Interview with Angelica Sanchez
Tafuri: At the risk of getting too pedantic right off the bat, why do you play the piano?
Sanchez: That's an interesting question... I think I came about it totally by chance when I was a kid. I played the clarinet first, and my brother took piano lessons. So I wanted to take piano lessons.
Tafuri: Older or younger?
Sanchez: He's my older brother, and I wanted to be like him. So we took piano lessons, and I was miserable. I was terrible at it, so I stopped taking piano when I was around thirteen. Then, when I got into high school, a local jazz band came and played for us. I was a freshman in high school, and I was completely blown away. I had sort of started to get interested in blues music, then they came and played for us, and I was knocked out.
Tafuri: What kind of stuff did they play?
Sanchez: They played a blues, and they played a standard -- stuff that I had never really heard, because I was pretty green. I had just never heard people play music like that.
Tafuri: What was music for you before then?
Sanchez: I liked Elton John. I liked Boy George. I actually really liked country music.
Sanchez: Yeah, I was really into country music. I liked fusion [jazz].
Tafuri: This is in Phoenix? And they had country music on the air there?
Sanchez: Oh, sure. My parents were like, "You like country music?" I liked lots of pop music back then. But then there was the Marian McPartland show that was the first real way I heard piano. I was just amazed that she had on all these piano players, and that's sort of how I got introduced to playing the piano. It was a great show. I mean, it was the only thing they had on the radio that was hip back then, because they didn't have a jazz station back when I was growing up.
Tafuri: There is a jazz station now.
Sanchez: There is now, but, back when I was growing up, it was like KJAZ was sort of "pseudo-fusiony" kind of thing.
Tafuri: It still is KJAZ.
Sanchez: Yeah, but now they play Dexter Gordon, and back then they didn't.
Tafuri: Wow! Well, when was this? This was the '70s?
Sanchez: No, the '80s. [She laughs.]
Tafuri: Well, that was a "fusiony" time, the early to mid '80s.
Sanchez: Like Kenny G stuff.
Tafuri: Well, I was on the air starting in 1980. That's what they wanted to play, a lot of fusion. We didn't play Kenny G stuff, but we played a lot of "fusiony" stuff...
Sanchez: Like the Yellowjackets.
Tafuri: Yeah, the Yellowjackets are all right.
Sanchez: My first two jazz records were a Yellowjackets record and an Oscar Peterson record.
Tafuri: Wow, that's interesting. How did you get those?
Sanchez: My mom bought them for me. I got really interested in jazz after that band came to my high school, so I said, "Take me to the record store, I gotta get some records."
Tafuri: Do you remember who or what that band was?
Sanchez: Sure. It was a teacher. He teaches at Mesa Community College. His name is Fred Forney, and if you look him up on the Internet, you'll find he has records out, and we're still in touch with him. Tony [Malaby, Angie's husband] plays with him sometimes. He knew me when I was a little punk.
Tafuri: That's cool. Well, how did your mother buy you those two records?
Sanchez: She always wanted us to play music, because she never could. So, when I wanted to take piano lessons, she was thrilled. She bought us a piano. She broke her back to get us a piano. When I said I wanted to buy some records, she was like, "Okay, let's go." I had picked out two records...
Tafuri: Oh, you picked them.
Sanchez: Yes, I picked them.
Tafuri: That's what I wanted to know: how would she pick you a Yellowjackets and an OP record?
Sanchez: Oh, no. [Laughs.] She drove me to the record store.
Tafuri: What Oscar Peterson [record] was it, do you remember?
Sanchez: Ah, he's playing Duke Ellington. I was knocked out. I thought, ‘Oscar Peterson is great.' And I loved the Yellowjackets.'
Tafuri: That's a terrific group.
Sanchez: It was a record called Samurai Samba.
Tafuri: Yeah, I know the record.
Sanchez: I picked it because I liked the cover. I really didn't know anything about it. I went to the jazz section.
Tafuri: Russ Ferrante is a ferocious player. He can play.
Sanchez: Yeah, he's great, he's great. I've seen him play. But I think the reason I stuck with the piano is because I could play it a little bit already.
Sanchez: I don't if it really "called me" from the very beginning, but...
Tafuri: 'Cause then at a certain point you realized you wanted to play an instrument, and you figured, ‘Why learn another instrument?'
Sanchez: And I was awful with the clarinet; I was terrible.
Tafuri: Well, that's interesting about staying with the piano, because that's similar to what Cuong [Vu] told me. He didn't particularly like the trumpet, but he could play it, and he knew he wanted to play music, and he didn't particularly feel like learning another instrument. So, when he figured out he wanted to play music for a living, he stuck with it. Now there's this particular love-hate thing he has with the trumpet.
Sanchez: I really love the piano now ... after spending some time learning about it.
Tafuri: When did the transition happen? Do you remember?
Sanchez: When I decided that I loved the piano?
Sanchez: I guess, when I started to study a little bit. I learned a little bit more about how to touch the piano. Some of that's recent. Like, I study now with a teacher, and she has really made me love the piano a little more.
Tafuri: Did you start playing before you had lessons?
Tafuri: So, your mother got you a piano, and you just "played" it.
Tafuri: That's cool.
Sanchez: So, I learned by ear, at first. I had trouble learning to read music in college.
Tafuri: Oh, you learned in college?
Sanchez: I could sorta do a little bit before college -- like really basic stuff. But I didn't understand it. I didn't practice it. I picked up everything by ear.
Tafuri: That sure helps.
Sanchez: Yeah. I think it was not such a bad thing to start that way. It's a little harder now, as an adult, when you have to learn something that's difficult and you don't have time to look at it. But I'm practicing now sightreading. It's much easier to learn to sightread than to use your ear when you're an adult.
Tafuri: I think so. I started playing by ear. I mean I, personally, never had a lot of formal training on the piano. I had like two years of lessons when I was six, then my teacher moved away. I feel like I'm really deprived on the theory side. I've listened to so much music that I can sing stuff, so I can talk about great moments in music, like a solo or a great development part in a symphony. But I can't say, "Oh, that's a sharp-7 over a G pedal."
