Artist Feature

Angelica Sanchez
By Ken Waxman

Thoroughly grounded in jazz and improvised music, having worked with figures as disparate as trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and percussionist Kevin Norton, pianist Angelica Sanchez still admits a fondness for Latin American folk music and even old time country & western. A Little House, her 2011 solo disc even includes a version of Hank Thompson’s “I’ll Sign My Heart Away”. “I’ve always had a deep love of country music. I love Merle Haggard, and all the old guys,” says Sanchez, 44 “I love the stories they tell and I love the different sounds associated with that music.” This interest isn’t surprising coming from a native of Phoenix. But it also points out the peril of ascribing characteristics to anyone’s sound, based on background. Although Sanchez’s name is Mexican-American, for instance, both she and her parents were born in the US and there’s no trace of that lineage in her composing and playing. “I never visited Mexico as a child,” she reveals “and early recording from my father shaped my musical universe from a young age more than any distant heritage.”

And what records they were: Dave Brubeck, The Modern Jazz Quartet and Ahmad Jamal, to take three examples. Then one day, Sanchez, who was already playing piano and at 10 had decided to make music her career, was given a record by her dad which he thought was too crazy for him. The Record: Miles Smiles. “I was really perplexed at what Herbie Hancock was doing and started to study him more by getting every recording I could with him,” she remembers. “It really changed my ears and then I started to investigate others that came before him, like Thelonious Monk, with whom I also became obsessed. Like a good book one record leads to another.”

Most of her learning came from records, she says, because while she attended Arizona State University in Tempe for a few years, playing in ensembles and studying with local pianist Chuck Marohnic, “I don’t think I was ready for college and eventually stopped going.” Sanchez, who now lives in Jersey City, has since closed this educational gap. She received a BA in music from William Paterson University in 2015 and should complete a Masters degree in jazz arranging in 2017. “Going back to school has been challenging but really rewarding,” she affirms. “Scheduling is a bit crazy, but the university has been very flexible with me.”

After moved to New York in 1995, Sanchez began playing with as many people as she could in the city. By 2000 she had put together a band with drummer Tom Rainey, bassist Michael Formanek and saxophonist Tony Malaby, which recorded 2003’s Mirror Me, her first CD. Since that time she has played and or recorded with a bewildering number of groups including Smith’s Golden Quartet and Kevin Norton’s Breakfast of Champignon(s). The eight-year-old Breakfast … includes Norton drums, marimba and vibes, violinist Esther Noh, bassist, Steve LaSpina and vocalist/guitarist Julia Simoniello. “My role is to be myself inside the context of Kevin’s compositions,” she explains. “The compositions can be very specifically notated or be open graphic scores, or a combination, but they are written with all the players specifically, in mind.”

As for Smith, their association came about when the trumpeter, who she had never met, suddenly telephoned and asked her to join his Golden Quartet, which she did from 2010 to 2013. She also recorded with Organic, his larger band, and after playing a few concerts as a duo, she suggested they record together. “It was an honor to spend time with a master composer and trumpet player like him.” she recalls. “His sound is like a big universe that I could step in and out of. I love his sound and I love playing duo. It really gives you chance to explore a persona, playing in a different way than in a larger group. I learned much about composition from him, seeing how he notates things and how his pieces are living things that evolve.”

Right now though, her focus is on a new trio with drummer Tyshawn Sorey and Formanek, a duo with drummer Pherroan ak Laff, plus Mestiza, where she and guitarist Omar Tamez play noted scores and songs written by folk artists from Spanish-speaking countries. The concept has piqued her interest in this musical culture as well. “Mestiza started by playing improvised music and slowly we started incorporating other music,” Sanchez reveals. “Phrasing, rhythm, harmony are very different and require me to step outside my comfort zone. I’ve also written music for this duo that I wouldn’t necessarily label jazz. I write for the sound of the duo and music that's challenging for us.”

As important an outlet for her creativity is her nonet which plays at the Greenwich House Music School this month after debuting during her residency at The Stone earlier in the year. The ensemble includes a brass section of Thomas Heberer and Kirk Knuffke; Michael Attias, Chris Speed and Ben Goldberg on reeds; and Tamez, bassist John Hebert and percussionist Sam Ospovat make up the rhythm section. “This is a very fun and open group,” declares Sanchez. “I’ve written music especially for the people in the band and they do a fabulous job of interpreting it. The program at the Greenwich will include the program I played at the Stone as well as some new additions.”

She elaborates: “I wanted to write for a larger group for awhile, I had written some music for big band, but I decided to make the group smaller so it was more manageable. It’s always a challenge to write for different people and instrumentations. I usually have a person in mind instead of an instrument. For example, during my Stone residency, I wrote a piece for voice, bass, drums and piano. I had the sound of the vocalist, Judith Berkson, in my head, while I was writing the piece and I also used the text from the Doris Lessing book Shikasta. It was a challenge to write a piece using a text that wasn’t mine.”

Another activity which occupies Sanchez’s time is teaching. One affiliation was with The Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music in Alberta. She attended the program as a student in the early ‘90s, then in 2000 pianist Kenny Werner invited her to be an ensemble coach there and in 2009 trumpeter Dave Douglas had her teaching lessons and ensembles. In June she was part of the faculty band at Karl Berger’s Creative Music Studio, as well helping the students. Closer to home, she does private teaching. “It’s important to expose a student at any age to many different kinds of music, to talk about what it means to listen and about space,” she declares. Sometimes along with the concerts she performs Sanchez gives clinics. “It’s great when you can talk about music, play with the students and then in the evening, they can actually hear your ideas in action,” she adds.

Considering the number of situations in which Sanchez is involved, hearing her ideas put into action shouldn’t be difficult.

Recommended Listening:

• Angelica Sanchez‎/Wadada Leo Smith - Twine Forest (Clean Feed 2013)

• Angelica Sanchez‎ – A Little House (Clean Feed 2011)

• Harris Eisenstadt Ellery Eskelin, Angelica Sanchez – September Trio (Clean Feed 2011)

• Wadada Leo Smith’s Organic – Heart’s Reflections (Cuneiform 2011)

• Angelica Sanchez‎– Mirror Me (OmniTone 2003)

—For The New York City Jazz Record September 2016