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Russ Davis on the Wolff & Clark Expedition and Antonio Sanchez

MOJA Radio host catches up with the Wolff & Clark Expedition and Antonio Sanchez in performance in New York City

Antonio Sanchez, Donny McCaslin and Russ Davis at Jazz Standard in March 2013
Michael Wolff, Mike Clark, Russ Davis and Steve Wilson at Dizzy's Club Coca Cola in February 2013

As I stated in my previous blog, I decided to stage a “2013 New York Winter Jazz Fest” of my own by taking in four shows at three of the City’s most popular venues, all in a two-week period. I’ve been to Jazz Standard for Benny Green’s trio performance and followed that with a trip to The Blue Note to hear Bill Evans and his Soulgrass band with some very special guests. I’d planned two more stops on my Jazz Fest journey and my next stop was a venue that was an instant classic the day It opened, the beautiful space known as Dizzy’s in midtown at the Jazz @ Lincoln Center complex. Michael Wolff and drummer Mike Clark and their Wolff & Clark Expedition performed in celebration of their brand new release of the same name.

Dizzy’s is sometimes as big a draw as the artists that play there. It is in a perfect location, just off Columbus Circle on the fifth floor of the Jazz @ Lincoln Center complex. Since Wynton Marsalis is the music director of Jazz @ Lincoln Center and leader of the [email protected] Orchestra, the club could probably fill its schedule with members of the group or friends, associates and family members of Wynton’s NEA Jazz Masters. Some of those folks can be found on the schedule for certain. For example, Wynton’s younger brother Jason brings his new vibes project to the club in March, but the lineup is varied and top notch for a number of reasons. Who wouldn’t want to play such a beautiful room with perfect acoustics crafted just for jazz, with excellent sight lines for all patrons, and a menu of tasty treats, some of which have allegedly been lifted from Wynton’s mothers own recipe book. You know it’s got to be good because she fed five hungry men down there in New Orleans! Before the performance I went backstage to record a conversation with Michael Wolff and Mike Clark while Mr. Clark fortified himself with some of Mrs. Marsalis’s gumbo. Maybe that’s why the show was so good!

Michael Wolff and Mike Clark are two modern masters of jazz who learned their lessons well working with legendary masters like Herbie Hancock, Cannonball Adderley, Cal Tjader and others before becoming leaders themselves. These are two pros that can swing with the best of them but have never been afraid to embrace most any other possibility that improvised music can provide. A great example is their latest work, Wolff & Clark Expedition, from which most of the set list was lifted on this evening. It includes everything from Cole Porter to Joe Zawinul, Sonny Rollins and The Beatles as well as their own compositions including one from the bassist who completed the trio featured on the recording, Chip Jackson. On this night Mr. Jackson would be replaced by the first call player at or near the top of everyone’s list, James Genus. Completing the lineup for the quartet was the great saxophonist and a solo artist in his own right, Steve Wilson, who joined us for the interview before the show. Our conversation took us in many directions with the topics being the specifics of the new recording and the long relationship that the two principal partners, Wolff and Clark, have enjoyed over the years. They first recorded together in 2006 on one of Michael Wolff’s projects but they’ve known and worked with one another for much longer. They attribute their ability to still be motivated and active to various factors, chief among them being the always vibrant New York scene. While other cities’ jazz scenes seem to shrink year after year with fewer places to play, New York’s list of venues is always extensive including the entire tri-state area. With so many places to play and excellent players to work with there is no wonder it’s been impossible for Wolff & Clark to leave.

Once I left the guys to finish their gumbo and prepare for the show I made my way to my seat. As I walked through the room I noticed Randy Weston in the audience and took my seat to take in the show. Who should I see coming in but the great drummer, composer, leader and stalwart of the New York scene himself, Lenny White, who I invited to join me. Lenny White and Mike Clark are long time friends and musical associates too and in conversation with Lenny I learned that he and Mr. Clark are planning to form a band of their own featuring the two drummers as leaders. I also found out that Lenny had been sitting on a live recording from a 1997 tour of Japan featuring his own band including some very special guests like Victor Bailey, Patrice Rushen, Bennie Maupin and others that was just about to come out. The album Lenny White Live From 97 would be out in a couple of weeks and I was promised a copy. Maybe you’ve heard it by now as I programmed it immediately. It’s a wonderful snapshot of a terrifically creative time in Lenny’s career. Speaking of creative, the Wolff and Clark Expedition took off and led the audience on a journey to swinging funk and hard edged groove played by musicians of the highest order. You just expect this level of talent in a New York venue like Dizzy’s and the guys presented a set drawn from a wealth of rich experience. Afterwards Lenny White said hearing live music like this inspired him to immediately go home and write some music himself. It was just another night in the New York scene.

I ended my mini-festival with the fourth show in two weeks. I returned to the place where my festival began, Jazz Standard, to hear drummer Antonio Sanchez. I’d seen Antonio live in two other bands, The Pat Metheny Group and The Unity Band, but never as a leader. With the release of a number of solo albums, including his newest titled New Life, Antonio has been going about the business of establishing himself as an individual to be reckoned with in the jazz universe. He’s not only as a great player with a distinctive style, but a composer, arranger and a leader who can put together a formidable band. All of these attributes were on display in the show I witnessed on this evening.

