In conversation with david sánchez
By Ted Panken
It is hard to fathom why tenor saxophonist David Sánchez, who turns 40 this month, draws scant attention from the jazz press. It can’t be for an insufficiently distinguished pedigree. After apprenticing with Eddie Palmieri and Dizzy Gillespie in his early twenties, Sánchez continued to be a first-call sideman with top-dog jazzfolk like Hilton Ruiz, Kenny Barron, Roy Haynes, Charlie Haden, and Pat Metheny while developing a tonal personality as individualistic as any musician of his generation.
Thoroughly conversant with tenor vocabulary, stretching the timeline from the ‘40s (Dexter Gordon) to the hypermodern (John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter), Sánchez began to articulate his experimentalist bent—re-contextualizing the folkloric rhythms and melodies of his native Puerto Rico with the harmonic and gestural tropes of jazz. He delivers them with a heroic, ravishing tone and command of dynamics at all tempos—as demonstrated on three Grammy-nominated recordings for Columbia/Sony (Melaza, Obsesión and Travesía). He revealed himself a full-fledged master on Coral, on which arranger Carlos Franzetti framed his sextet against the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra on a suite of repertoire by Latin American classical composers. Although Coral earned the 2005 Latin Grammy for “Best Instrumental Album,” it marked the end of his 7-CD relationship with Sony.
In late July, Sánchez came to New York for a four-night run at the Jazz Standard with his new quartet—guitarist (and 2005 Thelonious Monk Award winner) Lage Lund, bassist Orlando LeFleming, and drummer Henry Cole. He joined me on WKCR-FM to talk about it.
Your new CD, Cultural Survival, is your first in four years.
It’s been a while. Sony was my only label since I started in the mid ‘90s, so it took me a minute to see what was the right fit and what direction I should take this time. I needed to feel comfortable for real to do whatever I wanted. I knew this recording would be a series of firsts—the first time recording with Concord, the first time recording with a quartet with guitar, after always using piano before. So the compositional vibe is different, both from that configuration and the fact that I’ve been checking out a lot of African music, especially southeast Cameroonian music and the Ari people from Tanzania, polyphonic music from Ethiopia, music from Mali. The essence of what I’d been doing is still there, but it does sound different.
Melaza in 1998 was the first project on which you delved deeply into the folkloric music of Puerto Rico, and you worked with that repertoire for the next several records. Did your study of African music emerge from your explorations in Puerto Rican idioms?
It’s sort of an extension, to be honest with you. I’ve been listening to that [African] music already since Coral. All of a sudden, everything started making a lot of sense. You often think that something is from you, where you come from. I was listening to all these pygmy communities, to something that was way before, and all of a sudden I realized, “Well, this is kind of ours, but not really.” Listening to that music gave me a bigger picture. It definitely changed my perspective. We developed it this way in the Caribbean, but then again, the roots are very strong all over Africa.
Your own development has followed a path of formal saxophone training, salsa, hardcore jazz. Your first gig in the States was with Eddie Palmieri. Once you started making records, you did Latin jazz dates and hardcore jazz things, as well as exploring your own vernacular. So it’s a long, ongoing journey.
Indeed. You have to bring the New York City experience into the equation, too. In New York, if you let your mind be open to those different influences and cultural backgrounds, then it’s available for you. But you have to be open. Everything is available. Whoever plays in a unidirectional way, or thinks or hears that way, it’s because they want to. Once I came here, I was exposed to all these different people coming from different places. That helps, too. A lot.
You’ve been living in Atlanta for the last few years.
For the last four years, almost.
How is it not living in New York any more?
