Featuring Donny McCaslin, David Binney, Matt Brewer, John Escreet and Thana Alexa
Drummer Antonio Sanchez has played alongside some of the greatest composers in modern jazz – including Chick Corea, Danilo Pérez, Gary Burton, and Pat Metheny, who has called on Sanchez to anchor virtually every project he’s undertaken for more than a decade. With his third album as a leader, New Life, Sanchez launches himself into those estimable ranks with a set of bold, compelling new compositions.
As the title suggests, Sanchez sees the album as marking a new chapter in his musical life. “I wanted this record to be a milestone for me as a composer,” he says. “When you’re a drummer, there’s this stigma that you’re the musician’s best friend but you’re not really in the same category as the other guys. I wanted to prove that it doesn’t have to be that way.”
The fact that Sanchez possesses the ability to craft such a wide-ranging, multi-hued collection should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with his drumming. A three-time GRAMMY® Award winner who studied at the National Conservatory in his native Mexico and at Berklee and the New England Conservatory, Sanchez is a master of dynamics, able to summon rhythmic complexity or melodic nuance as the occasion demands. New Life similarly balances intricacy and emotion, intellect and soul.
The album also features inspired playing from an incredible line-up of Sanchez’s peers. The ensemble includes saxophonists Donny McCaslin and David Binney, bassist Matt Brewer, and up-and-coming pianist John Escreet. “It’s sheer joy to hear your music played by these amazing musicians,” Sanchez says.
On his prior releases – his 2007 debut Migration and Live in New York from 2010 – Sanchez featured a stripped-down line-up with two saxophones, bass and drums (aside from guest appearances on Migration by Metheny and Corea). This time out, he wanted to expand his harmonic palette with the addition of a pianist.
“The horns, bass and drums configuration is great because there’s so much freedom and so much space,” Sanchez says. “But it’s also incredibly hard; with no harmonic instrument it feels like you’re walking on eggshells all the time. With piano, you can create a completely different atmosphere or color behind every solo.”
Sanchez labored over each of the tunes that comprise New Life, further developing them during a five-week tour prior to entering the studio. Where his earlier compositions tended to be relatively simple vehicles for improvisation – which nonetheless yielded rich fruit in the hands of players like Chris Potter, David Sánchez, Miguel Zenón and Scott Colley – he wanted each of these pieces to tell a story. His years working with Metheny in a variety of settings was an inspiration, Sanchez says, not just musically but in regards to work ethic, collaboration and showmanship.
In his liner notes, Metheny refers to Sanchez as “my main collaborator over the past 13 years,” enthusing that “the variety and range represented in this collection is a real testament to Antonio’s curiosity and openness as a musician. He gathers from across a wide stylistic spectrum to put together a recording that adds up to a real journey in modern music making.”
That journey begins with “Uprisings and Revolutions,” which began life as a more placid ballad but took on a new urgency with the inspiration of the Arab Spring. The tension of the rubato opening bursts into the piece’s deep groove, mimicking the rush of freedom into the region. “I was inspired by how the Arab people were able to defeat these forces that seemed to be completely undefeatable,” Sanchez explains.
Both “Minotaur” and “Medusa” drew from Sanchez’s interest in mythology. The former’s slow build suggests the minotaur lurking behind one of the twists in his labyrinth through the throbbing bass line and Escreet’s simmering Rhodes. For the latter, Sanchez specifically recalled the image of Medusa from the original version of Clash of the Titans, a childhood favorite. The snarling, interweaving melody lines recall the creature’s serpentine hair.
“Nighttime Story” is as gentle and soothing as a lullaby, while “Air” is a crystalline gem featuring a caressing soprano melody inspired by Wayne Shorter. “I love the unpredictable, beautiful sonority of his tunes,” Sanchez says. “You never know where his tunes are going, but they always go somewhere amazing. I thought this tune had a little bit of that, and it’s also full of longing, like a lot of what Wayne does.”
The buoyant “The Real McDaddy” was penned with McCaslin in mind, and jokingly references his and Sanchez’s habit of referring to each other as “Papi.” Sanchez defines the title as defining someone like McCaslin who is “able to be cool in any situation. That tune has a lot of quirky, unpredictable breaks, but to me if you’re a McDaddy you can master any situation.”
“Family Ties” ends the album on a celebratory note dedicated to Sanchez’s own family. “It’s such a happy tune,” he says. “It represents what my family can be: full of drama but full of happiness at the same time.”
A lush, sweeping ascension lasting nearly fifteen minutes, “New Life” is undoubtedly the centerpiece of its namesake album. “It signifies a new life as a composer and a bandleader,” Sanchez says. “It’s the track that I worked on the most, and the one that was most satisfying to record and listen back to.”
The recording also documents a new life for Sanchez in another form – the soaring female vocals are the contribution of singer Thana Alexa, who recently became Sanchez’s fiancée.
“I’ve absorbed so much great music from so many amazing bandleaders that I’ve been able to work with throughout the years,” Sanchez says. With New Life, he reveals the results of that process, showcasing his own profoundly expressive, intensely personal voice.