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By Neil Tesser
With her latest release, written for and performed by a nonet, Angelica Sanchez continues to defy — and exceed — preconceived notions.
Dedicated listeners will associate Angelica Sanchez with the striking clarity of her piano improvisations, heard mainly in small-group recordings that generate rave reviews the way a storm cell generates lightning. Those listeners probably didn’t see her latest release, Nighttime Creatures (Pyroclastic), on the horizon. But Sanchez has spent much of her life confounding expectations.
Growing up in Phoenix, Arizona, the fledgling pianist listened to the likes of Dave Brubeck and The Modern Jazz Quartet until, in the mid-’80s, her father gave her a promotional copy of Miles Davis’ landmark Miles Smiles. (He found it a little “too wild,” despite its having become a staple of the modern jazz canon in the two decades since its release.) Sanchez was 12 years old and she “freaked out,” in her words. “I was like, ‘What is Herbie Hancock doing? How is he doing this?’” she says by phone from her home in Jersey City, New Jersey, in early October. “I didn’t have anyone to play music with, so I used to play along with those records. And then I found Monk and became very Monk-obsessed.” In Phoenix, hardly a mecca for cutting-edge jazz, even those two piano icons stood a bit beyond the pale.
By the time she’d hit her mid-teens, “People started telling me that I couldn’t do what I wanted, that I couldn’t play the way I did — that nobody played that way. I guess I was already showing signs of myself,” she reflects. “And when you’re a young kid, you believe them. So I was a little bit down and then, when I was 16, I came across a Geri Allen record with Paul Motian and Charlie Haden. And I’m like, ‘Here’s this woman that clearly is coming out of the language of Monk but has her own thing.’ And I just dropped my teachers. I just stopped believing any adults. And I never studied with another adult until I moved to New York [in 1994].”
Once there, the then 22-year-old pianist’s ecumenical approach to free improvisation — bolstered by what one writer has called her “austere lyricism” — led to collaborations with established jazz iconoclasts such as drummer Chad Taylor, trumpeters Rob Mazurek and Wadada Leo Smith, saxophonists Tim Berne and Tony Malaby, and flutist Nicole Mitchell. For many listeners, that’s where her music began and remains. “Sometimes you get labeled a certain way: ‘Oh, you’re that kind of musician.’ But I often write things that are traditional-sounding, because I come from that music, which I love. Anything outside of that, people say, ‘Wow, we didn’t know you could to that.’ So I’ve sort of struggled with those types of categories.”
Nighttime Creatures, the debut album from Sanchez’s nonet, follows that script. Even though nobody sat her down and said, “You can’t write for a large ensemble,” she got the message nonetheless. “In the past, I haven’t had that many folks interested in what I’m writing,” she points out, “but I’ve been writing for 25 years.” In fact, she has a master’s degree in jazz arranging. She formed the nonet in 2016, but lacked the financial backing to record the group until recently, so it arrives out of the blue. And although her small-group albums brim with her unwaveringly distinctive compositions, those recordings have garnered critical bouquets primarily for her uncompromising piano flights. So the new album — with its focus on Sanchez’s compositions and her stop-you-in-your-tracks instrumental colors — again confounds expectations of what she can do.
And what she can do encompasses plenty. A wealth of varied textures, timbres, forms and styles spills from the album, all bearing the maker’s mark despite their variety; fully notated sections introduce and intersperse the solos, nestling the music in a sweet spot between the big-band tradition and post-freedom improvising. The title track boasts a martial hopscotch of a melody, lithe and muscular. “C.B. the Time Traveler,” dedicated to Carla Bley — and written long before Bley’s death on October 17 — coalesces around broad rubato swaths of sound. On “Ringleader,” Omar Tavez’s guitar walks a gently eerie line spiked by horn ensembles seemingly lifted from some 1950s film noir — except for the progressively dissonant chords and elasticized rhythmic flow. The longest track, “Lady of the Lavender Mist,” is a Duke Ellington ballad that Sanchez has reworked with Saturnian touches (à la Sun Ra), on which her piano and Michaël Attias’ alto cast a spell both alien and familiar.
