Courtesy of David Sanchez

Columbia Records


I remember how impressed I was when I first heard Sketches of Dreams, David Sanchez' debut recording on Columbia. So his maturation into one hell of a tenorman comes as no real shock to me. But even my high expectations were blown away by the saxophonist he has become. Melaza, his latest for Columbia, is quite possibly his most lyrical record to date. Sanchez sat down with me from his home in New York, lame due to a foot injury, and he spoke openly with me about the handful of records he has done for Columbia, unedited and in his own words.

FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.

DAVID SANCHEZ: I started basically playing percussion because my brother plays percussion and drums, so I started playing drums and percussion when I was eight. That was my introduction to music basically. After that, I started playing the saxophone when I was twelve. I formally studied in music, I went to a performing arts school in Puerto Rico. I was there for six years, up until I graduated from high school. I was playing both, but in the middle of that, I basically focused more on playing the saxophone. Eventually, saxophone was basically my main instrument.

FJ: Influences?

DAVID SANCHEZ: Early on, some of my first influences were Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, and John Coltrane. I would have to say that those were the first that I focused on. Eventually, I started listening to other people. The thing is, I was in Puerto Rico and it was a little harder to get recordings. The traditional straight-ahead jazz, the classic stuff was a little hard to get because it was in the Eighties and they had a lot fusion stuff going on more than the classic straight-ahead, so it was a little hard, but those were my main influences. Especially Sonny Rollins, who still is one of my main influences.

FJ: What was it about Sonny Rollins?

DAVID SANCHEZ: His sound. I really liked the way he interpreted the rhythms. He has a lot from phrasing from Bird. The sound comes from Coleman Hawkins. Also, he has the Caribbean thing happening. You could tell he has a little something, a little flavor, maybe perhaps it is a little bit more percussive way of delivering phrases. Perhaps that is what caught my attention as me starting to play percussion and hand drums and stuff like that. He has always been one of my favorites. I always found him very creative as well. You never know. He has certain patterns that are from him, but always you could tell that he is creating music. He seemed at the moment, a very spontaneous player and I always loved that about him as well. He is more like a natural thing. He makes it seem so natural, just as Bird did, the same way. He makes whatever he plays, he just makes it sound so organic. That is pretty amazing. Trane got to that level, but in a different way. Trane worked it out and worked it out and worked it out to see where he was going in like a strategy. You could see it was a very logical way. He got to an incredible level, amazing. But Sonny, it was just like more him, I don't know how to describe it. That is what I love about him.

FJ: Early on in your career, you spent a good amount of time with other, more established Latin players like Eddie Palmieri, Paquito D'Rivera, and Claudio Roditi.

DAVID SANCHEZ: The reason why I came to New York was because I wanted to play jazz. Jazz was the main reason why I actually switch from percussion to saxophone. That was the main reason. The reason why I started playing with Latin cats was because I knew Latin players here already from Puerto Rico like Charlie Sepulveda. I had played a gig with Eddie Palmieri in Puerto Rico before I came here and Charlie let Eddie know that I was in New York. I came to study at Rutgers University and so he let him know and Eddie immediately started using me because I had played that gig with him. He liked my playing and stuff and that's when I started playing with Eddie. By playing with Eddie, that is the way I get a chance to get exposed to different festivals and meeting people like Claudio and Paquito and all those cats. That is why I started playing with them first. Eddie was basically my first big time gig when I was in New York, but then again, I was mixing it up. I was playing with Larry Ridley. I played some gigs with Hilton Ruiz, but they were basically straight-ahead tunes and I even played with John Hicks a few gigs and those were basically straight-ahead jazz gigs, and so I was mixing it up, but people know me better by playing with Eddie. That is when I just came to New York. That was my first gig and Eddie used to play all kinds of stuff, from jazz festivals to a more Latin scene. Basically, that is the reason why.

FJ: Let's touch on your period with Dizzy Gillespie.

DAVID SANCHEZ: Well, Dizzy, again, I owe that to Eddie because Eddie was playing and we would be crossing at festivals with Dizzy's band and so Paquito basically recommended me to play with Dizzy. For me, it was incredible. It was a great experience because Dizzy had been one of my main influences since I was back in Puerto Rico. I was listening to his music, the straight-ahead stuff, especially with Charlie Parker, but also the stuff that he did with Chano Pozo and the collaborations that he did with Mario Bauza and Chano Pozo and things like that also. I was familiar with that also as well. The experience of working with him was very unique in the sense that I knew so many great players in the band that I could learn from and get more experience. Claudio was there for a while or sometimes Jon Faddis or Turre. I was being able to share music with people who had been around a while longer. And Dizzy didn't say much, but just to be exposed and watching him do what he did every night, just that was enough for me to learn and absorb a lot from him, especially his musical choices and stuff like that, the way he would conduct his sets, the way that he would play music and focus. He would sit down and sometimes we would talk and so I learned a lot of stuff from him, on stage and off stage.

FJ: Let's touch on your debut for Columbia, Sketches of Dreams.

DAVID SANCHEZ: That came out in '94, '95.

FJ: First record, it must have been intimidating going into the studio.

