On his acclaimed 2010 double album, Live in New York, Antonio Sanchez stirred up excitement with a pianoless, two-saxophone quartet that stretched out on songs as long as 20 minutes. Despite such daring, New Life is a bold step forward. With the addition of the brilliant young pianist John Escreet (playing acoustic and electric) and the substitution of a song-oriented approach for a jamming one, the drummer-composer fosters a transformation akin to turning 2D into 3D. One artfully crafted song after another bursts to life, no two of them alike. It’s a breakthrough that establishes this longtime Pat Metheny and Gary Burton sideman as a major artist in his own right.
The tunes, which reflect Sanchez’s drumming with their taut strength and eruptive power, give two of jazz’s hottest saxophonists, altoist David Binney and tenorist Donny McCaslin, all they can handle: soaring melodies, rich harmonies, clever structures, meaty unison parts. After showing off his Chick Corea and McCoy Tyner influences early, Sanchez carves his own animated signature sound with the adrenalized, leaping and loping “Medusa,” the coolly reflective “Air” (featuring standout bassist Matt Brewer), the teasing, hard-bopping “The Real McDaddy” and the open, exuberant “Family Ties,” which boasts charged exchanges between the saxophonists and a dazzling acoustic solo by Escreet.
And then there’s the thematic journey of the one epic number, the 14-minute title track. It has worlds to offer: a pensive opening, lilting Brazilian melody with wordless vocals by Thana Alexa (now Sanchez’s fiancée), an overpowering middle section, a gorgeous piano interlude, a soaring section featuring multiplied vocals, and then, emerging like a hidden track, an eerie coda. In contemplating the passages of existence, “New Life” may have you thinking of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. The film, of course, doesn’t swing nearly as well.