Mondays with Morgan: Angelica Sanchez (new album ‘Nighttime Creatures’)

This week’s edition of Mondays with Morgan is an interview between jazz journalist Morgan Enos and Angelica Sanchez, a leading pianist, composer, and educator who has worked with everyone from Paul Motian to Richard Davis to Nicole Mitchell. Her new Angelica Sanchez Nonet album, Nighttime Creatures, was released 27 Oct via Pyroclastic Records. Links to purchase the music, as well as to her website, can be found at the bottom of this article.

Angelica Sanchez headshot outside with greenery in background. Wearing blue top and colourful necklace
Angelica Sanchez. Photo credit Farah Al Qasimi

On 29 and 30 September 2023, Angelica Sanchez was set to premiere her latest music at the Jazz Gallery in Manhattan. Which was the exact wrong time: on what was set to be her opening night, New York City experienced its wettest September in a century.

And despite being located on the 5th floor of a NoMad building, the Gallery floor pooled with floodwater. “Due to water damages in the space caused by the severe weather,” the venue announced, Sanchez’s gig was off.

Despite the Jazz Gallery’s promise to return to business as usual the following evening, the NYC club circuit is a congested one – and Sanchez says she won’t be able to premiere music from her new album, Nighttime Creatures, there until February. (Tickets are pending; keep your eyes and ears peeled.)

Which is a shame, for the time being – as Nighttime Creatures is a moody, elliptical wonder [read LJN album review by John Ferguson].

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The album features alto saxophonist Michaël Attias, contra alto clarinettist Ben Goldberg, bassist John Hébert, quarter-tone trumpeter Thomas Heberer, drummer Sam Ospovat, tenor saxophonist and clarinettist Chris Speed, guitarist Omar Tamez, and cornetist Kenny Warren.

“There’s less safety in numbers,” the pianist explained in the press release. “The individual personalities were really important to me, so I tried to create space for that. There’s a lot of freedom within the music, and the musicians can choose how they want to exercise that freedom.”

Unlike the floodgates that opened on the room where Nighttime Creatures was set to transpire, this flood of improvisation and imagination was a constructive one. “I don’t try to distil or condense anything,” Sanchez stresses. “I just sort of channel the music as it comes into my head. It’s not my music, right? Music belongs to everybody.”

With Nighttime Creatures out in the world, Sanchez spoke to LondonJazz about how it came to be, and what galvanises her in the now – which, by her telling, has more to do with natural forces than anything else.

LondonJazz News: In laying the groundwork for Nighttime Creatures, I think a good place to start is the nonet. Can you talk about that format?

Angelica Sanchez: I started with trying to do a big band, and it wasn’t possible because it costs too much money. So, I thought I would put together this nonet; the nonet has a long history. In music, not just in jazz. I got to do some reconfiguring with the instrumentation, so there isn’t a traditional bari or trombone.

To contrast the clarinet, I have a cornet and a trumpet – which sort of goes back to the King Oliver days, when there’s two trumpets, and sometimes you would hear a cornet and trumpet at the same time. But I love the rub that it creates, because when you put those two instruments in unison, it’s never quite unison.

It came out of several years of writing and rewriting, and doing gigs, and trying to take a larger group on the road – just the camaraderie and friendship I have with those guys.

We did a live recording once, and I wasn’t satisfied. I then got some funding and went to the studio after six years of playing the music – but not just rewrites and things like that. Everyone sort of internalised that music, and it took on its own life. It takes time for that to happen.

Because gone are the days when a band can go out for three months at a time. Everyone does these little one-hitters here and there – maybe two nights, if you’re lucky. It took me that long not just to get the music on the page where I wanted it, but get the music in everyone’s head to a space where they were inside of it.

LJN: Was that push and pull between [trumpeter] Thomas [Heberer] and [cornetist] Kenny [Warren] with [clarinettist] Ben [Goldberg] kind of the core concept of the band?

No, I didn’t plan that at all. It’s just that those are strong personalities, so they come through. I pulled those guys together because I liked their sound, and how they deal in music, and what they play. But all that stuff you’re hearing was not pliant.

