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David Sanchez: Ninety-Mile Bridge


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I'd be delighted if the day came when they recognized a recording that has no vocals, but is recognized as a beautiful piece of art. Do we have to have vocals to understand music? Does the sound not make any sense if it has no words?
What, besides music, transcends geopolitical divides so gracefully? What else unites people of different nationalities, political persuasions and religious creeds in common celebration just quite as harmoniously? Religions may have captured the hearts and minds of the majority of the planet's people, but remain bastions of ultra-conservatism and mistrust, despite all the rhetoric to the contrary. Sport too, may mobilize greater numbers of people than music, but all too often descends into ugly tribalism. The hippy generation may have got it wrong when they thought that music would change the world—though it has had its moments—but music has certainly made it an infinitely more bearable place to live. The poet Percy Shelly came as close as anyone ever has in defining the unifying nature of music when he said: "Are we not formed, as notes of music are, for one another, though dissimilar?"

Ninety Miles (Concord, 2011) provides scintillating proof of music's ability to breach even the most stubbornly durable of divides—that separating Cuba and the United States—and find common ground. The protagonists, tenor saxophonist David Sánchez, vibraphonist Stefon Harris, trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah and the respective quartets of Cuban pianists Rember Duharte and Harold López -Nussa harnessed their respective roots and individual voices in five intense days in Havana in May, 2010 and produced a work of great power and beauty. But the project nearly didn't make it off the ground; it was a difficult birth, a difficult labor, you could say, which lasted more than a year.

Initially, Concord Music Group had merely wished to bring together the three New York-based musicians in a collaboration with no clear concept—not a mad idea by any means, given that Sánchez, Harris and Scott are three of the hottest names in modern jazz. However, after hearing a number of extraordinary Cuban jazz pianists, notably Duharte and López -Nussa, Concord's Chief Creative Officer John Burk soon birthed the idea of bringing New York to Havana. Easier said than done, however, as the logistical hurdles presented by the US government took a year to negotiate. "There were times we thought it wasn't going to happen to be honest," relates Sánchez, "until a few weeks before we didn't have everything together."

Although it might have been tempting to pit Sánchez, Harris and Scott with some of the more established Cuban jazz stars like pianists Chucho Valdes and Gonzalo Rubalcaba, or drummer Ignacio Berroa, Burk was seduced by the very isolation of Cuba, circumstances that have produced jazz musicians with a unique flavor to their music. Sánchez and the others could see the potential, but still needed convincing. "We all thought it was an interesting idea" says Sánchez, "but we all had our reservations because if you don't really know the people it is a risk at the end of the day. We didn't know if it would work artistically."

None of the Cuban musician's names rang any bells for the New York musicians, with the exception of López-Nussa. "He was part of the reason I said okay to the project" Sánchez explains. Sánchez had come across López -Nussa when he did a couple of gigs as a guest of flautist/arranger and former member of Irakere, Orlando Valle and the Symphony Orchestra of Havana, in the Cuban capital as well as in Colombia. López Nussa was the pianist then and he made an instant impression on Sánchez. "Harold is really talented," says Sánchez. "He's a really incredible pianist. I thought if Harold is involved then I was sure the rest of the musicians would be of a certain level. He can really play."

One of the difficulties in putting Ninety Miles together, Sánchez relates, was that there was very little communication between the musicians in Havana and those in New York prior to meeting. "It could have been a lot easier if the internet connection had been better. It was very hard. One of the guys managed to send a PDF file but then one of the other guys couldn't. We couldn't really communicate well until we got there. We needed to make it happen when we got there. That was the reality." The short timeframe of the project was another challenge. "When we got there we only had five days to accomplish everything; meeting the people, rehearsing the tunes that everybody had brought, some of which were harder than others and we also had to play a concert. You cannot go there [Cuba] and do a recording without giving a performance—that's the law. There was a lot going on and we knew we had a very short time to do it. So, it was an adventure."

The results of the recording session give the impression that the connection between all the musicians was instant, such is the cohesiveness of the playing and the impressive interplay, but as Sánchez explains it took some work. "Stefon, Christian and I can relate to each other a little easier because of our backgrounds but we had to make adjustments there, in order to get a flow where the Cubans could freely express the way they normally play and we could do exactly the same thing. That was really the key. That's where it's at; how free and natural can you be while being receptive and relating to each other at the same time. We tried the best we could to find a balance where all the elements in one way or the other would be present, The objective was to hear where everybody is coming from. It's hard when you just meet people and have to make it happen," he says laughing. "It was intense work, and quite frankly at the end of the day we were all dead. We wanted to hang out but after working all day with just little breaks we'd go out and have dinner and that was it. It was that intense."

