Staying up late

Jazz composer Carmen Sandim on her new album and the sleepless nights it took to make it

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The Carmen Sandim Quartet
Courtesy of Carmen Sandim

Each week, Carmen Sandim voluntarily forgoes sleep for two nights. Not back to back, of course, because that would be crazy. Still, two nights a week she slips off to her home studio after her two children — still wee ones, just two and four — have gone to bed, sits at her piano and works.

It’s taken a few years after the birth of her children to get back into the swing of writing and performing and, though she knows some might think she’s nuts, the sleepless nights were critical to her rebound.

Of course it’s got to do with the life-changing, schedule-rearranging work it takes to raise two children, but there’s also something (scientific, actually) about the wee hours of the night that sparks creative flames; Prince and Bob Dylan were proud night owls.

“I feel like the inner critic goes to sleep around 3 a.m. and it’s just me left,” Sandim says. “I think we just do what we have to do. To me, right now, it feels vital. That’s the solution I’m willing to do with.”

The work has paid off: Sandim is set to head to the studio in mid-December to record an album with the Carmen Sandim Septet, made possible with a grant from Pathways to Jazz, the Boulder-based program that has provided local jazz musicians with grants to further their artistic vision since 2014.

Sandim is a jazz composer, pianist and professor at Naropa, Metropolitan State University and CU Denver. That’s the way it is for jazz musicians; wearing many hats is the only way to stay afloat.

“I think it is an interesting situation being a jazz musician,” Sandim says. “I know one vocal jazz musician that does not teach, he only plays — and he’s very young,” Sandim says with a laugh. “Teaching is a large part of our lives. Making a living as a musician, as a jazz musician, is not a very realistic goal. At the same time you can only teach if you are a working jazz musician. It’s a bit of a catch-22. [W]here I teach, I feel like I’m not relevant to my students if I’m not engaged in pushing jazz into the next thing, an active participant in what the context of contemporary jazz is.”

And that’s exactly what she wrote in her proposal to Pathways to Jazz. The grant money helped her secure not only studio time (the band will be recording at Mighty Fine Productions in Denver), but also covers the travel expenses necessary to bring in three other musicians to turn her regular quartet into a septet.

Joining Sandim on the album are her quartet members — Khabu Doug Young on guitar, Bill McCrossen on bass and Dru Heller on drums — as well as Shane Endsley on trumpet, Bruce Williamson on reeds and Alex Heitlinger on trombone. (Sandim, always one to laugh, admits she hasn’t sent the arrangements yet: “I am planning to start sending the arrangements tomorrow. I’ve been saying tomorrow for two months, but now it really has to be tomorrow.”)

Rather than having a theme, Sandim sees the new album shaping up to be a collection of portraits: songs inspired by bandmates, jazz heroes and of course, her children.

“One of the toughest things about being a musician parent is that kids like to repeat the same song, like, 70 times. They came up with this little melody: ‘Play-doh… ‘Play-doh,’” she sing-songs in a childlike voice, “and they repeat it for, like, 40 minutes.”

Ultimately, the kids wrote a song for her.

“They wrote the song and I just arranged it. I think that’s the one right now I’m enjoying playing the most, the only song I’ve been able to compose in the living room when I’m ‘supposedly’ taking care of them. I was able to write that song in one afternoon and they were playing Legos. Every time I play it I get the image of them there.”

Play-doh inspiration aside, this is real jazz music, no collection of easily digested standards. 

“My first album was so simple. The music was so simple and now that I’m so much busier, the material for this… I don’t know how this came to be really complicated.”

But complicated in a good way, in a way that reflects the many hats Sandim wears each day as a mother, musician and educator.

The Carmen Sandim Septet will be providing a sneak peak of their new work on Dec. 17 at Grace Lutheran Church in Boulder. Sandim expects the album will be released in February.

On the Bill: Carmen Sandim Septet. Sunday, Dec. 17, Grace Lutheran Church, 1001 13th St., Boulder. Tickets are $15 at eventbrite.com/d/co–boulder/carmen-sandim