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A daring saxophonist in tune with his art.

He may have grown up in one of the cradles of salsa, Latin jazz, and other fiery Afro-Caribbean styles, but from an early age Puerto Rican saxophonist David Sanchez always had one ear tuned to the beauty and sophistication of European classical music. After a critically lauded, decade-long career as a solo artist that vaulted him to the upper echelons of the jazz world, Sanchez has taken a daring stylistic departure, plunging into the challenging repertoire of some of Latin America's greatest classical composers and surrounding his working sextet with the massed strings of a world-class symphony orchestra. Coral, his Grammy-nominated 2004 release, features the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and a program of works by Alberto Ginastera, Heitor Villa-Lobos, and Ant6hio Carlos Jobim. It represents quite a departure for a young musician who grew up listening to and playing Puerto Rican folk music.

The genesis of the ambitious project can be traced to Sanchez's earliest days as a student at San Juan's esteemed Escuela Libre de Musica, where he studied music from the age of twelve to his senior year of high school. "The formal training was European classical oriented--there was no jazz or popular music at all," he recalls. He played saxophone, flute, and clarinet, specializing on the instrument with which he would make his name in the jazz world, the tenor sax.

"I was exposed at an early age to some of the music we perform on Coral," he says. "When I was preparing for my recital in high school, I had some transcriptions for sax, but there isn't much available for the instrument, because it's relatively new, compared to the violin or clarinet. I played some pieces by Brahms and Handel, but they weren't written for saxophone--they were only transcriptions. I had heard the music of Villa-Lobos, mainly guitar pieces, and I was fascinated by a piece he had written called 'Fantasia.'"

Sanchez's first extended foray into this demanding tradition, though, was not without pitfalls. "The piece was originally written for soprano and orchestra," Sanchez remembers. "I got the parts and I was practicing very hard. Unfortunately, I was never able to play the piece in high school, because it was very difficult, and also the accompanying piano part was difficult, because it was adapted from the complete orchestration. The teachers all said that it would take months of rehearsals! That was ray first introduction to trying to play Villa-Lobos."

Born in 1968 in Halo Rey, a suburb of San Juan, Sanchez was initially drawn, like many of his countrymen, to the organic rhythms of his land and Cuba. His first experience playing music, at the age of eight, was as a percussionist playing conga drums. "I transcribed solos by Mongo Santamaria, Tata Guiues, and Carlos "El Nino" Alfonso [three renowned Cuban congueros]," he recalls of how he immersed himself in this heady tradition. "I played along with records and could sing the solos and play them back. So, when the transition came to playing saxophone, I was already familiar with this style--those were things that you grew up with. My mother and father listened to that music. It was in my ear. Later on, I went back and really checked it out--when I was seventeen or eighteen. I was playing with a folkloric group in Puerto Rico, playing all of the songs of Cortijo and Ismael Rivera. My brother is a percussionist and was playing with Rafael Cepeda, and I would go and check out those gigs."

But mainstream jazz soon lured him away from the more traditional forms of tropical Latin music. "My sister got me a compilation of Miles Davis recordings," Sanchez reminisces of his initial exposure to the music that would have a profound influence on his artistic development. The great Davis album Kind of Blue--"I'd put it on and dream that I was in some cool jazz club," he says. "Later on, I started checking out people who played ray instrument--Jordan Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, and Dexter Gordon."

A scholarship in 1988 to study music at Rutgers University in New Jersey got the budding saxophonist to the U.S. mainland and close to the epicenter of the jazz universe, New York City. It didn't take long before he was in the thick of the world's most frenetic jazz scene, working with such fellow isle os as trumpeter Charlie Sepulveda, percussionist Giovanni Hidalgo, and band pianist Eddie Palmieri. He performed with such luminaries as bandleader Tito Puente, Panamanian pianist Danilo Perez, Cuban saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera, and Brazilian trumpeter Claudio Roditi.

By 1990, none other than jazz icon Dizzy Gillespie had heard of Sanchez's growing renown and invited him to join the trumpet master's United Nations Orchestra--an ensemble that featured some of the best young instrumentalists from the U.S. and Latin America. His solo career began in 1995 with the release of The Departure, the first of six critically acclaimed albums for Sony Music's prestigious Columbia label. Three Grammy nominations and one Latin Grammy nomination followed, and the world's leading publications swooned over the saxophonist's ingenious blend of Afro-Caribbean rhythmic elements and jazz improvisation. "Sanchez is carrying Latin jazz toward the millennium," the New York Times boldly stated in one glowing review.

