Poster Sanford Moore
Composer, arranger and pianist Sanford Moore is getting back to his classical performance days.
Classical Minnesota Stories

Twin Cities jazz pianist Sanford Moore returns to his classical roots

If we wait long enough, the saying goes, everything will come back around.

Sanford Moore is living proof. Decades after forgoing a planned career as a concert pianist — and instead delighting Twin Cities audiences with his vocal jazz ensemble Moore by Four — he's tackling Beethoven's "Pathétique" Sonata. And more.

After boundless hours of pandemic-era practice, Moore will hold a classical recital in January, date and venue to be announced. Once he gains a firm grip on "Pathétique," he'll go to work on Frédéric Chopin's "Military" Polonaise and Claude Debussy's "Claire de Lune."

"I would call it 'full circle' from my youth," he said. "It's truly like getting back on a bike, almost like a sense of déjà vu. I played 'Pathétique' when I was much younger, so it's practically brand new to me. It's interesting how the voices of my piano teachers come back to me: 'Watch your fingering.' 'Don't move past this passage.'"

Practice makes perfect

Moore is relishing these blast-from-the-past directives from mentors such as Terry Hansen at Minneapolis South High School, Duncan McNabb at the University of Minnesota and the Rev. Carl Walker of Walker/West Music School in St. Paul. He's able to savor those memories because he's preparing at his own clip.

"I'm taking a year, because I just don't want to stress out about it," he said. "And it will take that much time to get my fingering and technique up to par."

The arduous process is a combination of learning, relearning — and unlearning, he said.

"What I've come to realize is that I have to undo some stuff, because I've gotten away from the rhythm charts and gotten into improv."

It's no surprise, then, that for all the piano skills, the most crucial attributes that Moore is bringing to the undertaking are patience and persistence. This is most decidedly a marathon and not a sprint.

That painstaking pace applies not only to the overall task but to the actual work within it.

"Once you can play accurately slow, you can build up on tempo," he said. "And i started out verrrrrry slow."

The hardest part, not surprisingly, is being patient, he said with a chuckle.

"I feel like I'm getting a better handle on the technique and [not] the tendency of wanting to indulge myself and get into the emotion of it, and not getting into a place where it's 'clank clank clank clank crash and burn.'

"Besides, the fun is wanting to get into the emotional part of [the piece], and that's where patience pays off."

So every day, after 15 minutes of warmups and dexterity exercises, Moore rolls over into Beethoven. A major goal is attaining what he calls dynamic control.

For example, he said, "In one section, the right hand is doing triplets and the left hand doing eighth notes. Once I can get the right hand accurate and then the left hand and then together, I turn on the metronome and see how accurate I can be at a certain speed."

But amid this work has been some play, or at least pleasure.

"There are some passages that came back to me fairly easily, and they're fun, like the third-movement allegro because of the speed, and I love to get to those sections."

Timing is everything

The notion of returning to his musical roots came from Moore by Four mate Dennis Spears over Thanksgiving.

"He had on some classical music," Moore recounted, "and I said 'Oh, I used to play that,' and Dennis said, 'You know, you oughta do a recital.'"

He even posted a reflective video about it on Facebook:

Another musical peer is convinced that Moore's the right man for the job, and the job's the right one for the man.

"First of all, he's chosen some of the masterpieces of the repertoire," said Phillip Brunelle, artistic director and founder of VocalEssence. "The fact he's chosen these works is a wonderful idea for him, and knowing Sanford's excellent technique, I think he will succeed.

"I have admired him, his musicianship and his keyboard skills, and this is to me just another example of his focus on the keyboard and its potential, and a way to keep himself limber and mentally alert."

Brunelle also lauded the timing and the timespan for this particular venture.

"It's a wonderful project," he said. "Anytime you have something happening like a pandemic, it does make you stop and think about what projects you ought to consider when time permits, and it does now.

"And he's given himself a great time frame to do it — not years away but not next week. He can let that music soak in and get the special spots that he needs to perfect."

More from Moore by Four

Moore has been far from idle during the pandemic period. He was musical director for Kingdom Life Church's online rendition of Black Nativity — Spears, a deacon at the North Minneapolis church, was one of the performers — and has contributed to streaming fundraisers for local theaters Ten Thousand Things, Penumbra and Theatre Latte Da.

He also has been in touch with his Moore by Four cohorts, including for a January performance at Crooners Supper Club. And the work he's putting into his recital a year later will only enhance the ensemble's quality.

"I'm finding it influencing how I play my other stuff," Moore said. "I have better dexterity when I'm improvising. So all this practice is actually improving my playing across the board."

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