Sanchez identifies a specific hurdle when crafting this music, a challenge she describes by inverting a familiar cliché. “I think there’s less safety in numbers,” she says. “For the nonet, everyone’s very much influenced by what Gil Evans did [with Miles Davis in 1949-50], and I didn’t want to fall into that formula. You know, the more people you have, the more choices you have, so you have to be very focused as to what you want. I’m used to writing for smaller groups, and there’s much less safety in the nonet: It’s harder to get your personality across in a larger group.”
[caption id="attachment_57287" align="aligncenter" width="1240"] Photo by Farah Al Qasimi.[/caption]
Projecting her personality has never been a problem for Sanchez. At the piano, her playing is invigorating yet balanced, disciplined even at its most free-ranging. Clustered harmonies jockey with splintering skeins of crystalline melody; full-throated chords morph from starkly cerebral to darkly heartbreaking. Rob Mazurek, whose Exploding Star Orchestra sometimes features Sanchez, admires her “unique angularity” and her “open mind and spiritual presence,” adding, “I was mesmerized with her sound from the very beginning.”
While those qualities animate her nonet, Sanchez hasn’t merely transferred her pianism to the larger group. And she doesn’t treat the nonet as some supporting band for the leader’s star turn — quite the opposite, in fact. Not until the fourth track of Nighttime Creatures, on a piece titled “Astral Light of Alarid,” does she grab some spotlight for a solo of her own. Powerful yet refined, and exhilarating in its directness, it rewards listeners’ patience by transforming the second half of the piece into a piano concertino.
“There are so many wonderful personalities in the band that I wanted to give everyone space to contribute,” she explains, “and I wrote the music so that they could make their own choices — that I wouldn’t be aware of. So yeah, there are written notes on the page, but the players add more to what’s there. And that to me is exciting, because I don’t know what’s gonna happen. They don’t know what’s going to happen. We all have to trust each other and go along this path together. So the idea of featuring piano more [than other instruments] didn’t even come into play. That wasn’t my goal here. It’s never my goal, to be honest with you.”
Sanchez has explained that in the year before the release of Nighttime Creatures, while teaching in upstate New York, she lived in a secluded area far from the city’s lights and sounds, saying, “The woods transform at night, when the only light comes from a very thin crescent moon. You can’t see your hand in front of your face, but the coyotes and other animals make more noise in the dark. I realized that it was only my ears that were activated in those moments. I became fascinated by what I couldn’t see.”
But in the six years or so before that, she leaped at opportunities to workshop the album’s compositions, lining up as many nonet concerts as she could manage, allowing the group and the music to slowly mature. “For me, so much of writing is the people I’m writing for, and you can’t get to know someone if you just jump into the studio with them,” she says. “So through that process, I became more focused as to what I wanted to hear as I learned everyone’s playing a little better. I made changes to the orchestration to get the sound a little closer to what I was hearing in my head. It’sa little closer to that sound. And each time, you hope you get a little closer to it.”
The concept of composing music with individual players in mind — in this case, that Sanchez would write not for “a saxophone” or “a trumpet,” say, but rather for the specific sound and personality of Chris Speed or Thomas Heberer — has shaped an increasing number of larger ensembles in recent years. It’s not new, of course: Ellington famously began shaping his music to his musicians in the late 1920s. But not even Ellington had at his disposal the contralto clarinet, the rarely heard maze of metal that suggests a plumber’s nightmare. Pitched between the bass clarinet and the baritone sax, its low notes have the bone-tingling edge of a bass trombone, while its plaintive upper register can prove disarmingly vulnerable. In the nonet, as played by Ben Goldberg — whose command would surely make him the Olympic champion of the instrument (even if he were not the only person that anyone has seen play the thing) — it sits at the fulcrum of Sanchez’s arranging for the nonet.
“A lot of the ideas I had for orchestration came out of voicing the music around that instrument,” Sanchez readily admits. “And Ben plays it so beautifully. I’m definitely in love with it. It’s not common, and you don’t get to hear it that often or played that way.” In solo passages, the instrument intrigues the ear as much for its novel sound as for Goldberg’s improvisational brilliance; in ensembles, it supplies an unorthodox foundation that colors the timbres piled atop it, even if at first you can’t tell what makes them sound different.
