Although jazz has always been a glorious polyglot of diverse styles and influences, over the last decade or so there's been an unmistakable movement afoot to meld it more explicate with the music of other cultures. From the Balkanized jazz created by New Yorkers like Chris Speed and Brad Shepik to the broad array of Asian fusions pioneered by West Coast players like Anthony Brown and Jon Jang, jazz is awash with an adventurous globalism. Of course, the original pan-stylistic jazz was the Afro-Cuban variety first hashed-out by Machito, Dizzy Gillespie and Chico O'Farrill, among others, nearly 60 years ago. During the '90s a new breed of Latino jazzers sought to widen the scope of such fusions beyond Cuba, as well as better integrating the disparate components. Among those forward-looking musicians, Panamanian pianist Danilo Perez and Puerto Rican saxophonist David Sanchez have led the way; they're now among the most important young players in jazz.
While Perez's new album, Motherland, ambitiously aims for a dense cultural hodgepodge, Sanchez's fifth album as a leader, Melaza, which he co-produced with Branford Marsalis, is considerably more streamlined. Following Obsesion's often lugubrious, orchestrally soggy pan-Latino romanticism, it represents a powerful return to form for the talented reedist. Melaza is the Spanish word for molasses, and that title was chosen carefully by Sanchez. Sugar cane harvesting was the main reason Africans were enslaved and shipped to the Caribbean, and the duality of how such a sweet product caused such misery and suffering isn't lost on Sanchez. The titles of Sanchez originals like "Cancion del Canaveral (Song of the Sugar Cane Field)" and "Against Our Will" clearly reflect this meaning, but this isn't really a concept album.
While the music on the new recording is firmly situated in the current continuum of progressive post-bop, native Puerto Rican rhythms like the plena and the bomba propel each performance; they serve as a reminder of the leader's roots, just as the thick, dark liquid of the title, a byproduct of sugar refining, suggests another facet of that sweet commodity.
Leading his stellar working band-pianist Edsel Gomez, bassist Hans Glawischnig, alternating drummers Adam Cruz and Antonio Sanchez, percussionist Pernell Saturino and newcomer on alto saxophone Miguel Zenon-through an edgy program of tunes written by himself, his band, and one gorgeous ballad by Brazilian singer Milton Nascimento ("Veja Esta Cancao"), Sanchez is in peak form. With the exception of the mood-shifting, soul-streaked "Canto a Loiza," Sanchez's compositions don't particularly stand out, serving more as vehicles for inspired improvisation, but the power and concision of his solos make that argument a moot point. Zenon's lithe, airy alto presence is a wonderful addition to the group, expanding the harmonic possibilities of the tunes, and providing a nice textural counter to Sanchez's post-Coltrane muscle. The web of polyrhythms crafted by the percussionists also ups the ante on the music, feeding the soloists a continuous stream of shifting motion that yields fascinating results. It would be nice to hear Sanchez use the Afro-Caribbean percussion as something more than a rhythmic catalyst-the tunes are, structurally, rooted purely in jazz, but it's hard to complain about the performances.