Sanchez: There are lots of folks like that. I didn't learn all of that stuff until my later years of college. But I wasn't really paying attention in college.
Tafuri: [Laughing.] You weren't really paying attention in college?
Sanchez: [Giggling.] No, I wasn't.
Tafuri: So you were learning music, but you really didn't wanna, because you weren't paying attention. It was like "obligatory"?
Tafuri: Were you a music major?
Tafuri: Oh, you were?
Sanchez: I was a jazz major, right? So you had to take classical piano, but it was just too much for me at that point. I wasn't ready. It wasn't the right time for me, so I suffered a lot. [Laughs.] But I took all the jazz courses and was really enthusiastic about the jazz courses. And there I did learn a lot about harmony and stuff like that.
Tafuri: Where did you go to school?
Sanchez: Arizona State.
Tafuri: Where there like any "well-known" teachers there?
Sanchez: There was one guy there -- I think he's still there -- who's a great piano player. His name is Chuck Marohnic. I don't sound anything like him, but he taught me a lot about jazz harmony.
Tafuri: Well, that's the thing. You go to see the Bill T Jones-Arne Zane Dance Company or something, and you know they had to start off with their pas de deuxes. You gotta understand -- at some level -- the tradition.
Sanchez: A lot of it I skipped over when I was younger, because I was just interested in playing different than what was happening. So it's happening now that I'm a little older that I'm going back and am studying stuff that, maybe, I skipped over when I was younger.
Tafuri: It's really fascinating to me because, when I hear you play -- and I dare not use the "U" word, because the "U" word is way overused -- you don't sound like anybody else. You're your own thing, and it's very intriguing to me. I mean, you know, there're moments people could say, "You sound like So-and-so," but for you it's rare. You're so your own thing.
Sanchez: Well, thank you.
Tafuri: No, I mean, I'm just wondering -- and maybe you don't even know, because it's too close to you -- how someone as young as you and with your background can just come out and play like that. It blows me away. It really does.
Sanchez: It really is difficult for me to articulate, because there's just a certain part of music that's really hard to talk about. There're no words to talk about it. One of the reasons I play why I do is because of the people I'm able to play with. At a "younger" age -- it's not considered anymore, but being able to play in my late 20s with [Michael] Formanek and [Tom] Rainey and even Tony [Malaby] (although it's a little shady because we're married -- we didn't play when we first met), they are always stretching boundaries.
Sanchez: Yeah, musical boundaries.
Tafuri: You didn't "play ... music."
Sanchez: "Music." [Laughs, then shouts:] Frank!
Sanchez: So, it just became a normal way to do things ... for me. But when I was younger, I was into [Thelonious] Monk and all the same people everyone else is into.
Tafuri: Wait a minute. You said you were into pop music, and you were into...
Tafuri: [Laughing] Country music. Is that what you heard around the house: music?
Sanchez: Well, my dad -- and I forgot to mention this, though it's probably very important --
Tafuri: Well, I'm trying to figure out...
Sanchez: My parents had parties, and they would play "great Latin music."
Tafuri: Which was what, like Xavier Cougat?
Sanchez: Right! And they would play like Tito Puente and Willie Bobo and so many other people I can't think of right now, but from that era. Just really fun music, but when I was a kid, I hated it, 'cause they would have these parties, and I thought they were really nerdy, and it's like, ‘God, I hate this stuff.'
Sanchez: But my dad had some Dave Brubeck records. He had some Modern Jazz Quartet records.
Tafuri: Isn't that interesting?
Sanchez: He had one Miles Davis record that a friend of his loaned him.
Sanchez: It's called Miles Smiles.
Tafuri: It's a great record.
Sanchez: I think -- it was probably after that jazz band came to my high school -- then I like...
Tafuri: Then you wanted to raid the cabinet.
Sanchez: Yeah! Then I went through his stuff, and he was like, "Yeah, take whatever you want." He didn't listen to them anymore too much. And I remember putting on the Miles Smiles -- Oh, he had a Jobim record! He had a Jobim record with just guitar and voice on it.
Tafuri: Oh yeah!
Sanchez: And I loved it. I played it over and over, and I learned how to sing the songs.
Tafuri: That's so deep, man! Singing in Portuguese or in English?
Sanchez: Portuguese. I didn't know what I was saying, but I learned the words.
Tafuri: That's so deep: him and his guitar.
Sanchez: It's one of my favorites.
Tafuri: Him and JoÃo Gilberto.
Sanchez: Yeah, I've heard people say it's like a spiritual thing.
Tafuri: It's so simple and so... Well, try and do it, man, and you can't do it. It's so beautiful. Aaah!
Sanchez: Of all my dad's records, that was the one that [the Jobim record] really knocked me out the most. I had to play it over and over and over again. I really liked Dave Brubeck. I used to try to...
Tafuri: What record? Do you know? Was it like Time Out?
Sanchez: Time Out.
Sanchez: And I loved Paul Desmond. To this day I still love Paul Desmond. I don't really care for Dave Brubeck so much anymore, but Paul Desmond...
Tafuri: It's that "round sound," baby!
Sanchez: Sssssshw! That sound is so gorgeous!
Tafuri: So where did you dad get those records?
Sanchez: I don't know. It's funny, because he's always been so supportive and really been kind of interested, but we've never talked about it. I think he may have gotten interested in jazz in the Service. Maybe somebody hipped him to it. I'm not really sure.
Tafuri: Could be.
Sanchez: He did a lot of traveling back then.
Tafuri: When I'm talking to artists, I don't always go into such personal revelations, but we've never talked about it.
Sanchez: No, never.
Tafuri: It's just interesting to me. Did you grow up in an "ethnic" community?
Sanchez: Yeah, I suppose I did. The neighborhood...
Tafuri: Did it have an ethnic vaunce to it, or was it a middle-class...
Sanchez: It was sort of like a middle-, lower-class mix between Mexican...
Tafuri: Did it feel Mexican?
