By Tim Morse (copyright 2023)
Legendary keyboardist David Sancious has deservedly earned his reputation as ’a musician’s musician.’ He is the rare artist who is technically proficient and yet capable of exercising taste and restraint. While known to the world for his intricate jazz piano playing and bluesy, gospel-tinged organ work, Sancious is most revered as a ground-breaking pioneer of the synthesizer. In his hands, the Mini-Moog was transformed into an extraordinarily expressive musical instrument.
In addition to creating his own original music, David has been the sideman of choice to a who’s who of rock royalty, including such artists as Peter Gabriel, Sting, Jon Anderson, Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton and Seal. Gabriel once praised Sancious as “one of the most gifted musicians I have ever worked with - a great instinctive and soulful player.”
In 1977, Arista Records shelved what would have been David’s third solo album ‘Dance of the Age of Enlightenment.’ The ambitious recording seamlessly combined classical, jazz and rock elements and was originally intended as a ballet with four movements. Arista decided at the eleventh hour that they wanted David and his band Tone to create a more commercially accessible album and sadly ‘Dance…’ was left in the vault for decades. However, Iconoclassic Records has recently corrected this egregious error and is putting out ’Dance…’ on November 17th. David and I spoke about this music on the eve of the album’s long overdue release.
Dance of the Age of Enlightenment is a different album from your earlier work. It's a thematic suite where the emphasis is almost entirely on keyboards. Your guitar playing is featured only on one track and for the first time you recorded two vocal songs. Was all of that planned beforehand, or did it evolve during the production of the album?
It was conceived as you hear it, from the beginning. It was actually meant to be a ballet, in four movements, with an overture and a finale; it was really written like that. I had a desire to have it choreographed, but in terms of the structure of it, that was set out before we started.
Where did you record the album?
We recorded at Caribou Ranch in Nederland, Colorado. So it was conceived before, but there was some of evolution in the process. We didn’t write the music as we recorded, but we figured out how to make it sound as big as it sounds.
There appears to have been a tremendous effort from you in the recording and overdubbing of synthesizer tracks on this album.
I intended it to be like a synthesizer orchestra. Because there was no polyphony from a synthesizer back then. The Poly Moog hadn’t been created yet, so all of this kind of stuff had to be done on the Mini-Moog. I scored it - I wrote it all out for violins, violas, cellos, bass and a brass section. I used a booklet that came with a Mini-Moog which had some templates, it had some ideas for how to get certain sounds. For example, there was a template on where to set the controls to get a trumpet sound.
I still have my Moog booklet, I know exactly what you’re talking about.
That booklet was combined with my own creativity; I was always tweaking synthesizer sounds to my own liking. I had to physically overdub each part. For instance it was written out for four first violins, four second violins, and some violas. If I wrote eight violin parts, then I had to perform those parts eight individual times. And then back up again and do the viola parts, and back up again and do the cello parts in order to make it sound like it sounds to me. Especially now when I hear it…Not to be overly proud about it, you know, but ‘Dance…’ has an incredible, unique kind of sound. It sounds like a big ass ensemble to me with very modern drumming!
(Laughs) There were classical artists like Wendy Carlos and Tomita who were doing that kind of layering, but I can’t think of anyone in rock or jazz who were recording synthesizers in this manner.
No, plus compositionally and harmonically it’s very classical. It’s extremely classical, not just in the form of it, but where it’s going harmonically and rhythmically. My favorite part of the whole thing - I like the whole project, each movement has its own meaning - but I’m really fond of the first and second movements. Listen to those two things back to back, it’s really good! I’m not trying to brag or boast about it, but there’s really nothing quite like it.
By contrast there’s a part in the second movement where it breaks down into a trio: drums, bass and lead synthesizer, and you take this outrageous solo - it’s almost like you’re Hendrix on a Mini-Moog or something.
Yeah, yeah it is crazy. I used to go off on those things. That playing always came out spontaneously and I just went with it. I had a pedal board for the Mini-Moog, it had three pedals. One was a volume pedal, the second and third pedals were spring loaded pedal for pitch and modulation. I used to stand up live to perform solos, because I wasn’t trying to accompany myself on the Rhodes at that point. I considered it to be like a guitar trio, like a version of Hendrix or Cream or something. It’s just guitar, bass and drums and whatever effects pedals you got going, you know?
Did you ever use a fuzz box or distortion unit on the Mini-Moog?
It was just what I could arrive at with the instrument, I never had a separate fuzz box on it. But I could get it using an Echoplex and setting up the sounds of the synth itself.
Do you think your guitar playing influenced your keyboard playing and vice versa?
Absolutely, because having the ability to bend notes of all of a sudden - it was useful - I wanted it to sound realistic. The thing about me playing synthesizer is I always wanted it to be - if I’m using a sound like a violin or guitar or something, unless it’s specifically a ‘synthesizer sound’ - I was always wanted it to be realistic and accurate.
When it came to bending notes on a synthesizer, I had a perfect example from doing it on a guitar. It translated straight across, it was dead easy. You know how far you’re bending, you find that portion where it’s exactly a whole note bend and not any more. It was a whole technique to get together, but yes, the one definitely informed the other and vice versa as well.
