Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Review: New Life - Antonio Sanchez

Personnel: Antonio Sanchez: drums, vocals, additional keyboards; Dave Binney: alto saxophone; Donny McCaslin: tenor saxophone; John Escreet: piano, Fender Rhodes; Matt Brewer: acoustic and electric bass; Thana Alexa: voice.

Sanchez played impressively on Pat Metheny’s Unit Band recording, and he has two stellar saxophonists on his new recording, New Life, altoist Dave Binney and tenorist Donny McCaslin, so giving New Life a listen seemed like a good idea.

The recording starts with “Uprisings and Revolutions,” which begins with the saxophonists playing an earthy, melancholy theme slowly without meter.  The beginning reminds me of some of McCoy Tyner’s music, with John Escreet sounding a lot like Tyner, playing dramatic tremolos.  Then the pulse picks up and a mid-tempo, 7/4 meter kicks in, with the saxophonists playing the theme again, in unison and in harmony, against a heavy modal background.  McCaslin starts the solos, playing his usual gliding, virtuosic lines over the heavy chords, including some emotional swoops into the altissimo.  Binney slides into the picture as McCaslin finishes his solo, and he includes a lot of superfast lines and altissimo screaming, but keeps his solo consistently musical and engaging.  Then Sanchez solos against a bass and piano ostinato, displaying great variety and subtlety in his playing, nicely balancing cymbals and drums.  A very strong start to the recording. 

“Minotauro” begins with a single note repeated on the bass, then some chords on the electric piano, then a fast, exploratory line played by the two saxophones in unison in an up-tempo 6/4.  Escreet then plays a beautifully controlled electric piano solo.  Sanchez plays amazing accompaniment behind Escreet; he almost steals the pianist’s thunder.  Sanchez then solos over the repeated bass note and Escreet’s occasional chords, eventually working up to a double-time section.  The saxes come in to play the theme again, but this cut was the Sanchez and Escreet Show.

“New Life” is something of a mini-suite, with a few different sections.  It starts with a repeated phrase from Escreet, who is joined by Brewer playing a simple figure on bass, and then it moves into a simple, folk-ish melody played by Escreet on piano.  The trio is then joined by Thana Alexa, singing without words.  At this point, the cut sounds very much like the Pat Metheny recordings that feature wordless vocals.  The rhythm section then starts a rock-ish groove, and the saxes enter playing a harmonized line.  McCaslin plays a funky solo over the rock-ish groove.  The music then moves into a section with heavily overdubbed vocals, sounding somewhat like a rock opera.  (This section is a bit over-the-top.)  The wall of sound falls away and Escreet plays a simple theme by himself, then the bass and drums join him and he plays a relaxed, lyrical solo with, again, outstanding accompaniment from Sanchez.  Then the music returns to the wordless vocal theme, this time in unison with Binney’s alto sax.  A synthesizer joins in and ratchets up the Metheny factor.  Then Binney and Alexa improvise together and the cut fades out.  But this is a fake ending, and the cut starts again with some slow piano chords and some light drumming, along with some spacy synthesizer, probably played by Sanchez.  (This little coda doesn’t seem to add anything, especially after 13 full minutes of music; the cut would have done just fine ending with the fade-out on Binney and Alexa.)

“Nighttime Story” has a soulful, blues-tinged theme played slowly by alto sax with understated accompaniment from the rhythm players.  The tune develops a gospel-ish feel, in a slow 6/8.  Binney, Escreet, and McCaslin all play heartfelt solos.  Binney and McCaslin then play the theme in harmony to the end.

“Medusa” starts with brief dual improvisation from the saxophonists and moves into a fast, syncopated line played by the saxes in harmony, the music again sounding very McCoy Tyner-ish.  After a bit more dual improvisation from the saxophonists and a repeat of the theme, Binney and McCaslin both play well-developed, logical solos.  The music closes out on a brief repeat of the theme and then a Brewer bass line. 

“The Real McDaddy” starts with a playful McCaslin and Binney improvised duet, featuring a series of short, sharply-tongued notes.  The saxophonists then trade phrases of a funky melody, then the entire group gets into a mid-tempo groove on a Brecker Brothers-type arrangement.  Escreet plays a long, quietly wild electric piano solo during which Sanchez plays some sneaky, clever accompaniment.  Then Sanchez takes the spotlight for a while with some well-placed “interruptions” from Escreet and Brewer.  Binney and McCaslin return to play the theme, then the tune goes into slower, more swinging groove, and Binney and McCaslin improvise together and play a fragment of the theme to close the cut.    

“Air” has a pretty, slow piano intro from Escreet and then a slow theme played on soprano sax.  It’s not noted who’s playing the soprano in the personnel notes; I think it’s Binney, but that’s just a guess.  Brewer plays a lyrical, melancholy bass solo, and then whoever is on the soprano sax plays a gem of a solo.

On “Family Ties,” Excreet plays a slow piano intro.  The tune breaks into an upper mid-tempo groove, and the saxes play a pretty, anthem-like theme in unison.  Escreet then plays a lovely solo with authority, showing off some impressive technical flourishes near the end.  The tempo then slows down for a more relaxed, soulful feel, and McCaslin and Binney each has a brief but impressive solo turn before they trade fours.  At over eight and a half minutes, this cut seems too brief and is a very impressive way to close the recording.

New Life is a really fine recording.  The music here is filled with intelligence, emotion, and superb technique, and it contains a lot of variety, from McCoy Tyner-ish modal tunes, to funky and quasi-rock grooves, to ballads.  Throughout, the music is marked by professionalism, experience, and acute attention to detail.  New Life demonstrates that Sanchez is virtually on a par with Metheny as a musician, composer, and leader of other musicians, and that’s some pretty good company to be in.  (I also think New Life rivals the Pat Metheny Unity Band recording, which was widely considered to be one of the best of 2012.)

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