Sanchez: Yeah, mostly everyone in the neighborhood was Mexican. There were some black families and some white families in the neighborhood, but it was mostly a Mexican area: South Phoenix.
Tafuri: So what kind of music were you playing when you really got into playing? Were you playing like "weird" music then?
Sanchez: No, no. I was playing like blues music. I was learning the basics, getting a foundation in high school. And I didn't know anything in high school. But I went to a high school, my first year, that didn't have any kind of music program really. It was like a boiler room, and there were a couple of pianos. And then a couple of years later, it became a "magnet school," so it got all this money and had this great music program. So I got money to study with somebody from the college at ASU, so it really sped up things quickly. I was a sophomore in high school taking great lessons and learning a lot about jazz before I even got to college.
Tafuri: That's hip.
Sanchez: So I think that had a lot do with me just "being in there" and playing music -- that kind of music. That had to be it: having that extra "push" in high school which, to me, I didn't know was any different.
Tafuri: It's nice to have somebody to feel like you're having that interest taken in you in something that is hard for you to share with other people.
Tafuri: Sorry to personalize it.
Sanchez: Oh, that's okay. [Laughs.]
Tafuri: But I think I understand, at some levels --
Sanchez: Yeah, you do --
Tafuri: Stuff that maybe you can't yet articulate. So, you were studying with someone you normally wouldn't have been able to study with at that point, someone you would have had to wait a few years to study with?
Tafuri: He's giving you the stuff now, because you're ready for it.
Sanchez: Or not [ready for it].
Tafuri: Well, knowing that can be just as important. I tell people: "When in doubt, do something."
Sanchez: Right. Anything.
Tafuri: Even if you end up totally hating it, just do something. Don't be stagnant.
Sanchez: At the beginning, I think I was just really scared. I just like, "Wow!" You know.
Tafuri: Scared about what?
Sanchez: Just learning and scared about failing. And then it ended up being a really great thing.
Tafuri: Are you okay talking about this stuff?
Sanchez: Sure. I just don't ever talk about it ... ever.
Tafuri: Well, where I'm trying to get to is -- and don't want to keep coming back and personalizing it -- but did you ever have a moment that you felt like it was a "breakthrough" moment? Like, it may have even been a moment you were just sitting, playing, probably just playing for yourself, and all of a sudden you felt like you moved to a new level.
Sanchez: I don't know if I ever felt like I moved to a new level, but I remember how it felt the first time. I was playing with a group -- it was probably in college -- and you're improvising, and you're really stretching, and you're high.
Tafuri: That's what I'm talking about.
Sanchez: The first time you get really high from playing then, after that, you're cooked; you can't stop. It's like heroin or something.
Tafuri: It's what every artist lives for -- especially performing artists. They live for those moments.
Sanchez: That's why you see so many guys after they play, it just like swqsssssh [wiping across her brow], "What do I do now?" So you have to be really careful to balance things out, so you're not a mess when you're not playing. But that's what it was: you get addicted.
Tafuri: I think your compositions are so interesting, because a lot of people write compositions that are like little "stories" but, as a purveyor of "adventurous and listenable jazz," to me the compositions are "out," but they're not "out." They're "welcoming." I don't know how to describe it. Like, it's very interesting to watch people who come into the club to hear you play. They might even be out-of-town tourists who hear the venue plays "jazz," and they think, ‘Oooh, how hip! Let's go hear some jazz!' And they expect swinging, tah-da-da-tah-da-da-tah-da-da jazz and yet, when they hear what you do, they stay ... they don't get scared.
Sanchez: I'm always amazed, especially when tourists stay.
Tafuri: Do you have a particular approach you use when you write? Do you think about it in terms of the quartet ... or individual parts?
Sanchez: I think in terms of whom I'm writing it for. But I have no concept when it comes to the actual architecture of the piece. I'll write out rough sketches, and I'll know, say, now I want to write something that'll be a little slower or'll feature the bass, but I have no architecture laid out. Sometimes I do, but most of the time, I don't. Mostly I'm thinking about the person and how they play, because I'm trying to create environments for what they can do ... to cater to them.
Tafuri: That's interesting, because a lot of your compositions in a lot of ways are episodic, but they're not "eclectic" in sort of a negative sense, like, it leaves one's head spinning. So, the compositions just come to you?
Sanchez: Sometimes. After writing enough pieces now, you sort of get to know your own style and know what you tend to lean towards, certain areas, you know? So now the challenge is to get away from that. The music started to change a lot when I started studying counterpoint. Everything opened up to me at that point. Before that, they were more like simple folk melodies, to me. The folk melody -- well, simple melodies, not necessarily folk melodies -- has always been where I started. It's a real natural place to start. But when I started studying counterpoint, I did that for a couple of years, and it was really slow.
Sanchez: Here. Things kind of opened up.
Tafuri: Are you studying from that Italian guy that [Tom] Varner studies with?
Sanchez: Yeah, Paul Caputo. He's a giant of a guy. He's a great guy. A real sweetie, and I had to start from zero. But it was really great. It got that part of my brain open. Then, with the melodies that were in my head and the counterpoint to support it, when I first started writing counterpoint, it was really kind of nerdy. It was just like, ‘Oh, it sounds like you're studying counterpoint.'
Tafuri: If you really listen to what you're doing in your compositions, you hear the counterpoint.
Sanchez: "Wisteria" was an early counterpoint [effort].
Tafuri: And I love it. And I just saw [at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, where the two had a photo shoot] what wisteria looks like: it's intertwining.
Sanchez: There's form, but there is no form. You know it's a tree, but...
Tafuri: I didn't know what it looked like. How did you know it was wisteria?
Sanchez: 'Cause I know it. I have some in my backyard.
Tafuri: And what did you say about wisteria earlier [at the Botanic Gardens]?
Sanchez: It'll take over your garden and, if you have it growing in the middle of a field with nothing to lean against...
Tafuri: Oh, it has to have something to lean against -- that's right. So, it can't live unless...
Sanchez: It might live, but it might end up, like, bending over. It needs a pole or a wall...
Tafuri: ...to thrive.