Well, it’s interesting, actually! I do miss it a little. Especially my old neighborhood in Brooklyn, Park Slope, which was pretty hip. Then again, I have the blessing to come here three-four-five times a year, which is a lot. Also, Atlanta has its own musical scene. The gospel thing is huge. The R&B—as you know, all the studios are there. Everyone goes there to record. The movement of underground hip-hop mixed with jazz, the real underground (the other one, too, the one that you hear on the radio) is a very strong movement there. The jazz scene is tiny. But the bottom line is that, culturally speaking, when you analyze it, Atlanta is a cultural center. It has some kind of traditional something. It might not be jazz, but it’s something else. And the Atlanta Symphony is a really decent symphony orchestra.
But New York is unique. No other city in the United States is going to be a match for it.
In the past, we’re used to hearing you in a more polyrhythmic setup, with Adam Cruz or someone else playing drumkit and usually Pernell Saturnino, but occasionally someone else, playing hand drums and percussion. Is this a different concept? Is the paredown for economic reasons? Aesthetic ones?
Both. Today it’s very hard to go out there with a larger configuration. But at the same time, I saw it as an opportunity. I was a percussionist before I was a saxophonist. I was really deep into the rhythms. My brother used to play with a folkloric group in Puerto Rico, with one of the masters in Rafael Cepeda. So I saw it as an opportunity to write music, as I did on Melaza, in a way that my percussion influence is very present, but you can either have the percussion or not have it. It’s going to be implied in the bass lines, or on the piano—in this case, on the guitar—and on the saxophone itself. Then you say: “What is this? This sounds different. This is not straight-ahead jazz, but this is not Latin Jazz either. What is it?”
Continuing on your remarks about the multiplicity of musical languages that are available to any musician who comes to New York, and how the intersection of those languages creates exciting possibilities for R&D, it occurs to me that people like you, Danilo Perez, and Edward Simon, were in the forefront of a generation that arrived in New York from all over the world with a mastery of jazz language, which they used in elaborating their own vernaculars. Were you thinking about any of those things twenty years ago? Was it simply a matter of the gigs as best you could as they came up, and things just happened?
It was a little bit of both. As I said before, once you come to this city, the opportunities are out there. Don’t get me wrong. There are other cities in the world where the same dynamic takes place, like Paris. You meet colleagues who are roughly around the same age, a little older or a little younger, and you share ideas. You view the ideas and you think, “Wow, I never thought of this in this way.” If you have enough flexibility to accept and be receptive to those ideas, then it would help you and it would help the music to evolve in a different way, in a way that you’re no longer thinking of these categories, like: “Well, I play bebop.” “No, I’m post-bop jazz.” “No, I play free jazz—that’s my period.” “I’m a Latin Jazz guy.” “No, I’m a salsa guy who plays a little bit of jazz on top.” After a while, when you experience a city like this, all of this is irrelevant! It’s just the music, and you have all these ways of playing music, all these people coming from different parts of the world, different parts of the United States. It’s up to us as artists to take whatever we think can help us and enrich our own vocabularies.
What was your path towards jazz? Coming up in Puerto Rico playing percussion, folkloric music, how did jazz enter your view?
I have to say a great part of it was because of my sister. She’s not a musician. She’s still into comparative theology and comparative literature.
Serious stuff! [Laughs] She was open to so many different styles of music. I’m talking about not only jazz, but music from Johan Sebastian Bach, or Stravinsky, or Milton Nascimento or Elis Regina in Brazil.
This is an older sister?
Yes. There’s twelve years difference. When she was a teenager, I was a kid. I was exposed to jazz and all the other genres because of her, although obviously I didn’t know it back in those days.
I had a dilemma when I was 10-11-12, and I went to the performing arts school. I really wanted to study drums and percussion. You had to pass these exams, and I did, but they said that there were too many drummers. I chose saxophone because I liked the sound—it was the only other instrument I liked. Somehow, I was sitting in with the percussion and doing the saxophone classes also. But not until she brought me a recording called Basic Miles, an LP with a green jacket, which was a compilation of different periods of Miles Davis’ career. . . . I was already playing classical foundation-oriented music; which is what they were teaching—no jazz or anything. But I immediately became curious. I was like, “Wow, this is weird, introspective, and kind of dark,” but at the same time something attracted me.