Slowly, however, Sanchez was being drawn back to the formal elegance of the classical idiom he flirted with two decades ago. "Things are still coming up where I say, 'Wow, this comes from when I was doing that thing when I was a teenager,'" he says today. In 1998, he began to incorporate a small string and woodwind ensemble on Obsesion, an album that featured classically oriented works by such composers as Puerto Rico's famed bolero master Rafael Hernandez, and Brazil's bossa nova guru Jobim.

The idea of doing a fully realized program of classical works with a symphony was born several years ago and evolved slowly as Sanchez began to explore more deeply the repertoire he would need to master such a daunting task. "My original concept was to do works by all of the Latin American composers who had been influenced, in one way or the other, by the French impressionistic period," he comments. "But when I chose to include Villa-Lobos, although he never really liked the comparisons, he was always compared to Ravel and Debussy. Then I picked works by Ginastera and Jobim, who was a student of Vllla-Lobos. My intention was to include other composers, like Leo Brouwer and Gonzalo Roig, but time was going by, and the more I heard of Villa-Lobos's music, the more I fell in love with it. No one knows how prolific this guy was. I was not really aware of how much music he'd written, and how great the pieces are."

Ginastera, however, was another matter. "I heard a very interesting concerto of his written for flute and clarinet," Sanchez recalls of his introduction to the Argentine composer's music. "I was studying a book about contemporary harmony, and it all started because the author gave an example of a Ginastera piece, so I went to a store and bought the recording, and said, 'Man, I never heard of this guy!' When I heard the recording, I said, 'Whoa!' Villa-Lobos and Ginastera are very different in style, but there's still a connection. They knew each other, and in some ways, Ginastera was inspired by Villa-Lobos."

His inclusion of several of Jobim's symphonic-style works came through his longtime exposure to the Brazilian maestro's artistry. "'Eu Sei Que Vou Te Amar' is beyond artistic to me. It's really amazing," Sanchez notes. "And 'Matita Pere' is another piece that not been done that many times. It reminded me of Villa-Lobos pieces like 'Alma Brasileira,' the other name for 'Choro No. 5'--it's symphonic, but you hear Brazil in it. When I heard 'Matita Pere,' I said, 'Man, it's a serious work--it has that strong classical influence, but it's also a very Brazilian piece.'"

Sanchez enlisted well-known, Grammy-winning Argentine arranger and composer Carlos Franzetti to write the string arrangements and secured the services of the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra to back his sextet in the recording. Although most of the repertoire is grounded in the formal structure of European classical music, Sanchez and his group, which includes fellow saxophonist Miguel Zenon, bassist John Benitez, and pianist Edsel Gomez, leaven a good deal of jazz improvisation and Afro-Caribbean rhythmic elements into the mix, particularly on three original works written by the leader and arranger Franzetti.

"I know this project is going to influence me in many ways," Sanchez says. "I know it's going to take me somewhere else. The result of these months of getting the project ready, listening to different styles of music, and learning about all of these composers has already influenced the way I hear music. I don't have words to explain what I've learned doing it, from execution, the performance, the concept, putting the whole thing together, hearing music differently. It's amazing how they were writing music back then. I can tell that I'm hearing things differently today. I can already see the results."

With the heralding of Coral as one of the most important large ensemble recordings of the year, Sanchez is eager to revisit the concept on an upcoming recording. "The beauty of art in general is that you have a lifetime to build on it and use things that you developed at a very early age or at a later tune in your life," Sanchez says. "You can go back to things and make them fresher because now, you have more influences or simply hear music in a different way."


Coral (Sony Music 90313)

Travesia (Columbia/Sony 85948)

Obsesion (Sony 69116)

Melaza (Columbia 62085)

The Departure (Columbia 86636)

Street Scenes (Columbia 67627)

A regular contributor to Americas, Mark Holston is a musician and journalist.
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Title Annotation:Music; David Sanchez
Author:Holston, Mark
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Geographic Code:1U0PR
Date:Mar 1, 2005
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