Sanchez: Right. It needs a little help ... even if it's a nail, just to guide it up, otherwise it'll just droop down.
Tafuri: Like peas. Like growin' sweet peas. Gotta have a fence to grow on.
Sanchez: Gotta have somethin'. Same with tomatoes.
Tafuri: Or morning glories. So why did you call the composition "Wisteria"? Because it's intertwining?
Sanchez: I think so. It was one of the first tunes I wrote in New York... I never make it a point of fighting what my natural instincts are. When I was studying counterpoint, all I really wanted to do was write counterpoint. You know?
Tafuri: What a concept? Now you're making for all those years in college in when you didn't give a shit. Now you've grown up, and you understand the value of what they were trying to teach you.
Sanchez: Right. Exactly.
Tafuri: Now you're making up for lost time.
Sanchez: I even think I had counterpoint in college, but I don't remember any of it. Any of it.
Tafuri: You're making up lost time.
Sanchez: Now I'm really interested in it. So, that was one of the first tunes I wrote when I was studying counterpoint.
Tafuri: You were "teachable."
Sanchez: I hope so. I can learn.
Tafuri: It has nothing to do with the ability to learn. It has to do with the desire to learn, the willingness to learn, the openness. At the point when you were studying counterpoint, you were open to it and ready for it. You got a little bit of the rebellion out of you and...
Sanchez: I got a lot of it out of me, thank you. You didn't want to know me back then.
Tafuri: [Laughs heartily.] Then there're those of us who are struggling with it later on in our lives.
Sanchez: It's a little harder later on.
Tafuri: Well, "Wisteria" is very cool. I mean, there's definitely counterpoint there.
Sanchez: It's so different from all the other tunes. I think so. It seems a little more simple and sort of mapped out.
Tafuri: Yeah, but then again, it's like what you were talking about before: it's then about what the musicians do with it.
Tafuri: It's not like the musicians -- Tony, Tom, or Michael -- do it any more simply, in any way. They play into it. They add their own thing.
Sanchez: I'm counting on it.
Tafuri: But there's a nice thing that's conducive to improvisation: there's a lot of surprise in your music. That's the way I would describe it. Like, I love -- and you've been having fun watching me at the mastering sessions, and I would do it even if you weren't sitting there -- "Fresh Hell." At the end of that, it's like one surprise after another. It sounds like we're going somewhere [starts singing part of the end of the piece], and you think, ‘Okay, it's winding down,' [singing some more] -- is it four times, I don't remember --
Sanchez: It's four times.
Tafuri: [Still singing] And then you think it's gonna go "daaaaah" [simulating resolving to the tonic], but then, instead, it soars again [sings the next section].
Sanchez: [Laughs.] Then I go a little crazy.
Tafuri: But you don't think about any of that? You just write a structure...
Sanchez: No, that's not true. I write down ideas. I write down melodies and bass line and any kind of counter parts, then I stop, and I take a step back, and I say, "Okay, here's the idea, now what can I do to make it interesting? What does it need?"
Tafuri: So you do construct it a little bit.
Sanchez: I do, but not at the beginning. At the beginning -- even if I think it sounds corny -- I just get it down.
Tafuri: Well, I was basing my comment on what you said earlier, sounding like it just ‘comes to you.'
Sanchez: Like magic. Some tunes do. "Weirdo" was like that. "Weirdo" was like twenty minutes, but not always. Usually, if it's a longer tune, I'll start, then step away and come back and say, "Okay, here's a nice idea, what does it need and how can I make it different from all the other tunes I just wrote?"
Tafuri: So, it's some kind of balance.
Sanchez: It's a process.
Tafuri: Some sort of balance between spontaneity and premeditation.
Sanchez: Oh, yeah. For sure. Like, I don't like to have the same things happen all the time. I try to create interludes, or I try to create specific forms for people to blow on. I try to always change things up; [I] try to having the endings different.
Tafuri: So that's where some of your training came in.
Sanchez: Right! See, you're able to judge, so everything doesn't sound the same ... though sometimes I think it does. [Laughs.] That's just me.
Tafuri: Yeah, but you're on a different level.
Sanchez: Beginnings, endings, transitions. Transitions are probably the hardest part, getting from one section to the next. It's easy to write a section. It's hard to get to the next section without making it sound like, ‘This is a transition.'
Tafuri: But why does it have to go from one section to another?
Sanchez: It doesn't always have to, but sometimes it just needs to go.
Tafuri: You feel that it needs to go, so that's an impetus.
Sanchez: I don't always know why it needs to; it just needs to.
Tafuri: And then you have to figure out how to make it happen.
Sanchez: How to make it sound natural ... or, sometimes, unnatural, if that's what you want to do. It depends on what you want to do.
Tafuri: Do you always notate your transitions or give directions in your transitions?
Sanchez: I try to notate everything. I try to write as few directions as possible on the page. I try to have the music, the notation, dictate that.
Tafuri: Do you use indefinite notation or just squiggly lines indicating when things should go up or down?
Sanchez: On "Wisteria," I did that, actually.
Tafuri: Really [laughs]. I want to call [Paul] Caputo now and take some lessons. It sounds really exciting.
Sanchez: It's really exciting.
Tafuri: Between listening to you and [Tom] Varner...
Sanchez: Oh, Varner was so excited.
Tafuri: Oh, Tom gets excited about everything...
Sanchez: But it is very exciting. There's something about how it opens part of your brain. Paul's very good about how he teaches you. He tells you not to buy any books [on counterpoint], like, that's his first thing: "Don't buy any books." And he teaches you in a really practical way, so that you really come away with an understanding of what the whole purpose of it was. It tells you why this is important because, otherwise, it just seems like a bunch of rules.
Tafuri: Like an intellectual exercise or something.
Sanchez: But it's a very natural way how music tends to happen, tends to fall. It's like teaching yourself how to recognize or how to see those things ... or "hear" those things, rather. I mean, I could go back and study for another fifteen years, and still not learn everything. I stopped prematurely after two years, because I wanted to study piano, and I couldn't do both. I need to learn how to play the piano first, which has been great.
