David Sanchez and His Universe

R.J. DeLuke By

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[Jazz is] never going to be a pop music. It's never gonna be like that. It's going to have its down moments, a little up moments. But it's always going to be here because it's so strong.
David Sanchez, the percussive saxophonist, hails from Puerto Rico, and brings with him the Latin rhythms one might associate with that background. But he steams ahead in the mainstream as well, having had his life altered when his sister came home with a Miles Davis album featuring John Coltrane. He's also studied with the likes of Kenny Barron and Larry Ridley and served apprenticeships with Elvin Jones, Roy Haynes, Charlie Haden and McCoy Tyner. And he acknowledges a huge debt to Dizzy Gillespie. Throw in all his Latin influences, including work with Eddie Palmieri, Hilton Ruiz, Claudio Roditi, and you have a rich well of influences upon which to draw.

And Sanchez has done just that. But through it all, he says jazz is American. Not just American. America.

"Any time they want to recreate or present what America is all about, jazz is in there," he said. "America got formed and was built when jazz was happening and jazz was developing. So it's the symbol. It's a synonymous thing. Whenever you talk about what America is, it's synonymous with jazz."

Things have slowed since the Sept. 11 tragedies in the US, but Sanchez sees that things must move on. "You have to continue. They made it very clear. If you don't want things to keep from going down, you've just got to live your life, normal. And also they are starting to come to the realization that they need music, you know? They need things that can feed their souls and lift them up," he said.

It's exemplified in New York City where perhaps the worst tragedy occurred. While clubs in other parts of the country went into a downturn, New York is still alive, he says. "I'm telling you, New York people are tough. It's hard to intimidate people there. Yeah, you might get a little bit, and the people are shocked. But they say — Hey, things keep going. It's a heavy city."

Sanchez, 33, is moving on too. Touring through the end of the year, including a stint in Europe. On the heels of his last two CDs — Obsesión in 1998 and Melaza in 2000, both nominated for Grammy Awards for Best Latin Jazz Album - comes Travesía , just out in October. It has a different feel, with originals and some standards made to bring a different approach. Different approaches are what Sanchez and his warm tone and thoughtful improvisations are about. He says he doesn't want to stay in one bag, but bring a universal approach - something he learned from Dizzy - to his music and to the people of the world.

Through tough times of late, Sanchez is forging on, his sound becoming more identifiable and his compositions gaining more recognition. He took time out while on tour and spoke recently, from Chicago, with All About Jazz.

All About Jazz (AAJ): I know you're in the middle of touring and you have a new CD.

David Sanchez (DS): Yeah. A couple of weeks ago. Travesía. Basically, this is a mixture of the conception of Melaza, which is the previous recording. Some of that conception and some of the sonorities, mixed with some of the subtleness and the qualities of Obsesión. Basically, it's kind of like a hybrid of the two of them. I wanted to kind of like mix it up and include some classical, some Latin American, as well as some American - United States - and kind of like, so my own thing with them. Bring a little of that conception of Melaza into them. Also with my own work. Mix it up.

AAJ: You have an international band, it seems. (Bassist Hans Glawischnig, pianist Edsel Gomez, drummer Antonio Sanchez, percussionist Pernell Saturnino and alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón). Is that with special design in mind?

DS: No. It just happened to be like that. Just a coincidence, I guess. When you're in New York City, you know, there are so many people from all over the world. Sometimes that's what happens.

AAJ: Are you on an extensive tour right now?

DS: Yes. Pretty much, until mid-December.

AAJ: Some musicians are pretty worried that gigs are drying up in the clubs. Maybe there are fewer clubs than there were a few years ago. Are there gigs out there, as a front man, as well as a sideman?

DS: You're right. The whole scene is pretty different right now, even now more so than ever with this whole tragedy thing. After September 11, everything has changed. But even before that. I guess the music industry has different periods, where it kind of like goes in limbo or something. For jazz it's even harder, because obviously it's not completely about entertaining or anything like that. It's about art. The art of producing sound, combining rhythms and stressing yourself and the art of improvisation. And that's a little more sophisticated than the other stuff that is more commercial. So for jazz, it suffers even more, because we suffering even before this whole thing. But now it's even worse for jazz. So of course that's going to affect the clubs and the scene, since the record industry controls, in one way or another, what's happening in live performances.

AAJ: Did the tragedy affect musicians that you know? Obviously with New York being the center...

DS: Oh yeah. For a couple of weeks it was terrible. Now the people are just realizing that - hey, we cannot live life sitting down and watching CNN, BBC, ABC, all the time. You have to continue. They made it very clear. If you don't want things to keep from going down, you've just got to live your life, normal. And also they are starting to come to the realization that they need music, you know? They need things that can feed their souls and lift them up. So actually now , the kind of scene that you're seeing in New York is - people are like, "Hey. I'm gonna go out and do my thing." You know? And more so than other places.

