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Angelica Sanchez Quintet at The Stone

Troy Collins By

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Angelica Sanchez Quintet
The Stone
Corner of Avenue C and 2nd Street
Lower East Side, New York City, USA
August 10, 2006

Pianist Angelica Sanchez brought her latest quintet to The Stone to debut a new long-form composition, but only after exploring the limitless possibilities of spontaneous invention. Scene leader and contrabassist Mark Helias and the up-and-coming drummer Ches Smith formed the rhythm section. Sanchez's husband, ubiquitous tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby, and seasoned trumpeter Herb Robertson occupied the two-horn front line. With a brilliant combination of talent, Sanchez's quintet set forth on excursions that blended freedom and structure with aplomb.

An absorbing piano stylist, Sanchez generally avoids compulsory free jazz clamor, opting for a more varied and subtle approach. Her folksy, even romantic lyricism has an adventurously wayward side, hinting at the sort of harmonic freedom espoused by Paul Bley, Keith Jarrett and even Herbie Hancock's more outré experiments. Her vivid writing embodies this duality in equal measure.

Opening with an extended free improvisation, the quintet organically segued from one logical passage to another. Belying their open forms, the quintet's explorations left room for individual statements and thematic variety. The group's rapport was so tight the ensuing improvisations sounded partially composed.

Towards the piece's conclusion, Malaby ratcheted up the intensity level aided by Smith's roiling accompaniment, breaking through to Coltrane-like zeal before gently descending. Malaby and Smith continued in discursive, free-associative mode while the rest of the group wove a neo-classical tapestry of bowed bass, brassy pedal tones and somber piano musings behind them, providing simultaneously contrasting and complementary textures.

An untitled new composition occupied the second half of the set and was similarly episodic, but different in that it featured written material, noticeable while the players were intermittently sight-reading from charts. Opening with a lyrical unaccompanied bass solo by Helias, the tune slowly grew into a full group statement. The horns subsided and Sanchez was given ample solo time in a stripped-down piano trio setting. Demonstrating the unique bond they share, Malaby smiled approvingly every time Sanchez dropped a cluster or released a deft angular salvo.

Highlights were plentiful throughout the evening's set. One passage featured Malaby and Robertson unaccompanied, playing a capella. They engaged in congruent dialogue, weaving ardent phrases and dynamic arcs into feverish lyricism.

Robertson's past manic frenzy has since abated, but he still plays with gusto, generating an especially resplendent solo halfway through the piece. Whispering out notes as though he was playing from a great distance, Sanchez accompanied him with yearning, melancholy chords.

Malaby explored every facet of his horn, veering from multiphonic howling and altissimo screaming to breathy, melodious balladry and linear, bop-fueled virtuosity. He is in tune with Sanchez's compositions to an almost telepathic degree. Hearing and seeing them play together made an especially vibrant set all the more impressive.

Towards the conclusion of the evening's performance the ensemble unified in a stunning invocation of sound, Malaby summoning reverberating multiphonic sound waves, Robertson shearing off splintered brass fragments, Sanchez rumbling out dense tone clusters, Helias bowing acerbic harmonics while Smith scrawled on cymbal heads and shook bells and rattles. Cathartic in intensity, but highly organized, it never drifted into pedestrian noise.

Sanchez is only in the beginning stages of writing music for this quintet. If the rest of her offerings are as rich and dynamic as what unfolded at the Stone on August 10, 2006, then we are in for a treat.

Personnel: Angelica Sanchez: piano; Tony Malaby: tenor saxophone; Herb Robertson: trumpet, cornet; Mark Helias: upright bass; Ches Smith: drums.

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