Combining the Afro-Caribbean rhythms he learned growing up in Puerto Rico with the jazz he studied as a young man in New York City, David Sánchez has emerged as one of the twenty-first century’s most highly regarded jazz musicians and composers. “I wanted to be in touch with my roots,” Sánchez said in a biography on his management’s website, “which come from Latin America. I believe that Latin jazz was born in the U.S., but I also believe that we are really one: North America, the Caribbean. There are native people in these places who are related to each other. I’m trying to put that together in my music, trying to get in touch with the unity of it all while I integrate the stylistic elements from the different regions.”
Speaking of his band in Metro, a Silicon Valley newspaper, Sánchez said, “Onstage, the way we communicate is through improvisation, and jazz is the context we use to explore and expose elements that come from the Caribbean and other Latin American countries. But the harmonies are also very important and draw from the ideas of Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, 1960s Miles Davis and classical music.” He added, “The music we play is very difficult, and one has to prepare and warm up. It’s like going into a boxing ring.”
Sánchez began playing music at the age of eight, when he learned to play the conga drum. “Later on, when I turned twelve,” he said on the website of his management company, “I began studying at a special school, La Escuela Libre de Musica [in Puerto Rico], and I studied there from seventh grade until my senior year in high school. And that’s when I started playing saxophone. I was attracted by its sound but at the time, I preferred playing percussion.” He studied classical repertoire and theory, as well as saxophone, at his high school.
Although the tenor saxophone was to be the instrument on which he would build his career, Sánchez also played the soprano and alto saxophones during this time, along with the flute and clarinet. He was first exposed to the jazz that was to define him at 14, when his sister introduced him to the music of trumpeter Miles Davis and singer Billie Holiday. From that time on, “[l]ittle by little,” he said on his management’s website, “I wanted to play jazz, even though I didn’t understand it.”
The understanding came later, after Sánchez graduated from high school in 1986. He started college at the Universidad de Puerto Rico in Rio Pίedras, where he began a study of psychology. He quickly realized, however, that his heart was in music, and he dropped out a year later. He then auditioned for and was admitted to the music school at Rutgers University, in New Jersey. The school offered him a scholarship, and since it was located near the musical mecca of New York City, he jumped at the chance.
In New York, Sánchez began his career in earnest, although he spoke little English when he first arrived in
Born in September 1968 in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico. Education: Attended Rutgers University, NJ.
Learned to play the conga drum in his native Puerto Rico at the age of eight; learned to play the saxophone at 12; graduated from performing arts high school in Puerto Rico, 1986; began his professional music career in New York City, 1988; played in the band of jazz great Dizzy Gillespie, 1990-92; released first album with his own band, Sketches of Dreams, 1994; released Departure, 1994; Street Scenes, 1996; Obsession, 1998; Melaza, 2000; Y sus corridos bravos and Travesia, both in 2001.
the city. He began playing alongside such top Latin jazz players as Paquito d’Rivera and Claudio Roditi. He also met pianist Eddie Palmieri, who showed Sánchez how to blend Latin music with jazz. An important turning point in his career came when he sat in as a sub with jazz great Dizzy Gillespie’s United Nation Orchestra. Gillespie, impressed with Sánchez’s sound, realized that Sanchez was an ideal reed player for the orchestra and asked him to stay on permanently after his subbing stint was over. At the age of 23, Sánchez became the youngest person in the United Nation Orchestra. The years spent with Gillespie’s orchestra gave Sánchez the jazz education he sought in the United States. Sánchez then went on to tour with the Philip Morris Superband. He also played on the recordings of Slide Hampton’s Jazz Masters (of which he is a founding member), Charlie Sepulveda, Kenny Drew Jr., Hilton Ruiz, and many others.
In 1994 Sánchez released his debut album, The Departure, which he recorded with his own band; in that same year he began a worldwide concert tour. Sketches of Dreams followed in 1995, an album that explored his Latin background in more depth than his debut. Sketches of Dreams included both Latin and American jazz traditions, and found Sánchez exploring his original material with more confidence than before. He released Street Scenes in 1996, an album that reflected his take on the atmosphere found on the streets of big cities like Paris or New York. This album was followed by Obsession in 1998, a recording that earned him a Grammy nomination. On his 2000 release Melaza, Sánchez ventured into political and social commentary for the first time in his liner notes, particularly on the song “Molasses,” which refers to the crop that Puerto Rican slaves were forced to harvest. The album was nominated for both a Grammy and Latin Grammy. Sánchez followed that release with Y sus corridos bravos and Travesίa, both in 2001. Sánchez donated his time and talents to perform a special concert for the American troops in Bosnia in September of 1999. With his band, the David Sánchez Quintet, he performed two shows in Tuzla and Sarajevo. He also heads the David Sánchez Quintet with Strings and the David Sánchez Sextet.
Of Travesia, Sánchez said on the Sony Music website, “Where Melaza was about energy, different forms and folkloric rhythms from Puerto Rico, Travesia is a little more mixed. It has the same kind of drive, but in many ways, has more subtleties.” The album also features a Sánchez trademark—twin saxophones, with alto sax player Miguel Zenόn playing counterpoint to Sánchez’s tenor. “With two saxes,” Sánchez explained, “you can really create a lot of emotional contrast. You can be very direct and out front but at the same time very subtle.”
Sánchez always records with the same band members, not just with a group brought together for particular sessions. The result is a unified sound that continues to deepen with each recording. The group includes, in addition to Zenόn, Edsel Gomez on piano, Hans Glawischnig on bass, Antonio Sánchez on drums, and percussion player Pernell Satumino. “It’s a great group,” Sánchez told the Los Angeles Times, “basically reflecting what I want to do with my music. And that makes me happy because I like to feel that honesty is what my music is all about—an organic expression of what happens in the moment.”
Of his composing process, Sánchez said on the Sony Music website that he strives for a graceful, unforced flow. “I’ve been learning, year after year,” he said, “how not to chase that muse, and to let it come to me. Sometimes it’s there; sometimes it’s not. Of course, you work every year to make that process more and more of a constant.” And, as he told the Boston Globe, “As far as where I’m trying to go, and how I’ve grown, I’ve been happy—and that basically comes from staying on the road and keeping a band together.”
The Departure, Columbia, 1994.
Sketches of Dreams, Columbia, 1994.
Street Scenes, Columbia, 1996.
Obsession, Columbia, 1998.
Melaza, Sony, 2000.
Y sus corridos bravos, BCI, 2001.
Travesίa, Columbia, 2001.
Boston Globe, January 7, 2000, p. C15.
Down Beat, March 2001, p. 46.
Los Angeles Times, December 8, 2000, p. F23.
UNESCO Courier, January 1997, p. 48.
“David Sánchez,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (September 3, 2002).
“David Sánchez,” Sony Music, http://www.sonymusic.com/artists/DavidSánchez/home.html (September 3, 2002).
“David Sánchez: Biography,” B.H. Hopper Management, http://www.hopper-management.com/ds_bio_e.htm (September 3, 2002).
“Mosaic Man,” Metro, http://www.metroactive.com/papers/metro/12.06.01/Sánchez-0149.html (September 3, 2002).
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