I'm doing a week in Chicago and there's no comparison with New York. New York was dealing already from Tuesday night (Sept. 11). Here, it's pretty mellow. So places that have nothing to do with the tragedy - yes, it affects the whole country - but that are pretty far away from where it happened, you can actually see they are more mellow than in New York. I'm telling you, New York people are tough. It's hard to intimidate people there. Yeah, you might get a little bit, and the people are shocked. But they say, "Hey, things keep going." It's a heavy city.

AAJ: Growing up, what kind of music did you listen to? Obviously not just jazz.

DS: I was playing percussion so all the music that I was hearing in the beginning, most of it, had to do with folklore, African rhythm music, Puerto Rico. Brazil. African music. I was interested in anything that had drums.

AAJ: How young were you when you playing percussion.?

DS: I started messing around when I was 8. Then I got more serious, you know. Later on I started going to a performing arts school, which was La Escuela Libra de Musica. That's formal musical studies, more classical European, musical foundation, harmonies and stuff like that. I wanted to play drums, but there were just too many drummers. The other instrument I liked was the saxophone, because of the quality of the tone. I always liked the sound a lot, so I started with the saxophone , sitting in drum classes and stuff like that. That's what I was doing. I discovered jazz when I was 15. that's when I decided to completely focus on playing the saxophone.

AAJ: How did that come about?

DS: In my house, they were playing all kinds of music. Music was being played all the time. But my sister got a couple of jazz records and that's how I got interested in jazz. I just became interested, I don't even know how to describe it. It was so different to me and it did something to touch me. Anyway, so that's why I wanted to focus more on that.

AAJ: How old were you when you started getting into the sax more?

DS: Well, at 14 I was already getting into the sax more seriously, then I 15 I was completely. I was trying to get as many jazz records as I could. I just liked it a lot. But I realized it was doing a little too much at the time. I was taking percussion and drums, you know. So I realized I had time to make up to play the instrument. The more I would play the instrument, the more space it would give me to focus in on other stuff, like phrasing and harmonies and other stuff.

AAJ: Who were the influences in jazz?

DS: I started with Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, just to mention a few at the very beginning. That was my start. Then later on Charlie Parker and Dizzy. It was not easy to get their records at that time, but I managed to exchange records by tape; make tapes from different people and check it out. Or I would try to travel to New York for vacation, to visit my aunt, and I would try to take advantage there, buying all the records that I could.

AAJ: When did you know music might become your profession?

DS: I didn't realize that until later. I knew I was serious — deep down that's what I wanted to do. But I wasn't thinking that I was going to make my living out of this until later. When I was 17, 18, that's when I realized — wow, I 'm getting paid for this, and I just loved it. In the beginning, it doesn't feel like a job. Then you begin to realize - yeah, this is a business. And I just happened to like it a lot. But at the time, I was like - let's play! In any circumstance I could. I was thrilled just to know I was getting paid for it. Before that it was like - I just want to play as much music as I can. It's like going to a court to play basketball or something.

AAJ: Where did you start getting gigs?

DS: In Puerto Rico. I was playing with a lot of bands. The Latin scene, meaning salsa and stuff. I was playing all that music. So I was starting to work there. Even jingles and all that stuff. That's what was happening, music wise. And at the same time I was going to jam sessions. There was no money. It was like: let's play tunes and standards and stuff like that.

AAJ: When did jazz start taking over?

DS: That was more when I was in the States. I was 19, 20 doing small gigs in New Jersey, Kenny Barron was teaching there at Rutgers University. So I started doing gigs with Hilton Ruiz too, and I studied with John Hicks too. I was kind of going back and forth getting into Latin gigs and straight ahead jazz gigs. I loved it at the time because it was very different gigs. I had to play in a completely different vibe. It was certainly great experience. And then of course almost immediately, almost, when I went to Rutgers, I started playing with Eddie Palmieri, and that opened things way up. Aside from all the stuff I learned rhythmically and concert-wise, and composing. But that gave me the exposure to get to Dizzy Gillespie. And of course, and that was one of the greatest experiences I ever had in music. Then after that, basically, I started getting more and more and more calls for more straight ahead stuff. So that's how I started dealing with the music industry in the States.

AAJ: You were in Dizzy's United Nations Orchestra?

DS: Well, I did some gigs for them, but I was really playing for the sextet thing that Dizzy had, but I did some gigs, as well, with the United Nations Orchestra. Many of them.

AAJ: Dizzy was one of your big mentors.

DS: No doubt about that. He took me under his wing and he was patient, what can I tell you? And he taught me a lot. I got a lot of stuff from him. No doubt about that.

AAJ: he was one of the first to blend Latin rhythms with jazz.

