David Sanchez: Ninety-Mile Bridge

Ian Patterson By

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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.
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