David Sánchez and the African Tinge

The acclaimed tenor saxophonist explores his—and jazz’s—roots on a new series of albums, his first in 11 years

David Sánchez (photo: Daniela Murillo)
David Sánchez (photo: Daniela Murillo)

The Same People

The opening track on Sánchez’s sophomore album, Sketches of Dreams (1994), laid out what would become a career-guiding thesis for the saxophonist, now 50: “Africa y las Americas.” Street Scenes, released in 1996, had a similarly pointed beginning: “Caras Negras” (“Black Faces”). In 2000, he released the remarkable Melaza—“Molasses”—for “those who labored long hours in the sugar fields.” Although the experience of being black in the Americas has always motivated Sánchez’s music, Melaza was the first album for which he really dug into the folk music of his native country, integrating it into his own work.

“I’m talking about music, but when it comes to social conditions it’s basically the same story, the same marginalization,” Sánchez explains. He cites a recent recommendation: The Repeating Island, a 1997 book by the late Cuban writer and Amherst professor Antonio Benítez-Rojo, which posits that the chaos and cultural diversity of the Caribbean also contain powerful constants—like inequality.

“That’s what this project is all about,” Sánchez continues. “That’s why I started it. Like, wow, we come from the same place, and we’re the same people; we were just put in different places. Yes, we have different accents, but the same cadence and the same rhythms. Not only musically, but in life. The life rhythm. You breathe that same rhythm.”

Even as the jazz world attempted to consolidate his music into some nebulous “Latin” monolith, Sánchez resisted definition, rarely making records or playing gigs that fell neatly into that category. By insisting on both cultural specificity and his own bop bona fides, Sánchez carved out his own corner, defined by the kind of identity-driven purpose and advocacy that’s currently much more in vogue than it was when he was coming onto the scene.

This new Carib series—the opening album is his first as a leader in over a decade, since 2008’s Cultural Survival—gives Sánchez a chance to dig into his questions and observations about the African diaspora in a deeper way. “My point is to pay tribute to all the Afro-descendant communities throughout the Americas, because we are interconnected in a deeper way than often we think we are, including in the United States,” he says.

The saxophonist’s research into Haitian music and culture lasted three-and-a-half years, involving lots of reading and listening to recordings made by Alan Lomax and Harold Courlander. Eventually he visited archives in Haiti, immersing himself in the music of drummer Ti Roro (Max Roach was a fan), Francilia, and Alberto Pierre, comparing it to bombas by artists like Rafael Cepeda. “Some of this stuff was very traditional even for contemporary Haitian musicians—they’ve moved on,” Sánchez says. “But it’s my way of getting into the source.”

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The resulting album isn’t—at least from a casual listener’s perspective—a huge departure from his previous work, but folk instruments and rhythms do figure slightly more prominently. Some of the compositions feel a bit looser and more organic, less moored to the strictures of contemporary postbop. The hypnotic “Canto,” for example, winds aimlessly, not really searching for a climax or catharsis—to its benefit. 

“Obviously I chose to have a more contemporary approach to it,” Sánchez adds. “I’m not playing this music how it would traditionally be played, I would not say that. But I would say that to do what I want to do, I come from the roots.”

Natalie Weiner

Natalie Weiner writes about music for a variety of publications including JazzTimes, Billboard, The New York Times, Pitchfork and Rolling Stone. She is also a staff writer at SB Nation where she covers women’s sports and the NFL. Previously, she was a staff writer at Bleacher Report, and an associate editor at Billboard magazine.