Growing up in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, Sánchez had an early fascination with traditional music. He started playing percussion around age eight and listened to “anything that had drums,” particularly music from the Caribbean and South America, as he put it in an interview with All About Jazz in 2004.
Saxophone came in his teens, when a few of his sister’s jazz records spurred a lifelong love affair with the music and the decision to double down on the horn. As a result, he thinks of his early musical education as two-pronged—equally entrenched in hard bop and bomba, straight-ahead swing and plena, a Puerto Rican folk music.
It’s for this reason that the term “Latin jazz” feels like an oversimplification of his work, one that he first encountered when he moved to the U.S. to study at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “Sometimes ‘Latin jazz’ is not enough to describe what I’m doing as an artist,” Sánchez avers. “I’m influenced by pan-African music. It has nothing to do with, like, a Latin theme—playing a salsa, and then an instrumental mambo … That’s in there, but that’s not it.”
Sánchez knows that parts of his background over which he has no control still play a large part in defining his music, even though he’s decades into his career. “I’m ‘Latin’ because I have a Spanish accent and I’m Sánchez,” he quips. “If someone is Sánchez or Perez or Rodriguez—whatever last name you want to say—that’s Latin. That’s the easiest thing to sell. We don’t like to actually listen, we don’t have time. Always going onto what’s next, you barely have time to actually sit down and feel and grasp something. So the easiest thing is just to say, ‘Well, this is Latin jazz.’”
His résumé proves his versatility, however. While at Rutgers, Sánchez began studying with pianist Kenny Barron. By age 20, he was playing with bandleader Eddie Palmieri, who led him two years later to a gig with none other than Dizzy Gillespie, among the first “straight-ahead” jazz musicians to seriously embrace jazz from the Caribbean. Sánchez played both in the trumpet legend’s United Nations ensemble (chock full of talent on the Latin side, including Paquito D’Rivera and Danilo Pérez) and in more straight-ahead groups. “These guys play bebop better than the bebop guys play Latin,” Gillespie said at the time, “but it’s the mixture that I like.”
The high-profile calls started flooding in: Barron, Arturo Sandoval, Slide Hampton, and eventually Roy Haynes and Elvin Jones. It was right in the middle of jazz’s neoclassical push, and by 25, Sánchez had earned the dubious moniker “young lion of Latin jazz” thanks to his acclaimed 1994 debut, The Departure. It’s a clean, sophisticated album that’s old-school only in its spontaneity, and remains a remarkable example of his virtuosity. There’s no halfway point between his influences, as classically swinging tunes like his wistful rendition of “I’ll Be Around” alternate with stripped-down songs propelled by uncompromising grooves, like the Brazilian composition “Cara de Payaso.” His angular, restrained soloing remains constant, though; the influence of Sonny Rollins shines through as powerfully in his playing as any other.