Tafuri: Don't we all?
Sanchez: But he did form and analysis sometimes, which is great. He'd take like a Beethoven string quartet, and he'd take it apart and help us understand.
Tafuri: He took it from a counterpoint standpoint, or just in general?
Sanchez: No, just in general. That stuff's really hard. The only time I've ever really done it is with him. I mean, I really got a lot out of studying with him.
Tafuri: Well, that's great. So, I guess, getting back to your music now, what does "Tragon" mean?
Sanchez: I means like "ravenous." Maybe that's not the best word. But it's like, if you're at the table and there's a whole chicken on the table, and you go and eat the whole thing...
Sanchez: People say, "Che tragÓn." Like you're a big slob. [Laughs.]
Tafuri: So why is your tune "Tragon"?
Sanchez: It's sort of an aggressive tune, I think.
Tafuri: It takes the air out of the room?
Sanchez: [Laughing.] That's right. It doesn't let you come up for air. Tony helped me come up with that name.
Tafuri: So where did the idea for the tune come up?
Sanchez: I think I was just trying to come up with something different than what I had written before.
Tafuri: Which was what? Is the tune you wrote before it on the album?
Sanchez: Probably. I don't remember. But it started in 5 or 7 or some other odd meter. So my goal was to try and write something in an odd meter that didn't feel so odd.
Tafuri: It doesn't. I realized, as I was listening to it, that I was just counting 3 and 4. That's what it really feels like.
Sanchez: I mean, you could probably write it that way -- in [measures of] 3 and 4, too -- but sometimes how you notate something will make who's reading it play a little different. When you notate it in 7, they'll play it little different...
Tafuri: 'Cause you're thinking of phrases.
Sanchez: Right, because the seams are a little different ... even though now the guys know pretty much what my deal is when I write something in 7. They're probably going to read it down one way, and then they'll know what I mean. Because when I first started writing, I didn't know a lot about writing or notating, so I'd write things just sort of "strange."
Tafuri: This was before college?
Sanchez: In college. I didn't know a lot about notating.
Tafuri: And you're a music major and you're not taking theory? Oh, that's what you didn't pay attention to...
Sanchez: [Giggles.] Right.
Tafuri: [Laughs heartily.] Then you finally when, "Doh!"
Sanchez: Like not knowing which beats to show in the bar. I learned all this stuff late in life, but now I know how to do it. But when I first started to write music, if you had someone who knew how to read music, they'd be like, "This person doesn't know how to write music.' I learned the hard way; I learned by guys going, "This sucks!"
Tafuri: Solfeg' [short for "solfeggio"] only goes so far.
Sanchez: Paul [Caputo] used to try to get me to go solfeg', but solfeg' is hard.
Tafuri: It's deep, too.
Sanchez: I'd walk in, and he'd be doing Bach chorales with people in solfeg' -- I mean, like two grown men doing [sings very high notes]. I was always very intimidated. I'm like, ‘I'm just not ready to do solfeg'.'
Tafuri: How about "Thorns"?
Sanchez: "Thorns." That's a recent tune.
Tafuri: It sounds like -- and I'm not making a pun on the title -- like a "painful" tune, like it came out of some painful experience. I don't know how experiential your music is.
Sanchez: I never attach my music to an experience -- not consciously, anyway. I'm sure there's something connected to it. But that was actually a tune where I came up with the title by myself. Usually I ask for help, because I'm really bad at that. But after I wrote it, I was like, "Thorns."
Tafuri: It's a perfect title.
Sanchez: I'm trying to think about the tune [right now]. I think I started writing it for piano trio, and then I expanded it to the quartet ... because it just kept growing and growing and growing.
Tafuri: You play in a number of different contexts, but I love when you play "Wurli" [short for Wurlitzer, as in "Wurlitzer electric piano"].
Sanchez: I love that, too. Wurlitzer's great.
Tafuri: What about it do you really like playing?
Sanchez: Just the way it "sings." It's so rockin'.
Tafuri: The overtones?
Sanchez: The overtones...
Tafuri: Naw, you know? I know what you like about it.
Sanchez: What do I like about it?
Tafuri: You probably like the pop music feel of it.
Sanchez: See, but the music I was into didn't have Wurli.
Tafuri: Are you sure? Elton John?
Sanchez: No, he always had piano. I used to listen to some really corny pop music, but then I did have some really hip music like T Rex and -- I used to have an older sister and she had some good music, like T Rex and -- Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath... That was when I was a little kid, she gave me her records. She had all these 45s, like Motown records and stuff like that. So, I guess you're right: it sneaks in there. But it's really fun to play.
Tafuri: Originally, "Quick Tipper" and "Weirdo" were sort of a medley.
Sanchez: They weren't written together. [Playing them together] happened during gigs. We'd try to do a segue at a gig.
Tafuri: You're not into the serious '60s thing of coming out and doing a medley of a solid 60-minute set with no breaks between tunes?
Sanchez: I've done that before, and I think it's fun, but I think it's more fun for us than it is for people listening.
Tafuri: Well, you gotta give people a chance to "breathe" and acknowledge. It's too aggravating with "heavy" music.
Sanchez: I try not to do it too much with the music I play, because I think it tends to just be overload.
Tafuri: How much does the audience affect you when you're playing?
Tafuri: That's interesting, because it's so interesting to watch the audience when you're playing.
Sanchez: I don't want to sound like I'm not appreciative, but it's just like when I'm up there, I could be in my own living room. When I stop and turn, then I have to like, "Errrrgh," and I have to stop and readjust my head and try to be a little more gracious.
Tafuri: A little more sociable.
Tafuri: "Oh, yeah, there're people here! Oh, hey!"
Sanchez: I'm always really happy when people like it.
Tafuri: And all of sudden you come out of your trance, there there're applause.
Sanchez: That's always really strange ... although that's not the main objective.
Tafuri: Well, you're music -- for as "hard" as it might sound superficially -- has a real polyrhythmic thing going on. People really get into it. Your compositions are "informed" or "informing," like the music of Monk "informs" the players on how to proceed with the improvisation. So it's really hard to tell when the written music ends and when the improvisation begins.
