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Composer Angelica Sanchez takes inspiration from the sound of the woods at night

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Jazz pianist Angelica Sanchez, originally from Arizona, moved to New York almost three decades ago. The many bandleaders she's worked with include horn players Wadada Leo Smith, Rob Mazurek and Tony Malaby. Last year, Sanchez started teaching at Bard College and now spends time living and listening out in the woods. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews her new album for nine players called "Nighttime Creatures."

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ANGELICA SANCHEZ NONET'S "LAND HERE")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Angelica Sanchez says the sounds of the pitch-dark woods at night spark her musical imagination. Out there, you can hear large and small critters with their repetitive calls and sudden squabbles and maybe hear the rustle of leaves as a breeze picks up. Sanchez abstracts from all that in music for nine instruments that variously contrast, blend or clash, music where prevailing winds and air pressure can change quickly. This is from the title track to Sanchez's "Nighttime Creatures," a term that also describes jazz musicians.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ANGELICA SANCHEZ NONET'S "NIGHTTIME CREATURES")

WHITEHEAD: In Angelica Sanchez's five-piece horn section, both brass instruments are pitched in the same range - Kenny Warren's cornet and Thomas Heberer's quarter-tone trumpet. Alto saxist Michael Attias is well-matched with Chris Speed on tenor, who gets a lighter tone on the bigger horn. And then Ben Goldberg's giant, grumbly, contra-alto clarinet stomps in, straddling horn and rhythm sections like a colossus.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ANGELICA SANCHEZ NONET'S "RINGLEADER")

WHITEHEAD: Midsize jazz groups like this nonet may behave like little big bands with scripted dialogues between brass and saxes. But Sanchez and company don't always aim for crisp, big-band articulation. As conductor and composer Butch Morris would advise writers of tidy music, spill a little gravy on the tablecloth.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ANGELICA SANCHEZ NONET'S "RUN")

WHITEHEAD: As a sound painter, Angelica Sanchez may contrast elegant design with dabs of runny color. There's a striking episode on "Astral Light Of Alarid" where the harmony turns deliberately sour. Thomas Heberer's quarter-tone trumpet digs into microtonal cracks between the other horns. But while the winds get smeary, the rhythm quartet tightens up.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ANGELICA SANCHEZ NONET'S "ASTRAL LIGHT OF ALARID")

WHITEHEAD: Angelica Sanchez's nine-piece band sounds smoothest on the 1947 pastorale "Lady Of The Lavender Mist." It's by Duke Ellington, who'd showed the way by populating his band with contrasting soloists who could meld and phrase as one. Duke also wrote pieces audibly inspired by the natural world, although he usually observed it from a moving vehicle.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ANGELICA SANCHEZ NONET'S "LADY OF THE LAVENDER MIST")

WHITEHEAD: I love how the background horns create an aura behind that trumpet melody. You get a sense of sonic depth, foreground versus background. That sort of spatial awareness is another thing one might cultivate in the woods at night, where the same animal cry can be charming or alarming, depending on distance. For open-eared composer Angelica Sanchez, such encounters set the mind buzzing. On "Nighttime Creatures," she bottles that open-air feeling and brings it into the studio.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ANGELICA SANCHEZ NONET'S "CLOUD HOUSE")

MOSLEY: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the book "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film," "Why Jazz?" and "New Dutch Swing." He reviewed "Nighttime Creatures" by jazz pianist Angelica Sanchez. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, China's President Xi Jinping has become more hostile to the U.S., more friendly with Vladimir Putin and has reversed China's course from progress to stagnation. We talk with New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos about what this means for China and the U.S. I hope you'll join us. For Terry Gross, I'm Tonya Mosley.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ANGELICA SANCHEZ NONET'S "CLOUD HOUSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.