The Caribbean contribution SFJAZZ Collective’s David Sánchez
SFJAZZ COLLECTIVE’S DAVID SÁNCHEZ
When the eight-piece SFJAZZ Collective appears Friday, Oct. 12, at the Lensic Performing Arts Center, it will perform the music of Antônio Carlos Jobim in arrangements penned by each of its current band members, including alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón, pianist Edward Simon, trombonist Robin Eubanks, and trumpeter Etienne Charles. Since its founding in 2004, the Collective has been the jazz world’s equivalent of a supergroup, a conduit for some of music’s most ambitious and accomplished instrumentalists and composers. Previous members — beginning with the group’s founding artistic director, saxophonist Joshua Redman — are saxophonist Joe Lovano, trumpeters Nicholas Payton and Dave Douglas, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, and drummer Brian Blade. The current ensemble includes vibraphonist Warren Wolf, who arranged Jobim’s “How Insensitive” and “No More Blues”; bassist Matt Brewer, who did “Olha Maria”; and drummer Obed Calvaire, who took on “Waters of March” and “Corcovado.” In past years, the ensemble has reflected on the work of select musical giants Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Joe Henderson, Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, and Michael Jackson. The Collective, I under the auspices of SFJAZZ Center, also commissions original pieces from its members, making its concerts and recordings not just a showcase for its instrumentalists but also for the current state of jazz composition.
David Sánchez joined the band in 2012. Before that, the Puerto Rican-born saxophonist had built his reputation with a solid recording history that began in 1994, much of it for Columbia/Sony Music. His music, a diverse, socially conscious mix anchored in the jazz tradition but often utilizing Afro-Caribbean rhythms, earned Sánchez multiple Grammy nominations and a pair of Latin Grammy awards. Some of those albums included fellow Puerto Rican and alto saxophonist Zenón, currently the longest standing member of the Collective.
Zenón and Sánchez both attended La Escuela Libre de Música Ernesto Ramos Antonini in San Juan, but not at the same time. “When he came in, I had just graduated,” Sánchez said. “We didn’t meet at the school, but he told me later that we had some of the same teachers.” Sánchez attended Rutgers University when he first came stateside, studying with pianist Kenny Barron, and playing gigs in New York with Paquito D’Rivera, among others. He eventually joined Dizzy Gillespie’s United Nations Orchestra in 1990. Zenón enrolled at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, and that’s where the two, Sánchez said, first met. “We were playing Scullers Jazz Club, and [pianist] Danilo Pérez was hanging out with us and he said, ‘Hey, you got to check out this kid from Puerto Rico.’ It was Danilo who brought me and Miguel together. I heard him play and invited him to play with us. It was amazing. He actually knew the material from my albums. He told me his objective, like mine, was to come to New York, to move to Brooklyn, and play music. The rest is history.”
Zenón, who’s announced that this will be his last season with the Collective, didn’t single-handedly bring him into the group. “It’s never done that way,” Sánchez said. “No one chooses anyone to come. There’s a process, it’s a democratic decision from the band. The institution [SFJAZZ Center] gets involved. It’s taken to a vote.” The decision as to which musicians the group will focus on during an individual season is also democratic. “Sometimes it comes as a suggestion from the institution,’ ” Sánchez said. “They’ll send an email out and ask us how we feel about particular choices and we take it from there. Usually, it’s pretty easy. For example, when we did the 10-year anniversary [in 2014], there was a decision to reflect and revisit the first decade. Joe Henderson
had for a long time been on our minds. He was originally from Ohio but he spent most of his life in the San Francisco Bay area, so he was like a native son. It was a natural choice.”
The band’s current roster suggests an obvious Afro-Caribbean slant, though that influence doesn’t necessarily dominate the Collective’s music. Put Zenón and Sánchez’s Puerto Rican heritage alongside the Venezuelan roots of pianist Simon, the influence of Haitian parents on drummer Calvaire as he grew up in Miami, and trumpeter Charles’ study of music from Tobago and his native Trinidad, and it’s easy to infer the making of a rhythmic jazz hybrid that includes the entire Caribbean rim. That’s been something in the works since Sánchez started recording, getting behind a music that moves beyond the Afro-Cuban revolution that sprung from Dizzy Gillespie’s work in the 1940s with percussionist Chano Pozo. “It’s funny how it works,” Sánchez said. “The band was pretty steady for a long time and then it started to change about the time that [trumpeter] Avishai Cohen left [in 2015]. It was always a nice blend of musical traditions with an emphasis on jazz perspective, but still totally modern. Now we’re able to connect all our different Afro-Caribbean experiences together with that jazz influence still being present. Jazz is the platform from which we serve all these different ways of making music.”
Sánchez has long been a student of the rhythms that developed in the Caribbean as African slaves were brought in. He learned the popular rhythms of Puerto Rico as he grew up and continued to study its more regional styles, as well as those of the Caribbean at large. His 2000 recording Melaza (Molasses) employs the bomba and plena rhythms that developed in Puerto Rico after the introduction of slaves to harvest the island’s sugar-cane crop. “Learning these different rhythms is a lifetime process, obviously,” Sánchez said. “I’ve always been curious about all these different forms and driven to learn the correlations, the connections that exist between them. It’s fascinating and amazing, how they each have their own phrasing but also how they’re all so connected.”
But Sánchez said the Afro-Caribbean influences of the Collective are only part of the story. “The Caribbean thing is an important part of our music, but when I reflect what’s going on, not just in our music but in the world at large, I can see it’s a combination of a lot of different things. It’s a mix of Afro-Caribbean music, Latin music, classical music, hip-hop, all these different underground movements that have taken shape. They all figure in. That’s the beauty of the music. It’s limitless. As time goes by, it takes different forms. It’s a reflection of what’s going on in society. That’s the true beauty of jazz. It’s ideal for people coming together to share their experience and talents. It’s what we could do if we all came together.”
Passing on what he has learned is a big part of Sánchez’s career and a necessary part, he said, of what it takes to survive as a jazz musician in today’s world. He has conducted master classes around the country and in Brazil, and is currently artist in residence at Georgia State University. Prior to Hurricane Maria, he maintained a regular relationship with the Conservatorio de Música de Puerto Rico.
“Everybody’s reality is slightly different,” he said on the subject of what a career in jazz looks like today. “That’s the reality of the current state of the industry. You have to do different things, you have to be open to embracing different forms of music. That’s the way you can serve. And you learn when you do it. My generation was still into just playing when I started out, going out on the road, doing clubs, concerts. That was our life. Things have shifted. Academia, the schools where jazz is studied, has changed the whole scene. It’s not enough to just do one thing. You have to move around, explore, find your place, but not forget about being authentic to where you come from and what you do. Once you discover what comes out of you naturally and that it really feels authentic, then that creates the path, the place where things flow.”