Sanchez: That's a nice compliment. That's something that I think I strive for. How close you get to it, you're never sure, but you try to make it all want to be seamless ... sometimes.
Tafuri: Sometimes you need your abrupt changes.
Sanchez: To keep things interesting.
Tafuri: It's really interesting to watch people in the club. I wish I could have a little, tiny video camera, so I could videotape these people. It's fun to watch them go through this whole range of emotions.
Sanchez: I'm always amazed -- at the end of a concert -- when we stop that people are clapping, and they liked it, and the come up and tell me. Because part of me thinks, ‘Wow, this must be really strange to some people.' To me, it seems totally normal, like breathing.
Tafuri: That's part of the reason they like it and like watching and listening.
Sanchez: What I meant earlier is that I did not not care about the audience.
Tafuri: You just don't expressly think about them.
Sanchez: In the beginning... But when they're there and they're listening, it's wonderful.
Tafuri: It makes a difference.
Sanchez: Right. And it changes something. When there are warm bodies there listening to you make this music, you feel them.
Tafuri: Sure you do. There's an energy in the space. The listeners feel that, too.
Sanchez: There have been a handful of concerts I've played at in New York, where the audience is so quiet, and they're really, really listening -- and it's so rare in New York to have that -- that's so freaky. You're like, "Wow!" You can feel them listening, but it's dead quiet. No cell phone goes off, no cash register, no glasses. It's really special, and it does affect me in another way. But when I go to write the next tune, it doesn't. But it affects me for that moment, and I'm really grateful to have had those experiences, and I really like it if they really like it and it affects them in some way.
Tafuri: It's gratifying. You've made a connection.
Sanchez: Right. Exactly. You've made some connection that you weren't specifically out to make, and it's just special.
Tafuri: If it didn't make that connection, you could have your 40-hour-per-week job and get together with three other people everyone once in a while I play the music and you'd be just as happy.
Sanchez: So, when you do make that connection, it's a really great thing.
Tafuri: It's not premeditated; it's not built into what you do.
Sanchez: No, you can't spend that kind of energy thinking about that.
Tafuri: That's what big record producer-type moguls do at record labels, eh? [Laughs.] Ah, you need a little conga in that section..."
Sanchez: So it does affect you -- both good and bad audiences.
Tafuri: Bad audiences?
Sanchez: I've had one or two.
Tafuri: So then there're tunes you won't play again: you've got a big audience and you don't get a reaction.
Sanchez: No, no. It may have nothing to do with the tune; it's mostly the people or a person in the audience -- somebody who's not liking it or digging it or just talking or oblivious. It's mostly people who are oblivious. They're thinking your music is background.
Tafuri: Well, see, that's what's been so fun. I've been in places where you've played, and four people come in or six people come in, and their concept of jazz is that it is background sound. And, at first, I watch 'em and they're like, ‘What is this?' They have to pay attention, because it's not background. And maybe they're a little put off because it isn't ching-chi-chi-chi-ching jazz. But then they're engaged, if not even a little hooked into, the music.
Sanchez: About the audience, I don't think about them when I'm writing or playing. But I think when you play for an audience, you're always hopeful that they like it, and I think that part of it is... Well, this is what I really believe: I think they need to see that the people who are playing really are enjoying themselves and really believe in something.
Sanchez: Right. I think it doesn't matter what the music is; you'll make some type of connection if the music is sincere. They don't even have to like it, to make a connection. I do think it's really important, and I don't want it to sound like I don't care about the audience.
Tafuri: Well, knowing the guys in the band, my impression is that sure helps to have a band that's "egoless." I mean, I don't there are any great egos in the band.
Sanchez: I think everybody has an ego.
Tafuri: Yeah, everybody has an ego, but I mean it from "dominating ego" perspective. In your band, each player submits their ego to the band, though everybody has a personality.
Sanchez: They would never let it get in the way of the music.
Tafuri: That's it, and in the way of the group concept. I mean, there're some bands where, when someone starts playing or soloing, even though they may have a great amount of creativity, when they start playing they suck a good amount of the air out of the room. And, yes, everyone has their own personality and everyone has their "moments," but in this group there's a real sense of "community" or "communing." There's a little bit of ‘giving up of my own need to dominate the group or lead the group' for the benefit of the group, and that sure helps with your music.
Sanchez: I think we all trust each other.
Tafuri: Well, there you go.
Sanchez: I think that's key to making music good ... at least, the kind of music I play.
Tafuri: You gotta be able to trust the other musicians in the band, ya gotta trust yourself, ya gotta trust the audience. You know, in advance, what kind of music normally gets played in a particular club, but you have to go into the place hopeful that your music is going to be accepted in the same way. It seems like you have to go in with that sense of trust, or the sincerity of the music doesn't come through. There can't be a "timidity" to what happens.
Sanchez: I think if the audience sees that trust within the band and the confidence and sincerity, I think that comes across to them and they can connect with it on some level -- even if they don't know anything about the music.
Tafuri: So, there is an interaction with the audience.
Sanchez: There is.
Tafuri: Even going into a concert, there's an "interaction" with the audience, because you're putting your faith in them that what you're doing is going to connect with them at some level.
Sanchez: Well, only because I believe in it, not because I think I've written something to make it accessible to them.
Tafuri: You said it's still surprising even when you're playing and you're like, ‘Awwwww, I'm going way out,' and they still love it when you're done.
Sanchez: Well, things never feel "out" or "in" to me. They just "are." I know my music is way different than, say, Wallace Roney or someone like that. I know it's completely different, and I think... [Chuckles.] ... and I know people's reaction will be different.
Tafuri: Why did you call the album Mirror Me?
Sanchez: That's a hard question. I think that the two words "mirror" and "me," put together, can mean lots of different things. Mirroring somebody in music, which happens sometimes. Mirroring someone in life in fun. Mirror Me, hmm... I think it came from like when a little kid mirrors you. That's how I got the title.
Tafuri: You mean, like "emulating" you?