From left: Christian Scott, Stefon Harris, David Sánchez

In spite of the New Yorkers' ability to relate to each other, Ninety Miles surprisingly marks the first time that Sánchez and Harris had played together. "The only other time was in a Master Class a long time ago in Spokane, Washington with a big band where he did the first part and I did the second part," relates Sánchez. "It was not a real playing environment. That's it." Harris is without a doubt one of the most exciting instrumentalists in modern jazz—a vibraphonist without peers—and a formidable composer. He lends three of his own compositions to the project—"And This Too Shall Pass," from his debut as leader, A Cloud of Red Dust (Blue Note, 1998); the title track of the follow-up, Black Action Figure (Blue Note, 1999); and "Brown Belle Blues," which he wrote specially for this project.

Harris' playing is soulful, bluesy and quite exhilarating at times, particularly on the Sánchez composition "City Sunrise." "I have always been an admirer of his playing," says Sánchez. "There's always been something special about the way he executes the instrument and how the instrument relates to his concept as a composer and as a bandleader. He had that right from the start. He has a high level of authenticity and that is something which is very important. It's been a great blessing and an honor to share this music with him." Sánchez is equally full of praise for Scott. Although not represented as a composer on Ninety Miles his performance is full of the energy and individuality that has marked him out as one of the most talented trumpeters to have emerged in some time. Sánchez is a long-time friend of Scott's uncle, alto saxophonist Donald Harrison and has known Scott since he was as a kid.

Though Sánchez didn't see Scott play until many years later he was instantly taken with the trumpeter's obvious talent. "He too, had something very special from the start," recalls Sánchez. "You could tell that he had a little something in there, a little spark that is distinctive. I was very impressed with his sound, a very mature sound. There's some warmth to it, a singing quality. On this record he knew when to let it out, when to pull back. Most of all he knows how to play and interpret a melody. That's extremely important; you know, it's a story. We're telling a story and the very first statement is very important and Christian can manage that really great. I think he has a really incredible future ahead of him."

Scott is no stranger to Cuban music. His grandmother was born in Cuba and would sing Cuban songs to him growing up in his native New Orleans. However, Puerto Rican Sánchez was at a linguistic advantage over Scott and Harris when it came to communicating verbally with the Cuban musicians, and he was able to give direction when needed. "I do have a strong connection with Caribbean music in general, especially Cuban music and Puerto Rican music so I could actually tell them some things, I think this type of rhythm with the batá would be great here, or have more space there." Although there were five leaders on Ninety Miles it was, as Sánchez underlines, very much a team effort. "It was a collective work all the time. Everybody pitched in as the compositions were being played."

The quartets of Duharte and López -Nussa bring their distinctive characters to the music, though both possess profound rhythmic drive. "Harold's brother [drummer, Ruy Adrian López -Nussa] had a little more of a jazz influence going on than the Cuban influence, which was a surprise but I guess there's a young generation coming along with the internet and they're checking it out. They're being influenced by jazz music and other styles of music. The younger drummers are playing a little differently to the older drummers actually. By way of contrast, Duharte's rhythms and those of drummer Eduardo Barraetabena, percussionist Jean Roberto San Miguel, and electric bassist Osmar Salazar provided an altogether different brew. "Rember's [Duharte] rhythm section was more African sounding than Cuban; you could feel it," says Sánchez, It was rawer but it was really beautiful."

From left: Stefon Harris, David Sánchez, Christian Scott

The music on Ninety Miles is for the most part intense and driving, with powerful unison lines between trumpet and saxophone, strong soloing and propulsive rhythms. The one exception is Sánchez's meditative "The Forgotten Ones." "Originally it was meant to be only a duo," Sánchez explains. "Part of the challenge of this recording was to balance the material. Because of the difficult communication it wasn't until we got there that we knew all the material that they'd be bringing. When we got there we realized that everybody had brought tunes that were a little intense and up-tempo, so, I brought this song to break things up, to allow things to breathe a little. In any recording or performance space and breathing room are necessary."