Then all these questions arose. “What is that?” “Was that written?” “This is unbelievable.” Then a friend said, “No, that’s improvisation.” “Wow.” That was a turning point for me to be really serious on my instrument. My sister also brought Lady in Satin, Billie Holiday and the Ray Ellis Orchestra, her last record. That was my introduction to jazz. Weird. I was growing up in the Caribbean, and I’ve got to be honest with you—not many people were into that.
For one thing, the rhythmic feel of jazz, the 4/4 swing, is pretty different than the polyrhythms you knew from folkloric music, or the time feel in classical music. A lot of people from the Caribbean say that’s the biggest adjustment they need to make in playing jazz. Was this the case for you?
There are a lot of similarities at the same time. Feeling the beat on 2 and 4 is something really basic in Caribbean music generally. In Cuban music, if you listen to the conga, or we call it bacateo, and the references when they’re dancing is 2 and 4. It subdivides into that. The triplet feel, too. That 6/8 or 12/8, however you want to call it, against four, is very present in both. When you listen to jazz, that triplet feel must be there in order to swing. If you listen to Duke or Count Basie, all those people, you hear it. It’s that really African thing, going back to that subject. The European is there also, but the rhythmic foundation. . . . You would be amazed how many similarities. For me, the biggest adjustment was phrasing, and that has to do with language. The way you deliver the accents, the inflections. We speak open in Spanish, and in English you utilize vowels that are more on the inside of your mouth. The same thing with the music. I found that very challenging. Just the way people from the jazz world need that downbeat thing to feel more comfortable—they find the upbeats challenging. The upbeats happen in the Brazilian world, too. Still, when you really look at it, from all the different angles, there are a lot of similarities, and that comes from the African side. It’s African roots.
So many tributaries, according to the particularities of each place where African slaves were brought.
There are definitely some very strong ties. But it’s still challenging.
In your formative period, how did you approach assimilating tenor saxophone vocabulary?
Back when I was growing up, especially coming out of the performing arts school that did not teach jazz at all, and then entering Rutgers, it was a little less academic. I was very enthusiastic about it. For a certain period of time I’d be checking out Charlie Parker; for another period of time I’d be checking out Dexter Gordon. It wasn’t like an assignment. It was just enthusiasm and out of love at that particular time for what Dexter was doing or what Sonny Rollins was doing. I had this strong tie with Sonny, because somewhere you feel that Caribbean experience, and his way of delivering certain phrases was very percussive. I felt, “Wow, this guy is almost playing the drums at the same time he’s playing the saxophone, too, but with an unbelievable sound.” Those were some of my heroes. I got to Joe Henderson much later. Wayne Shorter, too.
When you’re ready, life takes you to where you need to go. But at first, it was enthusiasm and passion for what I was listening to. It wasn’t like a report or work. Later on, at Rutgers, of course, you needed structure, and they’d tell you to check out certain records and certain tunes, and learn harmony. I owe that to Ted Dunbar. He said, “Man, you’ve got to play the piano. You’ve got to match your ears with your technical abilities on the instrument.” He pointed out all those things to me, which were priceless lessons. Kenny Barron as well. So definitely there was a structure, but before the structure there has to be that passion and willingness to be curious about something you don’t know.
You worked with Eddie Palmieri as soon as you arrived on the mainland, and you’ve maintained your relationship with him over the years. Recently, you’ve performed with him in duo, and he himself has been expanding his concept since the time you first joined him. Talk about that relationship.
Without Eddie, nothing else would have been possible. First of all, he was one of my heroes. Eddie Palmieri was huge back in the ‘70s. He did some compositions in the salsa genre that became classics. And he would not settle for this. He would move on. He clearly had the New York experience, too. So did Tito Puente. You could feel it. Okay, it’s the salsa genre, but it doesn’t sound like the conventional variety—this has something else going on. I don’t know exactly what. My relationship with Eddie from the beginning was very special, because he embraced me. Just like Dizzy, too. He embraced me in a way that he knows, “yeah, this guy has a lot of potential; he has to work on this and that.” They were aware of those things, but they still embrace you.