Sanchez: Yeah. So it's not really "mirror," but...
Tafuri: You want someone to emulate you?
Sanchez: No. That's just where the idea came from. I don't want somebody to emulate me. That would be pointless.
Tafuri: You've tried to emulate someone else?
Sanchez: Sure, when I was growing up. I think it's a really natural thing to do. And it's a good way to learn how to find out who you are.
Tafuri: Who did you emulate?
Sanchez: [Thelonious] Monk, probably, most of all. I really liked Geri Allen, back in college, but all that -- Geri Allen came from Monk. So, it's all Monk.
Sanchez: Right. That was the heaviest for me.
Tafuri: Didn't we recently have a discussion about Scriabin.
Sanchez: Yeah, I just recently discovered him through my piano lessons. I didn't know anything about him before that. I have this great piano teacher; she's like, "Have you ever played in Scriabin?" and she gave me a piece to learn. It's two pages long. It's gorgeous. And it immediately, totally made sense to me. It wasn't like learning a Beethoven sonata. I committed it to memory in two days; it all came really fast. And she's like, "How did you get it off the page so fast?" And I'm just, "I don't know; it's just there." It wasn't work, like Mozart was for me or even Bach -- even though I connect with Bach, it's still a lot of work to memorize a fugue or something like that. But with Scriabin, I really connected.
Tafuri: Who do you listen to now, still Monk?
Sanchez: I haven't listened to Monk in a long time. But for a long time I was listening to John Taylor, Bobo Stenson, Kenny Wheeler. I spent a lot of time investigating old ECM discs, and those records really influenced me a lot, like some of those Jarrett records, well, those weren't actually the Jarrett records that influenced me. The Jarrett records that really influenced me were the early ones with Dewey Redman like Death of a Flower, New Dance -- those records were great. Then I got into some ECM records. John Taylor today is still very much of an influence. I got the opportunity to see him in London, and I got to sit a foot away from him. When you really like somebody and you like their records, you've got expectations, and you think it's gonna be great and, if it's not, it's going to be disappointing. But it far exceeded any expectation. He's so amazing. I walked out of there saying, "I'm so into John Taylor" and, I mean, I don't play anything like him, but I love the way he "put it."
Tafuri: Getting back to our earlier discussion, you think he cared what you thought?
Sanchez: No, not at all.
Tafuri: Did you talk to him afterward?
Sanchez: Briefly. He doesn't even know I'm a piano player. I just thanked him for his music. I'm just like some "fan." But it was great. I love him. He's a great musician, though I don't know that much about him.
Tafuri: What about his playing did you like?
Sanchez: I love his time. He has great time. And he plays the instrument like a virtuoso. And the way he approaches harmony.
Tafuri: He's very "pianistic."
Tafuri: He uses the piano orchestrally.
Sanchez: Sort of using the energy of the piano.
Tafuri: Yeah, the sound and the energy and the space. Taylor does that.
Sanchez: He's a virtuoso. I mean, I always knew I dug him, but hearing him live... I heard him with John Surman.
Tafuri: Oh, well there you go: that's the pair.
Sanchez: The sound the minute he blows his horn. I have some great records of him and Norma Winstone that are wonderful. I have some Azymuth records of the trio with Kenny Wheeler. I was into that stuff for a very long time, and I still love that music, but they just happened to all be on ECM records ... which is on purpose, I'm sure, not an accident.
Tafuri: So you know that when people hear your records, because people can't help but compare--
Sanchez: They always do. It's only natural, I guess.
Tafuri: -- they're going to have to find a way to express Angelica Sanchez's music in writing. So, you know one of that names that's already come up? Cecil [Taylor]. How do you feel about that?
Sanchez: Ahhm, I feel like I don't play anything like him. Some people may here that, though, and it totally doesn't bother me. I think it's a compliment in many ways. But I don't know him at all. I've seen him play. I say him play duo and solo once; it was really great. But I don't think I have too much in common with him.
Tafuri: It's funny, because when I talk about Cecil -- and, of course, I do this to provoke people and provoke them to think a little bit -- I talk about his melodicism. And a lot of people, probably because of what he did when he did it, don't get it. They're not even really listening. They're like, "Aw, he's out and blah blah blah blah blah." But he plays lines. And there are a lot of lines in your music, and I think that's what keeps it on the ground.
Tafuri: Like the last tune on the record, "Ajo Comino." How much more grounded can you get in a Mexican kitchen to have garlic and cumin? Why is that tune "Ajo Comino"? -- Somebody else came up with the title, right?
Sanchez: Of course. [Laughs.] I was like, "I need help. What do I call this?" "Well, it kinda sounds like..."
Tafuri: Why does the title work, though?
Sanchez: I think because the tune is a mix of lots of different things. There're some vamp sections, there're some shorter sections, there're bass counter lines -- there're all sorts of things in there. There are sections that are opened, there are sections that are a little more confined.
Tafuri: It's all made up of fundamentals?
Sanchez: Yeah, I think so.
Sanchez: Staples. But then the whole thing has a looseness to it ... at the same time. It sounds like maybe a lot of thought went into this tune, but all of it's very loose.
Tafuri: And it didn't have a lot of thought? [Laughs.]
Sanchez: No, it did. That was one of the tunes that came out all at once; it wasn't pieced together. I always think those are stronger tunes. Maybe I changed a bass line or something.
Tafuri: Maybe there's a reason to think they're more inspired, when they come out en masse.
Sanchez: I always like the way they sound better when they come out all at once. Then you go back and you make adjustments, if you need to.
Tafuri: "Fresh Hell" didn't come out all at once?
Sanchez: It came out all at once. It's a short tune; it's a two-page tune. I think we make it sound long because we put lots of solos in it. That I wrote in Canada at Banff. I was having a real dry spell, and I was in Canada teaching at Banff, and I was living in this little cabin in the woods. And I didn't know what to do; I was so frustrated. I had a grand piano, and I had great accommodations -- I'm in the woods -- I mean, "What more do I want?" Nothing ... was coming. And then one day I just started to write. I forced myself to write. Then, like in half an hour it happened. It comes in waves for me anyway.