Angelica Sanchez conducting her nonet on stage from the piano. Image in black and white with blurry movement
Angelica Sanchez Nonet. Photo credit Bradley Bambarger

LJN: A happy development, then.

AS: Well, they’re just really great players, too. I did try to make space so that would come through. That’s something I do control – who’s playing when, so that they have those personalities [come across].

LJN: You’re inspired by large ensemble music from all over the map, across the 20th and 21st centuries. How do you boil that down into a cohesive, concise listening experience?

AS: I don’t try to do that. I just take sounds and things that I like, and try to be as honest as I can getting them across. I don’t try to distil or condense anything.

You know, we are a product of everything we do in our lives, from the beginning to the very end. I don’t try to do anything. I just sort of channel the music as it comes into my head. It’s not my music, right? Music belongs to everybody. So, I just tried to create the right conditions so that music can flourish and do what it needs to do.

LJN: It’s an intuition-based process, always.

AS: Music should always be that way, you know.

When I was putting together this body of work – once I got in there, writing this music several years ago – I could hear my influences; I could see them on the page. And one of those persons was Carla Bley. I hadn’t realised how much she had influenced me until I started putting this stuff on the page – Oh man, that’s Carla.

LJN: Tell me more about the impact Bley had on you.

AS: She still has an impact on me. I really connect with the way she deals with melodies.

There’s sort of this unspoken rule that everything has to be cutting, hard-edged – at 11. She was one of the wonderful master arrangers; she has beautiful melodies and also more free or open-ended things.

Then, she’s just really balanced. The way she arranges things. The way she pushes the ranges of instruments. But I was really drawn to her housing of the melodic content that she comes up with. And her sense of humour; I love that too.

LJN: You dedicated Nighttime Creatures to your late father. I lost my dad young; it’s like a secret club we’re in. Can you talk about your father’s impact?

AS: He was a wonderful person; the kindest, gentlest person you would have ever met. He’d give you the shirt off his back two or three times in a row.

He grew up in a really tough way. He was sort of destitute and experienced racism coming up as a young man, and it wasn’t easy. He went into the service, became worldly in the service, and came out and had a love for jazz, and had all these wonderful records.

I asked him, “Can I look at your records?” And he went, “Yeah, go ahead.”

That was how I started getting very interested in jazz records, around 10. He had Ahmad Jamal; he had the Modern Jazz Quartet; he had Brubeck; he had a lot of records. But he gave me a record called Miles Smiles by Miles Davis, because it was too wild for him; he didn’t care for it.

I just started plucking out what they were doing on the recording – not very well at the time, at 12 years old, but I tried.

He really led the path for me throughout my life, and always supported me. A lot of parents say, “Oh, you should go get a job, so you have something to fall back on.” He was just like, “Go for it; go for your dreams; move to New York.” He just always supported me – both my mother and father did.

LJN: Can you talk about Kris Davis [read interview with Kris here] and Pyroclastic Records? Your association with her and all she does?

AS: We’ve been friends a long time. I was teaching at the Banff workshop a long time ago, and she was a student there; that’s how we met.

I think that following year, she moved to New York , and she would just be over at the house a lot. She was kind of getting it together, and we would hang out and talk about music and things like that.

Now, you know where she landed. With her label, she helps a lot of people get their music out there. So, I really commend her for spreading it all around.

You’d have to ask her, but I believe she’s trying to support music that needs supporting, that might be hard to classify. She supports a lot of music that wouldn’t necessarily get attention otherwise, so that’s fantastic; we need more of that.

LJN: What media are you absorbing that’s grist for the mill for you right now?

AS: Oh, man. Going for a walk in the woods. That’s something else. That’s a far-out thing to do.

It’s funny: for music, I’ve been reading the [1980] Derek Bailey book Improvisation. I’m a teacher, so I was reading it for classes. It’s really inspiring. And then, I’ve been going through lots of Pauline Oliveros; I love her ideas and concepts. I got to meet her once.

You know, daily life with my son and the nature outside is really enough. I live part time in Woodstock, so you go outside and it’s beautiful. I think we tend to forget all the beauty that’s out there, because we’re just going too fast.

LINKS: Purchase Nighttime Creatures

Angelica Sanchez’s website

John Ferguson’s LJN review of Nighttime Creatures

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