James Sanders and his Latin jazz ensemble Conjunto, will celebrate the release of their new album, Evidencia on Friday at 8:30 p.m. with a performance at Constellation in Chicago.
Sanders is a violinist with the Chicago Sinfonietta orchestra, where he’s been a member since 1993. Though he didn’t study jazz during his college career or prior (he is a graduate of Yale), his dual musical citizenship, was mirrored in his bilingual upbringing.
Sanders says he was drawn to the Latin music he heard in the street growing up as the son of a Dominican mother in an ethnically mixed Chicago neighborhood. He spoke Spanish with his mother at home and English at school. A chance encounter with the famed jazz violinist, Johnny Frigo, also a native Chicagoan, during Sanders’ early freelancing days in the city also made a significant impression on him.
However, Sanders says it wasn’t until he reinvested himself into the fundamentals of violin playing by taking additional coachings with area violinists that he felt he was ready to depart stylistically from his classical training and move into the jazz genre. This led to a creative breakthrough. Soon he realized he could approach his playing in a whole new light.
“That’s where the real energy comes from, your innate music, wherever that comes from. Even the great violinists…they improvised, made up cadenzas, ideas. By pushing into this creative space, they changed the game for all of us,” he explains. “It’s easy to think that you can only try to perfect what’s already there, instead of reinventing it.”
By 2001, Sanders had founded the seven-member Latin jazz ensemble Conjunto. Initially, he kept his jazz playing under wraps from his classical colleagues because he mistakenly “didn’t want to be thought of as not serious.” Until one day, when the Sinfonietta were scheduled to rehearse a piece by the legendary jazz composer and pianist, Dave Brubeck. Sanders was tapped to play the violin solo to much acclaim from his fellow musicians. The orchestra went on to perform the piece to their audience’s delight several more times, and the rest was history.
Conjunto has recorded two previous albums Live in Little Village and Chicago Sessions. Evidencia is the group’s third, and their first album of entirely original music. Sanders and Conjunto pianist and arranger Leandro López Várady composed the album’s four solo violin pieces. A fifth and final composition was written by López Várady, based on one of his own trio works. The group debuted the music live to audiences at the 2021 Chicago Latin Jazz Festival last summer.
The group’s core lineup consists of Sanders on violin, Kevin O’Connell on piano, Jean-Christophe Leroy on drums and timbales, Joe Rendon on congas and percussion, bassist José Porcayo, and multi-reedist Steve Eisen.
Conjunto’s lineup has been known to expand depending on the occasion. In 2010, at Chicago’s Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park, they collaborated onstage with Pharez Whitted on trumpet, bassist Brett Bentler, cellist Tomeka Reid, Roel Trevino on congas, Puerto Rican sonero Papo Santiago on vocals and guitar, and choreography by Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre. The ensemble’s repertoire ranges from Afro-Cuban classics to Latin arrangements of jazz standards, fusion, the Great American songbook, and original material written by Sanders and Conjunto members.
In addition to his performing career, Sanders is also an educator. He teaches jazz violin at the Music Institute of Chicago. Along with his wife, fellow violinist Tamara Glassburg, he coordinates the Middle School String Program at public schools in Arlington Heights, IL. The couple’s adult son, Robert, is also a promising violinist. Most recently, Sanders has stepped in as a mentor in the Chicago Musical Pathways Initiative, a program that aims to uplift talented Chicago-area student musicians from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds with a pathway of support and training to encourage equity and diversity in America’s professional, musical landscape, and particularly in its orchestras.