Tafuri: So how do you force yourself to write?
Sanchez: I just write. I write shapes down, melodies down -- even if I think they're not so strong. And a lot of times at the end of it, I'll tear it up because it's no good.
Tafuri: That's OK, because at least you in the process.
Sanchez: Yeah, you're in there doing it. I write away from the piano sometimes.
Tafuri: [Frank] Zappa used to do something like that. He used to force himself to write forty bars (or something) every day. Something every day, whether he wanted to or not. He didn't care. "You write music every day." Bada-boom. Sometimes you write more than forty bars, but at least you do that, you keep the spigot open.
Sanchez: Huh. Sometimes you do don't. You write and write and write, and it just sucks, so I just stop for a few weeks. But you can't let too much time go by. You always have to be thinking about it at every point of your days.
Tafuri: Well you are thinking about it.
Tafuri: If you don't think about it, then you're lost. At some point, it has to spill out and motivate your hand to do something -- turn on the computer or pick up a pencil or something.
Sanchez: I hope so!
Tafuri: Why "Weirdo"?
Sanchez: Weirdo" is one of those tunes that came out all at once.
Tafuri: Oh, another one. Well, how many of these tunes came out all at once? "Fresh Hell" did.
Tafuri: "Wisteria" didn't.
Tafuri: 'Cause that was your counterpoint tune.
Sanchez: Yeah, that came out a little bit at a time.
Sanchez: That was maybe two sections.
Tafuri: That's all right. I think that still almost qualifies.
Sanchez: [Laughs.] I write them all in about the space of a day or two.
Tafuri: You're not one of those people that has to cut yourself off at a particular point in time because you would keep tuning it and tweaking it and changing it and adding this and adding that?
Sanchez: No. I stop when I know the horse is dead.
Tafuri: [Laughs.] "When the horse it meat." Yeah, all right. -- "Big Tipper"?
Sanchez: That was all at once, too. Those are all short tunes.
Tafuri: I mean, "Fresh Hell" doesn't feel like a short tune.
Sanchez: It's only like 40 bars or something.
Tafuri: "Only 40 bars." OK.
Sanchez: That's good for me.
Tafuri: [In a mock impresario's voice:] "Aw, OK, it's 8 A, then repeat, then 8 B, then A again. It's only 32 bars. That's OK." But this one's only 40 bars; it's A...
Sanchez: Oh, I don't do sections. I use numbers.
Tafuri: Oh, really?
Sanchez: So when you rehearse, it's easier to go to number eighteen. "Bar 18, sir."
Tafuri: [Laughs.] So that tune is just strictly bar numbers--
Sanchez: -- bar numbers.
Tafuri: Awww! (We won't go there.)
Sanchez: No, I keep it simple: no key signatures...
Tafuri: Really? You write everything in -- what do they call that?
Sanchez: "Accidentals." I just write everything in accidentals.
Tafuri: Oh, really?
Sanchez: Because you [keys] change so much, it's sort of relative. I don't like key signatures. [Laughs.]
Tafuri: You know, they just get in the way! So do you write chords in?
Sanchez: [Shakes head.]
Tafuri: You never write chords?
Sanchez: Sometimes. Most of the time, no.
Tafuri: So the musicians gotta figure 'em out?
Sanchez: They're all implied really. Unless I want something really specific. Like, I wrote a new mambo recently, and I have chords in it. Like, I want something very specific.
Tafuri: Getting back to "them" roots.
Sanchez: That's right.
Tafuri: "El Rey" [as in the nickname for Tito Puente, referring back to the music her parents used to listen to].
Sanchez: The tune's called "Chivo."
Sanchez: It's "goat."
Sanchez: 'Cause I like goat tacos.
Tafuri: Aww, I've never had those. I've had baby goat; I've had "capretto" in Italy. Mmmm.
Sanchez: I like goat. I like the gaminess of it.
Tafuri: You just can't go and talk to them before they get [whistles]. You can't go, like, pet 'em, 'cause they got those weird ears and those sad eyes.
Sanchez: Baby goats are cute. I guess to eat 'em'd be real hard.
Tafuri: But they are tasty.
Sanchez: I've never had a baby goat.
Tafuri: Aw, man. We'll have to go to my family in southern Italy.
Sanchez: Let's go. I'm ready!
Tafuri: OK. But before we do, did you have anything else you wanted to say?
Sanchez: I'm a big Merle Haggard fan.
Tafuri: Merle Haggard. Merle Haggard?! Wow!
Sanchez: I got to see him. A friend of mine took me to see him someplace on Union Square. We got VIP passes, and I got to seem him, and I loved him. He was so good.
Tafuri: He's more of one of those "whiny" country guys, isn't he?
Sanchez: Yeah, he's definitely [imitating it] through the nose.
Tafuri: I have a harder time with the whiny stuff. Like, I like bluegrass music. I call it "country bop."
Sanchez: I like bluegrass. I only have a few bluegrass records, but I love Merle Haggard. Loretta Lynn.
Sanchez: No, but something about that music really knocks me out -- which a know a lot of people think is strange.
Tafuri: It's really interesting. I mean, I guess it doesn't have to directly manifest itself in your music.
Sanchez: I guess not.
Tafuri: Because I'm sitting here running through the album in my mind and running through concerts I've heard of yours, and I don't think I hear any Merle Haggard in there.
Sanchez: The thing about Merle Haggard is that there's no bullshit about that music.
Tafuri: That's true: it's very real, it's very down-to-earth.
Sanchez: It's very honest, it's very down-to-earth, but also it's very musical. The melodies are gorgeous. I like the voices in country music. The old boys, not the young ones.
Tafuri: I hear you. Even Garth Brooks?
Sanchez: No, I don't really care for him.
Tafuri: I think that's what he's tapping into and maybe why he's been so popular: he's like one of the young guys who's coming really "out of the tradition." He really understands it. You understand tradition, and your music comes out of a lot of traditions. That's part of what makes it so engaging and intriguing and, for as "challenging" as it gets at times, accessible.