SAAM (Spanish American Art Museum)
Marta Sanchez Quintet
February 25, 2022
Marta Sanchez is a composer and improviser with roots in Spain and the United States, European classical music and jazz, simplicity and complexity. For a decade she has lived and worked in New York’s creative music scene, and SAAM (Spanish American Art Museum) is his fourth recording in quintet format: two saxophones, his piano, his double bass and his drums. This set is masterful and meticulous but with a center that hurts. It’s music built on two opposing systems: compositions that fit together like little puzzles and add up to give a feeling of nostalgia. While Sanchez embodies an array of dualities, SAAM is a brilliant act of resolution.
The subtleties of this music are more delightful than forbidding. “When Dreaming Is the Only” begins with Sanchez sounding an octave high of the eighth note with his right hand, rocking our ears as we hear a pleasing version of common time before his left hand and the rhythm section enter with a line of funky bass that knocks it all down, immediately. The time signature, on the contrary, is irregular. Yet drummer Alan Mednard continues to cook with propulsive, pitch-perfect timing that’s locked into Rashaan Carter’s (first composed, then ingeniously embellished) bassline. The written bass part is woven with a contrapuntal pair of melodies for alto saxophone (Alex LoRe) and tenor saxophone (Román Filiú), and each line is tonal but not entirely obvious.
The effect of the four elements together (the three melodies and the jagged but danceable drum groove) is questioning, dizzying and slightly blue. On the one hand, the feeling established by the rhythm section and the improvised comings and goings of the brass are jubilant. But in another sense, you’re pushed around by a set of waves that, while beautiful in the way they crash and crash, make it difficult to stay completely afloat. The chime returns, along with the crisp melodies, and Sanchez kind of puts you back on solid ground.
Other performances are less delicate but also rich in emotional complexity. “The Eternal Stillness” begins with the saxophones alone, playing a harmoniously nostalgic two-part legato melody, all in a swaying 4/4. As the rhythm section enters, the piano and bass play only full notes on the downbeat while the drums glide in a silent polyrhythm of brushes against the snare drum. Although there is a “stillness” at the top of the performance, the undercurrent is somewhat restless, which follows with the feeling of sadness that the melody implies. Carter’s improvisation is full of powerful syncopations, after which Sanchez plays a solo that shifts from gradual harmonic movement to flowing lines. As the horns regain their poignant harmonies, the effect is mournful.
As a composer, Sanchez reflects the influence of Guillermo Klein, the Argentine composer and pianist with whom she studied in Barcelona before her stay in New York. On a track like “If You Could Create It,” Sanchez uses a simple piano part, a compensating bassline, and then two simple saxophone parts to create something swirling and circular in the style of a Swiss watch. Each element, on its own, has a folkloric simplicity, but the assembly of the pieces is a marvel. Like Klein’s work, much of the music on SAAM embodies this duality, which invites beautiful improvisations. Each player has a cold tone, but the warmth of friction comes from the way their improvised lines spin and rub against the clockwork of the accompaniment.
Filiú and LoRe both play with a lightness enhanced by rhythmic power. Inevitably, they evoke the “cool” soloists of the past (Lee Konitz, Paul Desmond, sometimes Johnny Hodges, sometimes the contemporary Mark Turner), suggesting the tradition of bossa nova and its rhythmic nuance. The opening track, “The Unconquered Vulnerable Areas”, also allows LoRe to connect with the swirling rhythmic complexity of how Steve Coleman plays the viola in his take on the “wheel within a wheel” style of arrangement. which links Sanchez to his more contemporary influences. .
The leader and composer also makes an impact as a pianist and soloist. Her exchange of statements with Filiú on “Unconquered” is fiery and makes it clear that she can walk out of the group if necessary. But the primary goal of his work is not to stage his piano playing. His quintet is always balanced – no soloist is supposed to grab you by the neck. Like Myra Melford’s delightful groups Snowy Egret and Be Bread, the Sanchez Quintet is a work of collective tonality. Like Henry Threadgill’s Zooid, the voices emerge from the swirl of the entire composition, with individual parts blowing across the canvas like pastels, even the full effect is more powerful.
harder to explain Hispanic American Art Museum is the feeling of weariness and sadness that is so present throughout. “Dear Worthiness” is the most explicitly minor and mournful tune, the saxophones seeming to beg for relief as they improvise, then Sanchez playing his most soulful solo on the album, the complicated answer to woodwind prayers. This is not a relief answer but one that asks more difficult questions.
More explicit in other respects is “Marivi”, the track that sits at the center of the album and is the only one with different instrumentation. Singer/guitarist Camila Meza sings Sanchez’s plaintive lyrics and melody which is a conversation the songwriter has with her late mother, who passed away in 2020 while Sanchez was separated from her by the pandemic. Meza is then joined in silent counterpoint with Ambrose Akinmusere’s exquisite trumpet. It’s a song, and of course, you end up making a whole album about loss. Sanchez’s solo is simple and soulful like any of the folk melodies she tends to mix and match on other tracks. Here he just sings with simple beauty and desire.
“Marivi” throws the whole album in a different light. “The Hard Balance” – with its majestic, slow sadness – contains plenty of captivating counterpoint writing but mostly sets up Filiú for the date’s most moving sax solo. “December 11th” is the day Sanchez’s mother died, and although there are no lyrics, it sounds less like a swirling mystery box than the other compositions. All the parts are there, but there is a sense of air or light rushing to the center of the performance. The quintet’s counterpoint is still there, but each note is clearer. When Sanchez improvises a three-note phrase and then repeats it several times, I feel like I’m not the only listener hearing “I miss you” go through the instrument’s hammers and strings.
SAAM (Spanish American Art Museum) is powerful without ever being noisy, Spanish and American as its title suggests, complicated in its construction but crystal clear in its emotional power. All dualities are resolved in the hands of an artist as fine as Marta Sanchez.