[caption id="attachment_57288" align="aligncenter" width="1240"] Photo by Jamie Martinez.[/caption]
Midway through “C.B. the Time Traveler,” contra alto clarinet and guitar enter into a duet that emerges from the relatively staid horn ensemble — “relatively,” since Sanchez exploits the shimmery frisson that comes from writing unison lines for trumpet and cornet. Because of their different origins and the shape of their interiors, the two instruments never blend fully. “When you put them in unison,” says Sanchez, “they will never be in unison. That was the idea behind having them both.” (To add to the fun, Heberer also plays a quarter-tone trumpet, though he uses the microtones sparingly and at his own discretion.) With an undercurrent of winsome humor, the piece reflects the impact of its dedicatee, Carla Bley, who passed away more than two years after this recording and a few days after this interview.
“I had been writing for a long time, but as I started to recognize my own sounds and my own language, at some point I said, ‘Oh, there’s so much Carla in my writing,’” Sanchez says. “I didn’t realize how much I was influenced by her. I’d been studying her music for many years, and she was always very generous to share her scores with me. I woke up one day and thought, ‘This is Carla.’ So I wrote this as a tribute to her.”
Bley, better known for her writing than her piano, is another composer who famously tailored her big-band writing to the individuals in her orchestra. On the other end of the spectrum is Marilyn Crispell. A wildly prolific doyenne of progressive music, Crispell has never led a group larger than a quintet. But her dynamic improvisations and thrillingly rigorous technique have also had an impact on Sanchez — who engaged Crispell to record 2020’s How To Turn the Moon, a critically lionized album of piano duets.
Sanchez wrote most of those pieces, which serve as brief vehicles for exploratory interplay, with Crispell in mind. “Her music can be beautiful, it can be angular, it can be pointillistic,” Sanchez marvels, “and she has so much power.” The admiration runs both ways. Crispell told me that “Angie’s playing is strong and passionate and” — she paused for a beat — “real.” For Crispell, that’s a high compliment indeed. “When I listen and watch her play, that’s what comes across: She’s not trying to impress anybody. I feel like she has this very spiritual connection to the music and that’s how she functions.”
Adds Sanchez, “Our approaches are so separate and distinct, but we both are never in a rush to get anywhere. You can just take your time and breathe, and not have to play every note.”
Taking breaths and thinking organically also came into play as Sanchez constructed the program for Nighttime Creatures. In writing the album’s 11 tracks, she did not intend them to form a suite; when they do tend to flow into or complement each other, it has more to do with her care in sequencing the album to function as, well, an album: “I do think a lot about the programming, the space between tunes, which tune should come next; I do think about the arc of the album. It’s sort of a lost art form. We used to listen to records from beginning to end, so the presentation, the order of the tunes, was another composition in itself.” Streaming has obviated this concern for many, but not for Sanchez. It constitutes a very traditional approach.
In recent years, Sanchez has added teaching to her considerable repertoire of skills. In 2022, she joined the faculty at Bard College, where she teaches courses in spontaneous composition, women composers, and the music of Sun Ra. An unstated but equally important subject concerns helping students to find their own voices in ways she had to learn on her own, after her teachers regularly disappointed her by trying to fit her into prefab stylistic boxes.
I ask Sanchez what she, the teacher, would say now to her younger self: “Well, don’t listen to the adults. And also, try not to be shy. I was sort of painfully shy as a young person, and it didn’t really serve me or the music. But I also just would tell myself, ‘Trust your music.’ Early on, I started trusting my music because that’s all I had, that and my family. I think a lot of young folks are very insecure about their place. But if they’re honest with themselves about the music that they’re making, then you can trust that.
“I followed the music that I loved,” she continues. “This is why I tell students now: find what you love and put it under a microscope and then expand it, explode it. And then, maybe after 20 years, you will sound like yourself. There’s no guarantee, because just telling a kid ‘Go find your own voice’ — that’s not helpful at all. That’s not practical. I say, ‘Find what you love, and learn why you love it. Learn everything about it.’ And that’s how I’m still approaching things.”
Featured photo by Eliseo Cardona.