Harris brings an ethereal, shimmering beauty to a lament which remembers those in New Orleans who suffered hurricane Katrina, but it is the batá of percussionist San Miguel which brings another dimension to the tune. "I thought we could do something with the batá playing in the distance," says Sánchez, "but as the song grows Stefon [Harris] and Jean Roberto [San Miguel] get a little more involved and then fade out. It has that effect of drifting in and out. It was just an idea we tried in the studio. "

Rhythmically, the songs on Ninety Miles are fascinating, with layers of djembe, congas and batá and fusing with the distinctive drumming styles of Barroetabena and Ruy Adrian López—Nussa. Having taken up conga at the age of eight, Sánchez has an instinctive feel for the requirements of the percussion. "When there was an uncertainty as to what the percussion should play I always went with whatever had the most space. Some of the compositions were quite busy so I knew we needed the space and I was aware of that." There is also plenty of space in Sánchez's playing and lyricism aplenty in his solo on Duharte's impressive composition "Ñengueleru;" which opens the album. Always capable of firey statements, Sánchez is aware of the growing lyricism that has entered his playing over the years. "Yeah, you change as time goes by and you evolve as you experience different things and different places."

"Definitely these changes have brought something differences into my playing, different ways of playing melodies. No doubt about that. It depends on the era; it depends on the environment you grew up in. I grew up in Puerto Rico playing a completely different style of music. My first professional gig was playing with this salsa band where I was playing background horns; you have to groove so people can dance, and if you don't groove, that's it, you're fired [laughs]. That was my first experience and my first school was playing music for people to dance I'm very grateful I had that foundation. That foundation was key to what I am today. Then listening to different musicians and different styles of music gives you different perspective on playing, different ways of phrasing and different ways of expressing yourself."

At the end of the five days the musicians gave a concert in Havana, and two tracks on the accompanying DVD—a taster for the upcoming documentary on the making of Ninety Miles— show the musicians to be really cooking. Sánchez remembers the performance for more than just the music. "One of the things that I remember was that it was horrifically hot. It was a beautiful, old theater but the air-conditioning wasn't working and it was all closed in with no windows and no ventilation at all. I was amazed that the people sat there fanning themselves with their programs. We're dying onstage and they must be dying out there; why are they still here?" Sánchez says, laughing. "The people did not move and it shows you the very high level of appreciation for the music."

"These people don't take things for granted the way we do in the United States. In America we don't listen so well, we're more interested in what we have to say all the time. So, the level of appreciation and respect of the audience in Havana was amazing. Jazz is not the main thing there; it's just another style of music. We thought, man, we're going to die here but we're going to give to these people what they deserve. That was the vibration of that concert. We fed from the people's energy. It was a two-way street and the concert flowed in spite of the conditions. It was a great night, a great experience."

As Sánchez points out, jazz is even more of a minority music in Cuba than it is in the United States, and he could sympathize with the Cuban musicians about the difficulty of pursuing jazz as a profession. "I could relate to what they were saying. Are you kidding me? Are you going to make a living playing jazz in Puerto Rico? I don't even know what to tell the students in the conservatory. Just live what you have at the moment. Live it and absorb it and then you'll get there. But I'm not going to lie. You cannot make a living playing only jazz in Puerto Rico, or in Cuba or in Colombia or in Venezuela, the list goes on and on. I can only talk about what I know, but in Puerto Rico you cannot make a living playing one festival a year. You can't pay the bills. In Puerto Rico there's one club where they have a piano and play jazz all week, all year long. The musicians have to play other stuff, with a singer. It's the same in Cuba."

Sánchez, Harris and Scott have been touring the United States promoting the album but so far there have been no dates further afield. "It was too late for this summer," says Sánchez. "The recording came out June 21 and by the time the word got out it was late and the festival programs were full." Sánchez was in Europe in May where he had discovered a degree of confusion regarding the project. "Some people thought that Ninety Miles was a tribute to [trumpeter] Miles Davis" he says laughing. "That's amazing! There was enough info out there, how can you think it's a tribute to Miles Davis? Now that the recording is out and the word is out there's more information about what the recording is about so maybe at the end of this year or next year we can have a really solid European tour."

The lineup for the live dates so far, has not included any of the Cuban musicians from the recording session and the piano chair has seen a few changes along the way as Sánchez explains. "It's consistently been Luques Curtis on bass; he's an incredible young bassist; Henry Cole has been on the drums and on percussion Maurizio Herrera, a great Cuban percussionist. The piano chair has been changing constantly—Luis Perdomo did a few gigs, Luques' brother Sacaya Curtis did a few gigs then Fabian Almasan, a great Cuban pianist whose playing with [trumpeter] Terence Blanchard these days, did the other performances."

