When I attended a Pat Metheny Unity Band concert last October, I often focused on what the drummer Antonio Sanchez was doing. Not so much when he soloed but his drumming from behind the front lines. I was stunned and found myself shaking my head in disbelief as often as I was at what Metheny was doing (which is a given in Metheny’s case). Sanchez is no lazy drummer, he goes the extra mile to accentuate the rhythm. It’s not just that he can do polyrhythms, but he’s mastered the finer art of applying the right cadence to them. I knew the guy is good but this was a revelation. Another revelation came a couple of months later when I learned that Sanchez had earlier in the year recorded his second studio album as a leader (third overall), and that this record was coming out in late February.
New Life, as this latest project called, is a long overdue follow up to 2007′s Migration and 2010′s Live in New York at Jazz Standard by someone who has proved his worth many times over both as leader and sideman. He’s been Metheny’s best Pat Metheny Group drummer (which is saying a lot, since Dan Gottlieb and Paul Wertico are hardly slouches) and performed other notable sideman work for Chick Corea, Dianne Reeves, Michael Brecker, Gary Burton and many others. Though both Metheny and Corea appeared on Migration, both are nowhere to be found on New Life, save for the big stamp of approval Metheny puts on the liner notes, but that’s better for Sanchez to prove himself to the world as someone who can flourish outside the long shadow of the iconic guitarist. He has nothing left to prove as a musician, so here is his opportunity to build his reputation as a composer and bandleader. Nonetheless, he pulled out the stops where supporting personnel is concerned, an enticing slate of equals in Dave Binney (alto sax), Donny McCaslin (tenor sax), John Escreet (piano), Matt Brewer (bass), and for a track or two, Thana Alexa (voice).
The depth of his compositional abilities is the real question that Sanchez seeks to answer on New Life. What’s noticeable about his songs is that there is a coherency across all eight of these self-penned compositions, though they touch on a number of styles. The main thing that Sanchez does, is no matter how advanced his songs are constructed, the melody remains strong. That thread flows from the opening spiritual journey “Uprising and Revolutions” on through the crisp “Family Ties.” Alexa was brought in to amplify the pleasing harmonies found on “New Life,” a device Sanchez may have very well borrowed from the PMG, but no song ever feels as if he was trying to ape his sometimes leader; Sanchez has his own thing going.
Drumming freaks will still find plenty to drool over; on “Uprisings,” Sanchez piles on layers of rhythms but the distinction with him is that he’s so in tune with the strain, and does everything to support it. His broad, cliché free solo on “Minotauro” is staggering and is capable of coloring a luminous ballad such as “Air” with cymbal splashes alone.
The dangerous saxophone combination of McCaslin and Binney are fully exploited, here. These two leaders in their own right share Sanchez’s vision of harmony and dynamic movement, and turn in first-rate solos, one after another. They spar effectively on coexistent improvising on “Family Ties” and on the fun tune “The Real McDaddy,” they are musically conversing with other when Sanchez slips a second line beat underneath them. The impish unannounced starts and stops keeps the listener guessing. Elsewhere, “Medusa” sports a smokin’ hot horn chart worthy of a swing bid band and as McCaslin’s soul-laden tenor leads the gospel tinted “Nighttime Story,” an ethereal soprano sax (Binney?) leads the placid “Air.”
Escreet’s standing in the jazz world has risen considerably over the last couple of years and he acquits himself well for Sanchez. His piano the centerpiece attraction on Sanchez’s epic, driving, and ultimately, exultant “New Life” (Brewer’s lyrical bass is an big positive on this song, too) and on the opposite end, he plays an electric piano so in the pocket for the slinky funk number “The Real McDaddy.”
Antonio Sanchez, who impresses as a very detailed drummer, applied that same kind of attention to detail on everything else about the music for New Life. He’s stretching out from his normal comfort areas, and in the end, winds up expanding that comfort zone ever wider. It’s difficult to think of him as “just” Pat Metheny’s drummer after listening to this, as good as he’s been in that role. But Sanchez is clearly destined for more than that.