If you’re a New Yorker, the first time you dip your toes in the Pacific Ocean is a magical experience. You may not believe it, you may not want it to happen, but the alien sway of the Western waters does transform you. A sense of new possibilities opens up, and the chill of the East washes away—if only for a moment.
The best live sets captured on wax always have this transformative power. There is an ease of knowingness that runs through a combo that’s imbued with a sense of simpatico. Drummer Al Williams leads his crew of seasoned sidemen (Dwight Dickerson, piano; Charles Owens, tenor sax; Nolan Smith, trumpet; Leroy Vinnegar, bass; and Victor Cardenas, percussion) through this set, recorded over three days in the summer of ’76 in Long Beach, California, with such an assured hand that you feel the power of the sun and sand inside every groove. The waves lap at you as the swell of notes draws you in.
They kick things off with the title cut, “Sandance,” a breakbeat-propelled blast of funk in the sunshine. The horns join the party, jump into the surf, and slide back to shore for their powerful solos as the rhythm section keeps the heat on high. The majority of the cuts are original tunes penned by various members of the band. They roll through an easygoing selection of modern jazz that draws so much inspiration from the nearby beach that you can smell the saltwater. The fact that they were all playing acoustic instruments helps solidify the slightly sun-baked sound and gives every note an air of nostalgia.
As the tide comes in, the group hits a high-water mark with their take on the Leon Russell classic “This Masquerade”—a warm wind that blows with the promise of things to come. And now that they’ve left it on the stage, they launch headfirst into John Coltrane’s “Impressions.” As if they were trying to rebuild the very essence of music, they attack like a laughing ocean and erode the shore so that they can dance in the sand—unencumbered and renewed.