Although Sánchez is extremely positive about the live performances he expresses some sadness that Duharte, López-Nussa (left) and their quartets could not play the gigs in the United Sates. "Yeah, it's disappointing. Unfortunately, politics and ideologies are in the way of true human relations. It's so primitive, tribal and uncivilized. They won't see what's in front of them. That's why art is so important. With art you need to see what you have in front of you. You have to look directly at it and you have to relate to it. This is why art should play a much bigger role in society, to help people free themselves from the stupidity of ideals that don't go anywhere."

It's something of a shame that the Grammies have ditched the Latin Grammy section as Ninety Miles would have been an extremely strong contender. Sánchez, a Grammy winner himself for Coral (Sony, 2004) gives some food for thought on the relegation of the Latin component of the Grammy awards. "It's the best evidence that the Academy is all about financial decisions and not about art. They are popularity awards."

"But everything evolves and everything changes," he adds philosophically. "The concept we have about what jazz is maybe needs to be re-evaluated, because jazz takes from a lot of different music. Your idea of what jazz was forty years ago can't be today because society has changed. What it was is not what it is today. Jazz has never been about the old. [pianist/bandleader] Duke Ellington brought a new perspective to what went before, so did [pianist/bandleader] Count Basie, [saxophonist] Charlie Parker and [trumpeter] Dizzy Gillespie, [pianist] Thelonious Monk. Later on [saxophonist] Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis and [saxophonist] John Coltrane brought other perspectives. Jazz has always been of its time."

"Tomorrow, if there's only one category for jazz it means you're going to have to look at the whole picture, and not put aside a jazz recording that has a flamenco influence, or Afro-Caribbean or Brazilian. If there are no separate categories, then you have to look at instrumental music. I'd be delighted if the day came when they recognized a recording that has no vocals, but that is recognized as a beautiful piece of art. Why couldn't [saxophonist] Wayne Shorter's Highlife (Polygram Records, 1995) be voted best record of the year period, regardless of category? For me, that was a beautiful masterpiece. Do we have to have vocals to understand music? Does the sound not make any sense if it has no words?"

The reaction to Ninety Miles has been very positive so far and with a documentary on the recording set for release and further live dates to come too, the music clearly has a momentum. Some people however, have missed the point. "There are a few people who take it as a political statement, and it's really not at all; I really want that to be clear. It's not a political statement at all. It's the opposite of politics because politics haven't gotten us anywhere. Here in the States we can't seem to take care of people's basic needs because of politics, so politics is clearly not the answer. But we keep following the same patterns so in a way it's our own fault. People are into the music and so far so good. We believe in moving human relations forward."

There have been some signs of late of a relaxing of state control in Cuba, and in parallel, President Obama has broken with half a century of entrenched US policy by announcing an easing of travel restrictions on the million-plus Cuban-Americans who wish to visit relatives in Cuba. Cautious changes yes, but changes nevertheless. Of more import perhaps, is the arrival of high-speed internet in Cuba; thanks to an underwater fiber-optic cable linking the island to Venezuela, 1,600 kilometers away, Cubans will inevitably deepen relations with their United States neighbors, a mere ninety miles away—and the rest of the world to boot.

Instant internet access to jazz of any color will surely begin to make itself felt in a new generation of Cuban jazz musicians, and in a small way—as David Sánchez advocates—move human relations forward. The common language spoken on Ninety Miles is a powerful and beautiful advertisement for music's ability to not only overcome difference, but to positively celebrate it.

Selected Discography

Stefon Harris/David Sánchez/Christian Scott, Ninety Miles (Concord Picante, 2011)
David Sánchez, Cultural Survival (Concord Picante, 2008)
David Sánchez, Coral (Sony, 2004)
David Sánchez, Travesia (Sony, 2002)
David Sánchez, Melaza (Sony, 2000)
David Sánchez, Obsesion (Colombia Records, 1998)
Roy Hargrove, Habana (Verve, 1997)
David Sánchez, Street Scenes (Sony, 1996)
David Sánchez, Sketches of Dreams (Sony, 1995)
David Sánchez, The Departure (Sony, 1994)

Photo Credits
Page 1: Hans Speekenbrink
Page 2: Carlyle V. Smith
Pages 3, 5: Courtesy of Concord Music Group
Page 4, Harold López-Nussa: Roberto Ruiz
Page 4, David Sánchez: Goio Villanueva

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