yet?

I would like to play in jazz festivals such as Montreux, North Sea, etc. I feel our music could reach a large audience. 

Touring for the rest of 2017?

Looking forward to the Birdland gig on November 16. Other than that, I need to get cracking on some venues. Also have some reach-outs to potential managers/booking agents in the works. 

How are you promoting your new CD?

I hired an excellent publicist, Chris DiGirolamo from Two for the Show Media, and he’s been promoting the CD to publications and some radio. Also Brian Camelio from ArtistShare is helping me reach out in terms of distribution. 

What question do you get asked most at performances?

Most often people comment on how the music is very accessible; it takes them on a journey to different places, has many different moods and unexpected changes. 

Talk about the strengths of the musicians in the quartet?

I love the musicians in the quartet!

Zach Brock is a monster – classically trained, great at jazz and improvisation, tons of experience, very enthusiastic about the music and willing to devote time to learning and studying it. This music is hard to play because it doesn’t really fit into a category. You can’t just play bebop licks on it, it’s not purely classical or anything, so for it to sound good it really takes some study. I myself didn’t really understand how to play it for about eight months after I wrote it.

Zach and I have gotten together several times and discussed different concepts of how to play this music, and he has really blown me away by how he’s open to feedback and then takes it to the next several levels! His tone is wonderful, his intonation and timing are impeccable. Just a pleasure through and through.

Mauricio is great! Also – like everyone in the quartet – super nice, very open to feedback and exploration, and he has a world of rhythms at his fingertips. I believe he has studied classical Indian drumming, of course jazz and Brazilian rhythms, plus rock and funk.

He is extremely fluid, so he can play, rather than repetitive patterns, ever-evolving colors and improvisations based on a solid understanding of the underlying feel. He is full of surprises too, always inventing new things and trying new ideas. Also, he’s incredibly responsive to soloists – his playing under Zach’s solo on “Iboga” is so in tune with Zach it’s amazing.

Michael O’Brien – another superb musician. Impeccable intonation, and great sound – always finding the right notes in the right octave, rock solid support, has an incredible memory for form and structure and harmonic understanding.

Everyone in the quartet is really high level, highly skilled in many areas of music, and great listeners too.

What do you most want people to take away from your music?

I feel the purpose of my music in these difficult times is to uplift people. It’s not overtly political but the core message I hope to communicate is one of courage, the courage to do something positive in the face of challenge.

As Helen Keller said, “All the world is full of suffering. It is also full of overcoming.” I guess music for me is a way to keep going in the face of challenge. It has given me so much in terms of positive focus, friends, inspiration and emotional release. I want to share all that.

Why do you think jazz is not promoted publicly via mainstream culture: TV, movies, advertising?

Well, I think the culture at this moment is entranced by the digital world. Electronic sounds. Ear candy. Just the way it is at the moment.  

Is interest in jazz growing, declining or staying flat?

I would have to think about this. One thing I will say is, look at a club like Fat Cats in NY. It’s basically a pool hall, packed with college-age students and young people who probably don’t go to jazz clubs. But they have jazz and Latin jazz groups and these groups get a fantastic reception! I wish there were a lot more clubs like this. 

For more information, visit

Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artist.

© Debbie Burke 2017

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