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Proyecto Libre

James Sanders brings a lifetime of experiences to his conception of Proyecto Libre.


The son of a Dominican mother and U.S. born father, Sanders grew up in an ethnically mixed Chicago neighborhood. He formed the highly regarded Latin jazz ensemble James Sanders’ Conjunto in 2001. Meanwhile, Sanders maintained a parallel career as an in-demand collaborator with such noted improvisers as Dee Alexander, Nicole Mitchell, Tomeka Reid, the late Harrison Bankhead and more.


With Proyecto Libre (Free Project), Sanders combines his Caribbean heritage and command of Afro-Latin idioms with a forward thinking, purely improvisational aesthetic by bringing musicians from both genres together in a freewheeling musical experiment. The ensemble made its debut in December, 2013 at the Afro-Caribbean Improvised Music Festival in Chicago.

In November 2014, Proyecto Libre was invited to perform along with other Chicago jazz greats at the prestigious Made In Chicago Festival in Poznan, Poland, where they were joined by saxophonist Edward Wilkerson, Jr., who joined them again at the Chicago Jazz Festival in 2016.


Proyecto Libre's core is James Sanders, violin; Avreeayl Ra, drums & wood flute; Joshua Abrams, bass; and Jean-Christophe Leroy, congas and Latin percussion. The late Harrison Bankhead was a frequent addition on cello and bass. To keep things interesting, Sanders frequently invites additional guest musicians to explore new dynamics and interplay. Invitees have included saxophonist Edward Wilkerson Jr., drummer Michael Zerang and percussionist Bobby Delgado.

Blue Violin Quartet

Blue Violin is the culmination of a two decade plus exploration of the art of jazz. James Sanders, a Chicago based musician and bandleader, calls it his tribute to the masters of the jazz violin tradition.


Sanders has honed his chops as a leader and collaborator in various jazz contexts. His 20+ year career includes leading the Latin jazz ensemble James Sanders’ Conjunto, who have logged hundreds of gigs and released 2 CDs since their founding in 2001. Sanders has recorded and toured internationally as a member of Dee Alexander’s Evolution Ensemble, the Harrison Bankhead Sextet, and Alfonso Ponticelli’s Swing Gitan. Additionally, he has ongoing collaborations with several members of the acclaimed AACM circle of free jazz improvisers.


In the summer of 2012. Sanders entered the studio for what would become Blue Violin: A Jazz Legacy, released in January 2013. The first thing you notice about Blue Violin is that there are very few numbers on it normally associated with violin. “That’s on purpose” says Sanders. “That would have been the easy thing to do, a bunch of Stephane Grappelli and so on, but far less interesting.”


Instead, the recording features an eclectic yet seamless mix of tunes ranging from bop to post-bop written by Wes Montgomery, Miles Davis, Kenny Baron, Steve Swallow, Bud Powell and others. The collection is rounded off by a couple of Great American Songbook classics by Richard Rodgers and Jerome Kern. There’s but one tune written explicitly for violin, Stuff Smith’s title track. “That’s important” says Sanders. “Without Stuff Smith, I never would have taken this whole jazz journey.”

Original Music for Violin and Drums

Whether it has been the poly-rhythms of Afro Caribbean percussion, the swing of straight-ahead jazz, the pulse of funk or the free explorations of the avant-garde, James Sanders has always been inspired by rhythm masters that he has worked with over the years. Working with choreographers as a member of Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre's jazz ensemble has shown him how those rhythms can also inspire a dancer's steps.

The Original Music for Violin and Drums series pairs James with drummers of various backgrounds and styles to see what happens aurally in the recording studio, then further explores the results with the addition of video, still photography and dance to complete the multi-media project.

Collaborators so far include Ben "Jammin" Johnson, Joe Rendon, Avreeayl Ra, and Sarah Allen.

Dark Matter String Band

Dark Matter String Band is a collaboration between bassist Christian Dillingham and James Sanders. It is inspired the legacy of the tradition of African-American string music. 


Strings have played a vital role in music of the African Diaspora. You might think of string bands as something from the 19th century, and there is indeed a tradition there. But strings have never gone away: Stuff Smith and Ray Nance made enormous contributions, and you can hear strings in everything from soul music like the Chi-Lites, Curtis Mayfield and Smokey Robinson to House and Hip Hop. Sun Ra employed a violinist in his Arkestra, as did such luminaries of the avant-garde as Alice Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders and Archie Shepp. And, of course, there is the huge Afro-Cuban tradition of the charanga.


The Dark Matter String Band honors all of this and creates something new in the process.

Background photo by Laura Hamm
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