DAVID SANCHEZ: Oh, yeah, of course. I had been in the studio before that, but not as a leader. That is when I discovered that it was a completely different thing. You worry about this being your first recording. You worry of course about the way you sound and the way everything is going to be. You worry a lot about the concept of the recording and the material. It is not only about the way you sound. You have to worry about everything, every single thing. It was a great experience for me though. We had a serious inconvenience in the studio. It was amazing. I could not believe it. It was like, "Damn, what is going on in here. It is my first recording." Something went wrong with one of the machines in the studio and we were doing it at the Sony Studios and they were painting believe it or not. It was a misunderstanding and I have a picture around here somewhere with the rhythm section wearing masks, masks to cover their nose. I was the only one who couldn't use it because of course, I had to play. I had to put the saxophone in my mouth. It was amazing, but it was a great learning experience. I basically was starting the development. I was basically doing the straight-ahead thing, but mixing in a lot more with rhythms, like bomba. I had two different types of bomba and then I had Afro-Cuban. I had Jerry Gonzalez to basically play Afro-Cuban music and I had Roy Hargrove on that track as well. And then I mixed it up with straight-ahead waltz and straight-ahead standards like "Falling in Love with Love." You could see where I was going and that I trying to search for something in terms of writing, something that sounds completely mixed, so that it sounds like we're playing jazz, but with a flavor of something else.

FJ: You followed Sketches of Dreams with Street Scenes that had a vocal piece with Cassandra Wilson guesting, why features vocals on that track?

DAVID SANCHEZ: To be honest, Fred, what I wanted to do was use the vocals as a color, as opposed to lyrics. I wanted to just give it color. Unfortunately, I picked Cassandra. The Cassandra thing was kind of at the last minute. I wish I could have done something else with it. Sometimes things happen like that. They happen kind of quick and you have to deal with the situation and what is happening. I wish I would have a little more time because I would have done more interesting stuff with her voice because her voice is so great. I wanted to use her voice as color, just in that one song.

FJ: You state in the notes that you wanted to tell a story, what story did you wish to express musically?

DAVID SANCHEZ: Basically, what I was trying to say in that recording is like you have New York City, which is such a great city with different neighborhoods and they all have different tales. What I meant to say was it is like once you come here, the whole thing changes. You have different perspectives because you hang out in different neighborhoods. You hang out in Harlem. You hang out in East Harlem. You hang out in the Village. You start seeing things in different ways and so that is what I was trying to say. This recording tells a different story of the experiences of New York. It is a retelling of my experiences in New York with different people with different ethnic backgrounds.

FJ: How is New York different from that of any other city?

DAVID SANCHEZ: It is unique. The main thing is the variety, the different ethnicity in terms of all these different cultures just located in one city. Just that right there is pretty amazing. You see other cities that have boroughs around them, but not quite like New York. New York is pretty unique and I find it is a very creative city as well.

FJ: Has living there helped your creativity?

DAVID SANCHEZ: Oh, definitely. When you are in an environment that is creative, to me, as an artist, that is very inspiring. To say what is very unique about New York, for me, it is the diversity of cultures. There are so many and everybody is influencing each other in one way or the other, but we don't realize it.

FJ: Let's touch on Obsession.

DAVID SANCHEZ: Street Scenes was more about my writing and to go somewhere with my writing. Somebody gave me a suggestion, an idea in the company. They told me to do a recording of classics. That is not what I wanted to do, but since they mentioned it, I thought of someday I would like to do a recording of just songs that I grew up with and that I have been influenced by. I have been influenced by many different styles of music, Brazilian, folk from Puerto Rico, folk from the Caribbean in general. I always had that idea in mind. I was just not going to do that then, but since it was suggested and the company made a request and they asked why I don't do a recording of Latin American classics. They wanted to do something more like ballads. I wanted to do it, but I wanted to do it on my own way. I wanted to do some different instrumentations. I wanted to do some of it with a string quartet and woodwinds and do a little with a quintet, do some with two percussionists and a quintet, so it would be like seven pieces. I divided it into different parts and just featured compositions that I had been influenced by. They are mostly Latin American classics, but one of the tunes that I was influenced by and that I grew up with was written by an American, which is Ray Bryant, "Cuban Fantasy" because Machito made that composition very, very popular and very famous as well as Mongo Santamaria. When I was doing percussion, I was taking all those recordings and "Cuban Fantasy" was always one of my favorite ones and I had to include that song in the recording.

FJ: Before the record company's request, what was your original thoughts for the recording?

DAVID SANCHEZ: Just do all original stuff once again and just take it further than I had done in Street Scenes.

FJ: Would you have preferred to do Obsession later in your career?

DAVID SANCHEZ: Things happen for a reason. Actually, that helped me out a lot. It came just at the right time. It helped me out a lot. Before that, people who would come to see me was basically straight-ahead audience with the exception of a few Latinos. This recording kind of helped me out a little bit with the Latin world. A lot of people that listen to Latin music, see, the weird thing of what I do is I am not in one or the other. For some people that are straight-ahead, it is too much of percussion element on it and then for the people who are coming from the Latin world, it is weird because it sounds too much like jazz. I am in the middle, but Obsession helped me out to grab a little bit more of those people. I am aware that with Obsession, although the sales were good, the straight-ahead people backed off a little bit. But I picked up some of those people that have nothing to do both worlds. They are just regular people who listen to just any type of music and that is the people that I am interested in.

FJ: And the new record?

DAVID SANCHEZ: It is going to be called Melaza. It is a sextet. I have another horn and the live performance is going to be like that. It is going to be David Sanchez and the Melaza Sextet. That is what is going to be happening. It is all original stuff. After Obsession, that has been one of my most successful recordings in terms of the business, it had a Grammy nomination, I know some people are going to be confused now because I am going to take the Street Scenes thing a little further. There is a lot more freer stuff happening from the Ornette Coleman and Charles Mingus schools. I would say it is the most advanced in terms of mixing up the two genres.

FJ: When is the release date?


FJ: What happened to your foot (David injured his foot at the time of this interview and was resting it at home)?

DAVID SANCHEZ: I pulled a muscle between my ankle and the bottom part of the foot, by the heel. I'm trying not to work too much and put the foot up a lot.

Fred Jung is Jazz Weekly's Editor-In-Chief and a lord in a very small Irish town. Comments?  Email Fred.