DS: That's right. That's one of the things directly I learned from him. Not only Latin. His music, the way he heard music, was always universal. The vibe was completely different. People know him more for his jazz work and the stuff he did with Charlie Parker, but this kind of artist, they transcend and go beyond labels of music. And the music becomes to be world music, you know? That's something I took, and still do in one way or the other, for Dizzy's vision, the way he heard music.

AAJ: Being with him opened doors professionally?

DS: Yeah. Once I started playing with him, I got a lot of calls for straight ahead (jazz), Different people started talking about record deals. I was playing with Dizzy, so record company guys started checking out the gigs. That's how everything happened.

AAJ: Any other big influences around that time?

DS: Oh yeah. Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Miles Davis. On my own instrument, I have been checking out more and more Coleman Hawkins as time goes by. LesterYoung, Ben Webster and Jimmy Forrest. As time goes by, I've been checking more of the core of the history of the instrument. And having all these other influences as well. It's a plus having all this stuff from Latin America, which is incredibly wide, and big, vast. So I got all of that. It takes a minute to digest, but little by little, you hear it more and more and more.

AAJ: What kind of sound do you like to go for in your music as you develop.

DS: Well, I want it to sound universal. I want to bring all of the experiences that I have had as a human being and bring them onto the bandstand or into the recording studio. That's basically my concept. I want to bring all of those experiences of my life, musical experiences, and musical experiences in general, and bring them and you can hear them. When I used to hear a lot of flamenco, when I used to hear a lot of bomba plena from Puerto Rico, when I used to hear a lot of Brazilian music. Blues stuff. Mainstream jazz, which has been one of my main, heavy musical influences. You can hear all of that. At the same time you hear my sound on top of that. That's what I'm still working on. It's a process, which basically does not stop. You hear some more and more and more and you add a little more from the next year, thinking of something different. Hearing something different. That's the way it goes.

AAJ: Do you ever get the feeling, with a lot of the older ones going - Sonny Rollins is maybe one of the last from the old days — that people like you, Josh Redman, James Carter, are having to carry on?

DS: I don't think too much about that. That's hard to carry on. If you start getting to closed to that, then you fall into some other stuff. But Sonny Rollins is definitely one the reasons why I play what I play, because of his percussive way of playing that evidently makes sense with my percussive way of playing, because of the fact that I used to play percussion. And also his sound. It's still my main influence. If I'm carrying on anything, I would say I'm just trying to gain as much as I can, in terms of different influences, so I can have something to offer; a different vision, a different perspective, to give to the people.

AAJ: What does the future look like, for you younger guys in jazz?

DS: I think jazz is here to stay. It's just going to have different periods. That's the reality of how it's going to be for a while. It's never going to be a pop music. It's never gonna be like that. It's going to have its down moments, a little up moments. But it's always going to be here because it's so strong. It will be here forever. It basically crossed. It's beyond. It's stamped, already. How long has it been? They can say anything they want.. Maybe it doesn't have the same sales (as pop) and is not for the general audience, what they hear. But any time they want to recreate or present what America is all about, jazz is in there. America got formed and was built when jazz was happening and jazz was developing. So it's the symbol. It's a synonymous thing. Whenever you talk about what America is, it's synonymous with jazz. So it's going to be here forever; for a good long time.

AAJ: Are you doing much composing?

DS: Yeah. Always. I always write stuff. Maybe not to use it now, but maybe to use it in a couple years, you know? Or maybe it's going to be for a different project. Anytime I sit down at the piano, I'm always thinking, in the back of my head, ideas.

AAJ: Influences the same as for your horn? Latin jazz, mainstream?

DS: All that stuff.

AAJ: Classical at all?

DS: Oh yeah. There was a time I was into - not so much now - but Stravinsky, or Debussy or Ravel. Different things all the time. Everything. Bach. The suites. All that is in there.

AAJ: What place does jazz have on the whole world scene. Do you tour Europe much?

DS: I used to do it more before than Now. I do it maybe twice a year. The economy ha changed a lot. People definitely still like it. I guess some people , who are not the regular people, decide what is going to be in and what is going to be out. That doesn't always necessarily have to do with the regular people. As a matter o fact, we're heading to Europe in a couple of weeks and I'll be there for three weeks. When I come back. We'll be touring some more of the states.

AAJ: Any new projects?

DS: I am putting a project together, but I don't know exactly what it's going to be, so I don't want to say too much about it.. It's going to be like a different thing for the first time in years, something that is not my band. I'm still thinking of what's it's going to be and I'm approaching different people. But it's still a little far away from reality, so it's better not to mention it.

I can't complain. Any time you have a chance to play some music, and they give you cash. You go home- hey, that's great, I think. It's enough for me.

Visit David Sanchez on the web at www.hopper-management.com/david_sanchez .

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