I arrived early before the first set of the night so that I could enjoy my first ever interview with Antonio and found him to be as bright and friendly as he is talented. He eagerly shared his personal story with me, revealing the details of how he grew up in Mexico City in a non-musical, though creative, family. His mother, who flew in from Mexico to see the show, informed me that she is a film critic, and that Antonio’s father is an actor. His family appears to be expanding soon, literally and artistically, as his beautiful fiancé Thana Alexa is not only becoming part of his family but a member of his band. More on that later.

Antonio’s story seems to be one of success from the very beginning, as he knew that music was his calling when his age was in single digits. He played drums and piano even then and went from the National Conservatory of Music in Mexico to Berklee College of Music in Boston, the New England Conservatory and now teaches at NYU in New York. Education and the science of music have always been as important to him as is the soul of music. His solo recording career began in 2007 with the release of Migration featuring the double sax lineup that he favors so much. On his initial solo recording he brought in two top notch players, Chris Potter and David Sanchez. The album also features not only his own compositions and a modern standard or two but also song contributions and guest appearances by two famous musical associates, Pat Metheny and Chick Corea. I’d call that a pretty nice start to a solo recording career and a great way for two masters to pay someone back that has impacted their works in a meaningful way. Since arriving in New York in 1999 Antonio has touched the musical lives of many major artists such as Pat Metheny. Antonio told me the story of how he and Metheny first made contact. Pat played a double bill with Antonio’s band and while listening from backstage, without seeing him perform, thought he was hearing the work of multiple percussionists, only to discover that all that music was being made by Antonio alone. He was ready to hire him on the spot and for over a decade Antonio has been the drummer for every Metheny project except for Orchestrion, which of course employs mechanical “sidemen” instead of live players.

Antonio Sanchez has made many musical friends over the years, working with the likes of Gary Burton, Michael Brecker, Kenny Werner, vocalists Janis Siegel, Dianne Reeves and Luciana Souza, and the long line of the greats of his generation with whom he’s collaborated like bassist Scott Colley saxophonists Chris Potter, Miguel Zenon, David Sanchez, Anat and Avishai Cohen and the two fine saxmen who would take the stage with Antonio on this night at Jazz Standard, Donny McCaslin and David Binney. We wrapped up our conversation before the set by touching on the topic of classification of his music. I’ve seen “Modern Creative” associated with his music and the term “Orchestral” used to describe it as well. You will probably not see the term “Latin Jazz” in relation to Antonio’s style with good reason. He mentioned that he did not want to major on making this type of jazz as he finds what most call Latin Jazz too confining. It isn’t that this music is not literally in his blood and that he would not know how to create it, since he’s worked with Latin music masters like Tito Nieves and others, it’s just that he feels and creates music with a different intent.

That intent was certainly on display during Antonio’s set on this evening at Jazz Standard and it seems to be that music is meant to be free and flowing. Though strictly constructed much of his music is presented in movements and leaves lots of space for improvisation. I wondered if Antonio, who commands a formidable drum arsenal that he uses completely and without any unnecessary strokes, might have been a saxophonist in another life. Here is a man who originally played the piano, an instrument that is both melodic and percussive but one that can play single lines as well as chords. To put it bluntly, his music is quite often dominated by the sound of the saxophone. The human, vocal quality of the instrument appeals to him, he told me, and on this evening he had two of the best to help him express himself. David Binney is certainly one of the most inventive alto players around these days and as he stretched the boundaries he was joined by another of his generation’s greatest writers, improvisers and leaders and a long time associate of Antonio, Donny McCaslin, whose tenor was a perfect complement to Binney’s alto. But possibly the highlight of the night for me was the addition of the wordless vocal of Antonio’s lovely fiancé Thana Alexa. During the passages in which she and the two saxophones blended their sounds I felt like those harmonies were the high musical points of the performance. It was as if three singers were creating close, free, ethereal chords and conjuring a unique spirit one could only hear at this time in this place. During the night there were moments of swing, some rock, Latin, classical and even funk overtones in the music. Antonio told me he looks to create music that can be listened to consciously as well as in the background and that is free without predictability. All these elements add up to music that is totally his own and made for a very satisfying experience for the listeners at Jazz Standard on this evening.

This show brought my personal 2013 Winter Jazz Fest in NYC to a close and as I walked back downtown to my home I remembered that Dave Douglas, Stanley Clarke & George Duke, Jenny Scheinman & Bill Frisell, Charles Lloyd, Terri Lyne Carrington, Amina Figarova, Mike Stern, Kevin Mahogany and many more have shows coming up soon. Spring is on the way and every day is a jazz festival in New York!

Russ Davis

Russ Davis produces and presents the only jazz program – “Jazz America” – for the U.S. Government Service, Voice of America. He also programs and presents the online modern jazz channel MOJA Radio, a subscription service. You can hear a number of free programs, including the latest Jazz America show by visiting MOJA Radio’s website.

Originally Published