What sorts of things did Eddie Palmieri tell you and what sorts of things did Dizzy Gillespie tell you?
For instance, at the time, Eddie would always be working on how to flow rhythmically and be open and free within the clave structure. We had a connection in there right away. It might have something to do with the fact that I was very familiar with that way of playing drums. It became like if you put a hand in a glove, and it fit. Also, I’ve got to be honest with you, there is no way I would have gotten to Dizzy if I hadn’t been playing with Eddie Palmieri. I was so blessed. I was a kid still at Rutgers University, trying to learn more music and be exposed to all these ways of playing, and here I’m already playing with Eddie Palmieri, making a little bread to go back to school and buy some books and records, which was extremely hard for me to do in Puerto Rico. Then maybe a year-and-half or so later, I had the blessing to be able to play with Dizzy.
Who himself knew a lot about drums and rhythms and passed on that information to several generations of drummers.
There you go. Once again, there’s a connection. I owe a lot to my very early musical development, which had nothing to do with learning to play the piano or sounds or anything. It was just feeling the rhythm and playing the drums. It actually was an access that I didn’t know I had at the time, but it tied me to great artists like Dizzy and Eddie and helped me relate to them.
Now, you toured with Pat Metheny a couple of years ago. Did that experience factor into using guitar in your groups?
He called me at the last minute to be the guest with the trio for a two-month tour. I was very flattered. It was the first time in my life that I played with a guitarist on a consistent basis. It was a great learning experience. Because it is different.
The way I approach music, I can play a solo over any comp, over anybody comping—just play all my ideas on top of it. But I’ve reached a point that, in some ways, I hate doing that. I want to be receptive and try to take a risk as to how I can relate my idea to what the person is comping behind me. I’ve found that more challenging with guitar players than with piano players. It’s funny, because with guitarists you have more space in some ways, but the strings, the textures, the sound, the sonorities can also take you elsewhere. So I find it very challenging, and I take my time. I leave the space. Some people take that as tentativeness. Some writers get a little confused by that. They think that you don’t know. But what you’re doing is, you’re waiting to have a conversation with somebody. You’re not talking all the time. You take your pauses. Or if you’re writing, you have your commas.
You might spend six hours looking for the right place to put that comma.
As long as emotion is happening, that’s all that matters. It’s a collective. You’re making music. It’s a composition. The only thing is that we’re improvising, so the composition happens at the moment. When you’re writing for an orchestra, the saxophone section is not playing all the time. Maybe the trombones are doing a rhythmic figure, and then, BAM, the saxophones jump in and reply to that. The same thing with the smaller configuration. Maybe he has an idea, and if I’m not listening well to that idea, I cannot take that idea elsewhere. That’s the challenge. You can approach it so many ways. You can approach the guitar as another horn, meaning you play the head, and then he lays out and you play like a trio. Then he comes and plays his solo—you could approach it like that. You could approach it as a piano or any other harmonic instrument behind your solo. You can go on and on with different ways of approaching the instrument. It’s fantastic. As I said at earlier, there’s a lot of first-times with this recording, and that’s one—never, ever before had I had a guitar on my records.
So this in some sense stems from hearing it for two months with Pat Metheny, and also your investigations into string music from different parts of Africa.
I have to say that before Pat, I listened to many recordings with the kora, and also a wooden instrument called the ieta—it looks like it's going to be a percussion instrument, but no, it has the 7 strings—as well as an 8-string instrument called the ngombi. That had a lot to do with my decision to see what sound the strings would give me. Then when I played with Pat, it confirmed everything. I was like, wow, we're only doubling the melody, and it sounds so full. The tenor and the guitar complement each other very well. Something about the timbre.
Interview notes: David Sánchez was interviewed on WKCR by Ted Panken on July 24, 2008.