Elliott Jack Sansom had an unlikely career change: he was one of Britain’s rising jazz stars until he took a U-turn into modern classical music and unexpectedly found himself at the top. His 2021 track Kaleidoscope reached number one on Spotify’s Peaceful Piano playlist, with its 6.5 million listeners, and remained in the chart for eight months; With additional incredible support over the years from Apple Music, Amazon Music and Deezer, he can now claim over 70 million streams for his self-released songs. This shift – from the cerebral, competitive world of jazz to the meditative space of ambient piano – inspired his debut album Finding Beauty. “I wanted to take a step back and return to the simple melodies that first got me into music,” he says. “It feels so liberating - I almost forgot what it does for your soul. I love the intellect of jazz but I felt that I needed to come back to a more simple form of expression.”
Sansom is doing something new with the genre: his song-form compositions are injected with colourful jazz chords and harmonic direction, less minimalist than much modern classical piano and more emotive in performance. He approaches his songs as if they were standards, with melodies inspired by show tunes and the Great American Songbook. There are countless influences at play, from Duke Ellington to Debussy, Frederic Mompou to Michel Legrand and the Carpenters – but they are worn so lightly. His closely-miked Yamaha YUS5 is so hushed and intimate, you can hear the hammers hitting the felt.
Sansom, born in Solihull in 1994, has a wry sense of humour and already wears years of musical experience. You grow up fast in jazz: he was a finalist in the BBC Young Jazz Musician of the Year in 2016 while still at the Birmingham Conservatoire, where he played with jazz greats such as Stan Sulzmann and Norma Winstone. He toured with Clark Tracey – son of the legend Stan – and studied in Paris, where he played with the drummer Jimmy Cobb, who featured on A Kind Of Blue. He also had his own trio, and the touring was endless: Trondheim Jazz Festival, Ronnie Scotts, the Albert Hall… “It’s not that I’d had enough of it, but it was getting a bit full-on and avant-garde,” he says. “I was quite out-there harmonically. So it’s quite a switch from burning jazz to Peaceful Piano…”
Sansom has always done things his own way: he has Asperger’s Syndrome and struggled with discipline and with his temper as a child. His mother, who played the piano herself, noticed that music would focus and calm him from an early age: at just four, he was picking out songs by ear. But she knew that classical training wasn’t what Elliott needed: “She never wanted me to have strict lessons, she didn’t want to knock it out of me,” he says. “We tried a few teachers and it didn’t work – I was playing songs, bits of jazz and show tunes and the teachers didn’t know what to do with me…” His main musical guide was closer to home: his grandmother, whom he’d visit “when my mum needed a break from me”. He still describes her as his greatest inspiration: a fantastic piano player, she was fluent in Cole Porter, Vera Lynn, and all those great songs of the forties and fifties which she considered pop, but which to the young Elliott sounded just like jazz…
At school, he frequently missed lessons to be in the music practice room. “I didn’t have much confidence,” he recalls: “I was very naughty and crazy and hard work.” His mother enrolled him in Stagecoach drama school, where he won lead roles in musical theatre, appearing as the young Ebenezer in Shane Richie’s Scrooge – “and in Joseph, featuring H from Steps”, he laughs. He performed in the children’s choir for the stage show The Carpenters Story. And as he got more and more involved in music, his tempers left him – and he found himself.
“Music was about feeling free,” he explains. “When I’m playing now, I don’t need to think about anything, it is just bliss. I’m so relaxed. When I was younger, I had a few tics, and when I played the piano they would just disappear. Piano was, and always has been, a distraction. I can just sit down, shut my eyes and be in my happy place, totally absorbed in the act of performing and creating.”
What about the music on Finding Beauty? Is it freer, somehow, than jazz?
“It’s a very different type of freedom,” he says. “When I’m composing, I’m still improvising, so in that respect it is just as free. I’m thinking about song and melody, not just ‘this is my solo’.”
The seventeen songs on Finding Beauty offer a magical soundscape of place and memory, with mysterious titles that let the imagination roam. From New Day, with its echoes of Radiohead, to Forever, where fragments of Debussy or Chopin are at play in a poppier setting, they were composed throughout lockdown and beyond, spanning a period in which Sansom and his girlfriend Katie moved from a noisy street in Moseley, Birmingham, to a small cottage outside Oxford. The physical journey mirrored his own transition to a quieter, more contemplative space in which to create his music.
“I was with my girlfriend in our little flat and we had all this time together; we would go for walks, hearing nature more - nature literally knocking on the door.” The evocative Window Rain was inspired by the sudden silence of his old Birmingham Street in lockdown. As the country came to a standstill, his compositions took shape: “I reminisced more, I appreciated things more…”
For Sansom, the music comes first, then a memory arrives to match it. Secret Garden recalls a scene in Agnieska Holland’s 1993 film of the classic novel, which he saw in one of the few history lessons he attended at school. Mary steps into the garden for the first time and is met with incandescent nature: when the movie came on TV a few months back, Sansom turned off the sound and improvised while watching the scene.
The rolling grandeur of the song Symonds Yat “felt like a journey, a moving pattern,” he says; he recalled a trip with Katie to the Wye Valley, and a five-hour wild canoeing experience they took there, with no idea what they were getting themselves in to. The tentative, gossamer-light melody at play in Alone in Paris took him back to his days in the city as a student; how he loved being alone, sitting on his balcony with a view of the Sacre Coeur, or walking the streets at night.
Song for Katie was not only inspired by, but partly written by, his girlfriend: “I should give her a credit. She was singing this little major melody and I extended that idea – it’s about her, but it’s by her, too.” Miniature footsteps dance exquisitely on the piano’s highest register.
And Melody to Freedom, one of the richest compositions on the album, has a gospel vibe, part hymn, part American Songbook. It spoke to Sansom of “coming out of lockdown, returning to normal, being able to see my grandma again…”
Like any true musician, Sansom is a perfectionist – “I overthink things like you wouldn’t believe”. He went through four upright pianos in three months for Finding Beauty, before settling back to the Yamahas he had always felt most comfortable on. He recorded half the album on the wrong instrument, then went back and did it all again… Fortunately, studio space was easier to find: he runs Sansom Studios in Birmingham with his brother, renowned for its jazz recordings. He booked himself in for four days, in spring this year, and stayed there day and night to get it right.
It is hard to believe that Sansom modern classical work began as a “throwaway idea”, an experiment in the genre. Spotify listeners voted with their ears, and after independently self-releasing a plethora of tracks in 2019 to 2020, he joined forces with the label 1631 in early 2021, who distribute for Decca, to release. Now, his work has found its major label home.
The music may be a big change for him – but it is clear from the sophistication and playfulness of Finding Beauty that the spirit of jazz has never left him.