Album review…Antonio Sanchez, “New Life” (CamJazz, 2013)

With New Life drummer Antonio Sanchez confidently presents his artistic vision, characterized by eclectic influences creatively re-imagined through compositional skill and superior musicianship. The album teems with energy, drive, and diversity, executed by a first-rate band whose facility and individuality shine through thanks to the solid foundation of Sanchez’s malleable compositions and organic ensemble direction.

New Life. CamJazz CAM 5045, 2013. Personnel: Antonio Sanchez, drums, vocals, additional keyboards; Dave Binney, alto saxophone; Donny McCaslin, tenor saxophone; John Escreet, piano and Fender Rhodes; Matt Brewer, acoustic and electric bass; Thana Alexa, voice. Tracks: Uprisings and Revolutions; Minotauro; New Life; Nighttime Story; Medusa; The Real McDaddy; Air; Family Ties. Recorded January 30-31, 2012, at MSR Studios, New York, NY.

The ensemble, driven by Sanchez, establishes the album’s characteristic high level of intensity from the first downbeats of New Life. “Uprisings and Revolutions” opens with dynamic force, presence, and intensity. Donny McCaslin’s first solo shows not only his power but also the sensitive, sympathetic playing and accompanying of the rhythm section. When Dave Binney, eager to jump in, picks up his solo in the waning phrases of McCaslin’s, listeners are treated to momentary bliss of the two saxophonists sounding together—a dynamic that is repeated to great effect throughout the album. Binney adventurously extends the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic elements beyond notated forms and the band takes off right alongside him. It is clear even in these first few minutes of the album that Sanchez chose exactly the right musicians to join him on the recording. A vamp serves as background for Sanchez’s first solo of the album, which is polyrhythmic, intricate, and compelling. As with most of the other compositions on the album, signposts in this tune’s formal structure serve as launching points for successive statements of sonic energy, unfurling as wonderfully undulating waves that wash over the listener.

Pianist John Escreet shines on the second track, “Minotauro.” Switching to Fender Rhodes, he picks up on the haunting, ethereal melody, evoking a celeste-like sound from the instrument, cycling through mysterious arpeggios and sequences before floating down into the more recognized Rhodes timbre. From there he launches into an edgy, motive-driven improvisation with hints of adventurous harmonic superimpositions and montuno figures. Sanchez’s musicality is on full display during his inventive and very engaging drum solo amid atmospheric chording and a bass ostinato. He carefully nurtures the groove with a more quieted, reflective, and motive-driven improvisation before building slowly and restoring the original volume and setting of the melody which is restated with Escreet elaborating overhead with harmonically-extending arpeggios, sequences, and countermelodies.

The album’s title track is more aptly described as a short suite: “New Life” presents a series of melodies and aesthetics that transports listeners on a journey through the bandleader’s diverse imagination. Beginning as a beautifully written ballad, the melody of which is performed first by bassist Matt Brewer, then Escreet, “New Life” also introduces the rich wordless vocals of Thana Alexa, whose addition rounds out the ensemble, lending a warmth and comfort to the recording that makes such perfect sense. Blending seamlessly with the instrumentalists, Alexa’s presence is transformative and proves essential to the piece. Building to an ecstatic, spiritual climax, Sanchez orchestrates a sudden and dramatic change in which Escreet calmly restates the main motives, developing them via an extended improvisation before deliberately and confidently building the band back up to its previous heights. Once again appearing from out of the post-climactic frenzy, a coda with a more atmospheric groove comes as an afterthought, a pleasantly lingering reflection on the piece’s dynamic journey.

The ballads “Nighttime Story” and “Air” demonstrate Sanchez’s ability as a well-rounded and sensitive composer, which will prove one of the most important and surprising take-aways from this record. The first of these two features a beautifully written soulful melody, played with a gospel-like devotional feel to which McCaslin again adds edge, energy, and contrast through a dynamic solo. “Air” features one of the album’s brightest moments for Brewer who demonstrates expressive, sensitive, and sophisticated playing. Both tracks are enriched and filled out nicely by Sanchez’s composed countermelodies and the atmospheric embellishments of the rhythm section.

Sanchez brings polyrhythm and rhythmic displacement into the melodies of “Medusa” via the bass part and the saxophones’ interplay. This track is frenetic yet controlled, intense and exciting, and compelled forward by improvised transitional exchanges between Binney and McCaslin. Sanchez continues to masterfully employ the compositional device of intermediate climaxes from which the band comes out again in successive waves. One of the album’s highlights occurs near the end of the track: the interplay between Sanchez and Binney during the latter’s improvisation is a study in expressive and sympathetic performance.

In “The Real McDaddy” Sanchez shows mature compositional prowess in a surprising way—through the careful orchestration of silence. Beginning with more improvised dialogue between Binney and McCaslin, the song’s funky street-beat (one of the album’s most memorable) drops out of nowhere. But it doesn’t stay for long: fading out just as quickly, the groove stops and starts, playing off our anticipation as listeners. This silence actually strengthens the groove when it does occur. The lengthy Rhodes solo by Escreet is just what we could’ve wanted for this tune: it’s the perfect blend of punchy rhythmic attack, dirty timbral noise, harmonic adventure, masterful pianistic display, and dynamic interchange. Sanchez’s drum solo echoes and elaborates on the tune’s schizophrenic groove which, amid a spectacular torrent of percussion, phases in and out but never wavers. A subtle but excellent shift in groove to solid, four-on-the-floor swing in the coda reprises the melody and reinforces the breadth of Sanchez’s compositional creativity.

The album closes with “Family Ties” with the same level of intensity as it began. Here Sanchez reiterates many of the characteristics of the album: the form itself facilitates dialogic, improvisational interplay of his bandmates, while a carefully orchestrated form engages listeners through a wonderful, varied mix of grooves, melodies, and voices. Once again Sanchez elevates the polyrhythmic intensity of the song into its melody. Another very rewarding exchange between Binney and McCaslin, whose back-and-forth compels and inspires the entire band to the triumphant ending of the album.

Chances are, if you search through your library for excellent jazz records released in the last fifteen years, you will find several on which Antonio Sanchez has performed—in fact, in a many cases, his playing is often what makes those records so superb. However, if you don’t find an album of his among all of yours, start here. On New Life Sanchez presents his artistic vision of diversity, imagination, and masterful musicianship through not just his playing but also his compositions and ensemble orchestration, firmly establishing him as an innovative and essential artist.

[An excerpt of the title track can be heard in the promotional video below. -ML]

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