Do you remember the first time you played a synthesizer?
The first time I played a synthesizer was in Richmond, Virginia in a recording studio named Alpha Audio. I used to work there, I was the house pianist in the late sixties. I came into the studio one evening to do something and a band had left their Mini-Moog in the studio. I saw the thing there and flipped out! They turned on the console and let me play around with it - it was fantastic. I remember the whole sensation of the first time you could hit a note and bend it from a keyboard! That sensation…and then there was vibrato…here comes the vibrato! It was like a revelation, I really enjoyed it.
Did you hear the Hallelujah Chorus? Like you knew the minute you played it, right?
Yeah, it was a big deal. It was a revelation. The fact that you could only play one note at time was fascinating. One note polyphony, but it’s an interesting note, you know?
It forced you to choose wisely.
Yes, exactly. It forced you to choose wisely and be creative as always.
All of your music seems spiritually based to me, but this album particularly so - was there a path you were on that informed the album?
Yeah, Transcendental Meditation. I was very, very involved with that whole movement. I remember when Maharishi was on Merv Griffin and getting a lot of press, he was on the cover of Time Magazine and all that kind of stuff. I was involved in that movement. I was in the process of taking the necessary training to become an initiator of Transcendental Meditation. I got into it and one by one, my whole family got into it. Both of my brothers and my mom became meditators. That was the beginning of it, inspired by that and the teachings.
With ‘Dance…’ it’s the story of the death of one world and the birth of another. But it’s the process of the dying of the one world, the energy of it all and the rebirth of the new situation. So basically in the new world, your consciousness is new, it’s truly different from the inside out. It’s basically telling that story.
In the song 'Gone is the Veil of Illusion’ there are lyrics in a different language - are they Hindi/Sanskrit? What is their meaning and/or source?
'Gone Is The Veil Of Illusion' is Sanskrit . The words are names of Spiritual Deities all possessing different qualities of energy and consciousness: Govinda / Narayana / Shankaracharya. Guru Deva was the spiritual teacher of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
There’s a great feel from the band throughout the whole piece, and I was particularly struck by performances in the second movement. There are some very tricky time changes, starts and stops. You’re speeding up and slowing down, as a band you’re breathing the music together.
It’s a classical thing, it’s not ’MIDI time.’ Did we even have MIDI back then? I don’t know, I don’t remember.
I believe it was still a few years away (MIDI was implemented in 1983).
The piece was written with the accelerations and slow downs that you’d find in a piece of classical music and we rehearsed it like that. Sometimes you’re going along and you’ll see the next three bars say accelerando, so you speed up and then you stop and resume the previous tempo. You can slow down or speed up like that on a moment’s notice, based on how you feel. And there’s a part in the middle of the first movement where you can really feel it slowing down on purpose by each chord.
I remember I read a book by Leonard Bernstein about conducting and I was keen on conducting some of it in the future. But he had a whole passage in this book on how to conduct from the piano in a joint piece with orchestra and piano. You the pianist are stationary at your instrument, but you’re actually conducting this thing while you’re playing and you use your body. You could use your body as if you were using your right hand in conducting.
How would you describe the recording process?
I don’t remember how many takes we did of this stuff, but I don’t think it was a lot. We recorded a lot, but I don’t think it was multiple takes of everything. I’m sure some of it was recorded in sections and then spliced together. We weren’t going through all the way through the pieces without stopping.
It was a lot of music to get down.
Yeah, it was a lot of stuff. I’m really proud of the fluidity of the tempo and that you can’t hear or feel it speed up or slow down according to what’s going on musically.
Your band Tone seems like a well oiled machine at this time. How would you describe the dynamic between the three of you?
I think especially on this project, we always wanted to be considered to be a well oiled machine. Ernest (Carter, drums), Gerry (Carboy, bass) and I were always playing together, playing with each other like an ensemble, really listening to each other as we played and being inspired by what to play as related to what the other person is playing. But on this album especially, I remember the rehearsals were daunting! I think everyone was so focused, they’d never played that music before. I wrote it all out and the few times we did go all the way through it - rehearsing to do it live - everyone was finding the music just challenging enough to learn it. So it wasn’t like anyone else had any other idea, or "Why don’t we do it this way?"
(Laughs) "I just need to get through it!"
Myself included, you know? It wasn’t like I was learning someone else’s music, but still physically it was a fairly demanding piece to play. So I would say on that project we were definitely unified, enjoying the whole thing. Enjoying this whole thing come to life, because we could only make it sound so big live, because all I had was a Hammond organ, Fender Rhodes, and two Mini-Moogs. Each Moog had its own Echoplex, that was our sound arsenal. I was enjoying it especially, because it was all an idea I’d had in my head to get it to sound like that.
When you remastered and revisited this music, was there any special revelation that came to you about it?
Frankly, I hadn’t listened to that music in forty some years. I’ve known that it has been bootlegged around the world, especially from Japan and different places. To be honest, when we got the files from the record company to remaster it, I couldn’t even listen to it all the way through. I had to stop and turn it off, I couldn’t even listen to the whole piece because it was it was bringing back a flood of memories and sensations and all kinds of feelings that were not so easy to digest right away, you know?
I’m not surprised to hear it.
It took me days before I could listen to the whole thing. And when I started listening to it, I was hearing it wrongly until we figured out the software to take the tempo down. I worked closely with Robert Frazza, who deserves the lion’s share of the credit for the remaster. It sounds outrageous, because we did a whole deal on the frequencies. Between the frequency upgrade and hearing the whole thing at the right speed - it’s pretty amazing.
I’m looking forward to hearing this definitive version of the album. Can you tell me how ‘Dance…’ finally got revisited?
I got an email from Iconoclassic Records, saying that very thing: “We’re interested in doing a remastered version of this music.” We exchanged emails and spoke directly on the phone with Jeremy Holiday (president of the label). And we got the business together first and then we got into fixing the files. There were all kinds of technical issues.
One problem was the entire record was originally mastered at the wrong speed. It was not that fast, you’re listening to songs that are not supposed to be that fast on the bootleg version. My engineer and I used software in Logic to change the tempo without changing the pitch - it’s amazing that’s possible. It was sped up by 12%, we had to slow it down for my body to feel like, “Oh yeah, that’s the way I wrote it.” It took so many tests at different speeds to be doubly sure in my body - not just through the pitch of how it was recorded - but once it hit that right speed, it was joyous.
Some of those passages at the faster previously mastered speed are almost unplayable. Especially some stuff in the second movement. It’s just like, “Come on!” It was really wrong. And that’s why in the liner notes of the remastered version I relate how I went ballistic when I got a test pressing and called the record company right away and said, “What the fuck? This is not what I’m intending here!” I was so upset, “We can’t release it like this, it’s not what it’s supposed to sound like.”
What was their response?
There was a little bit of a pause for the record company to get back to me. I didn’t get an explanation of why isn’t it sounding like it’s supposed to sound. It got back to me that they thought, “It’s a brilliant piece of music and we think you’re all that and everything, but we want another record from you. We want something that’s more commercially viable than this particular piece of music and we’ll release this later.” And that was a huge mental thing for me to take on.
It must have been devastating, I can’t imagine.
It was devastating. For me it was my height of creativity at that point. Following in succession, Forest of Feelings being the first album and Transformation being the second and this was meant to be the third one. After Arista didn’t release ‘Dance…’ when they were supposed to, a studio owner and someone else put together my old demo tapes - the demo tapes that got me my contract - these people released my demo tape, but they put it out in such a way that a lot of people thought it was our third album. They thought it was the next record after Transformation.
We were incensed, the whole band was like, “This is really, really wrong.” We tried to put it behind us as much as we could and tell people this is not what you believe it to be. We tried to legally get them to stop it, it was really fucked up. But then after I’d recovered a bit, I started writing all the music that became True Stories. And True Stories ended up being our biggest success, we actually got into the Top 100 chart. True Stories was my comeback.
It was a lot to go through, but you did get a beautiful album out of it.
I don’t regret any of the music on True Stories, it’s great.
What else are you working on now?
I’m working on two projects. The next album, the follow-up to Eyes Wide Open is going to be called The Ghost of Jim Crow. I’m working on that very diligently right now. There’s going to be a bunch of guest artists on it, different drummers, different people. But also, coming up for next year Ernest Carter and I going to put Tone together again. We’re going to do True Stories, Volume Two, featuring a whole new bunch of songs. Ernest and I will be the only people on every track, and we’re going to have guest bass players. I’m going to do most of the vocals, if not all of them. There might be a couple of guest vocalists.
Is there a possibility that it could be toured?
Yes, they both could be toured. Definitely the True Stories, Volume Two could happen, probably for a quartet, maybe a trio - I don’t know yet. With the Ghost of Jim Crow there are songs that could be played live as well.
One last thing before we wrap this up - I’ve heard you’ve been working with Bruce Springsteen - is there an album coming out with you on it?
Yeah, but I’m not sure when it’s coming out. When I was working on it I was told it should be released sometime before the end of this year. It’s the second volume of the soul music project that came out, called Only The Strong Survive. He called me in last November to do publicity for the first volume - Jimmy Fallon for four nights. We did four songs from that album, it was great fun. We had like a nineteen piece band, we had a horn section, a choir - it was brilliant, really cool.
How did you get involved in recording Volume Two?
I got a phone call saying that he was working on a volume two of this project, would you like to come into the studio? And I said, “Yes, absolutely.” I was there four or five days and we did about fourteen songs. Most of the songs were already recorded, it was just me and him and an engineer. Me overdubbing keyboards on a bunch of tunes. We finished that in March of this year, I don’t know when it will be released. But he said he’d very much like to do a tour with that ensemble from the Jimmy Fallon show.
So it’s possible you could be touring with Bruce next year?
It’s more than a possibility, I’m in. We’re both looking forward to it!