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Isthmus Jazz Fest headliner David Sánchez keeps the form vital

The Isthmus Jazz Festival peaks on Saturday, June 6, at the Wisconsin Union Theater with David Sánchez and his post-bop quartet. Sánchez is the top tenor saxman in a new-century florescence of Latin-tinged Big Apple jazz led by players with superlative chops - conservatory-trained expats from across the Caribbean and the continent who bring their own heritages to the table. Sánchez cut his teeth playing bomba percussion in his native Puerto Rico. Today he's playing John Coltrane-inspired sax that glistens with Afro-Boricua spirits.

Sánchez, 40, has put out eight albums in 15 years. Several were nominated simultaneously for Grammys and Latin Grammys; in 2004 he copped a golden Victrola in the latter category for the lush Coral, featuring some of the best young players in the business and backed by the City of Prague Philharmonic. It's a lovely listen, though Cultural Survival, which followed in 2007, is more my style. It's seriously seductive nightclub jazz.

This is essentially a Cultural Survival tour. Guitarist Lage Lund and drummer Henry Cole, who'll play here, are on the album, though bassman Orlando Le Fleming is a recent addition. There'll be no congas, no bongos. Sánchez isn't playing straight-up post-bop bomba. But listen for the bomba beats.

Unless you're borinqueño, you probably need some pointers. Despite a bit of bossa nova, the prevailing Latin element in jazz has always been Cuban. From the Dizzy Gillespie-Chano Pozo Cubop collaborations to Paquito D'Rivera's post-bop guaguancó and McCoy Tyner's flirtations with clave-inspired sounds, it's all rumba. The new, more amply Latin tinge is tougher to define. Critics call Sánchez's sound "Afro-Latin mainstream" or "polyglot jazz," but that shortchanges it.

Bomba's like rumba in that it's a genre, containing multiple polyrhythmic grooves that drive drum-and-dance call and response. Bomba and rumba share Central/West African roots plus the sugarcane plantation-to-urban Caribbean trajectory. But if, as Cuba's 19th century liberator José Marti wrote, the big island and Puerto Rico are one bird with two wings, they're also divided by African diaspora patterns, European variation across the Caribbean and myriad other factors. Bomba and rumba are two different animals when it comes to rhythmic vocabulary, syntax, melodic content, choreography and instrumentation, notes Nuyorican jazz educator/bandleader/drummer Bobby Sanabria, who headlined the Isthmus Jazz Fest in 2003.

Bay Area master percussionist John Santos, from whom I learned a great deal about Afro-Latin jazz during his 2002 Madison campus/community residency, points out that rumba, highly commercialized since Havana's Mafia days, sped up and slicked by generations of young rumberos, has lost lots of its 19th-century elegance. That's not to say the Mafia bypassed Puerto Rico, or that bomba never had its day as dance-band music. But by comparison, bomba's more folkloric, Santos says, and statelier than rumba.

There's no clave in bomba, but beyond that you pretty much need a doctorate in Caribbean ethnomusicology to explain the rhythmic distinctions. Ben Lapidus, leader of New York-based multicultural Caribbean jazz band Sonido Isleño, fills that bill. "As a generalization," he says, "you could characterize the melodic contours of the percussion in rumba as Lo-Hi-Hi-Lo, and in bomba as Dun-Dun-Dun, like a heartbeat."

Bingo. Sánchez mixes bomba with multiple Afro-Latin idioms and fuses it with bop. But you can't miss the stately heartbeat behind his work.

Sánchez picked up his passion for percussion as a little kid growing up in a San Juan suburb with teenage siblings. "My brother played drums, and my sister was messing with guitar music," he says. "They had a group that played in church and I used to tag along. At home my brother and I shared a room. His instruments were right there, so I was playing bongos and congas and drums."

At Escuela Libre de Musica, San Juan's specialized junior-senior high, Sánchez switched to sax. By then his brother was playing steady beachfront hotel gigs with Rafael Cortijo, who'd brought bomba out of the barrio and onto the dance floor in the '50s and '60s. "I learned a lot going to those gigs," Sánchez says. "I was studying saxophone formally, but I was still picking up percussion - folkloric rhythms, especially bomba. I owe many of my later concepts to that."

Sánchez's road from bomba to post-bop passed through Rutgers University. There he studied with pianist Kenny Barron, who honed his own chops as a sideman in trumpet lion Freddie Hubbard's late '60s bands. "I was lucky to get in on the tail end of a special time," Sánchez says.

Besides plying his Latin side - with Eddie Palmieri and Paquito D'Rivera, plus Dizzy Gillespie's United Nation Orchestra in the early '90s - Sánchez apprenticed with the last barons of bop. In addition to Barron that list includes Tyner, Charlie Haden, the late Elvin Jones and Roy Haynes.

"We're in a different cycle today," Sánchez says. "Those ties to the old days are almost gone. The stories and opportunities aren't quite the same. The social part of what we do is extremely important, especially in improvisation. You can practice and practice but that doesn't teach you who you are, and that's where improvisation comes from. You learn that by playing with others."

But Sánchez's cohort is the next link in the chain. Among this set of largely Latino leaders who've revitalized the arts of bop are puertoriqueños - bassman John Benítez, pianist Edsel Gomez, trombonist/ percussionist William Cepeda - plus pianists Danilo Pérez and Gonzalo Rubalcaba, from Panama and Cuba, respectively; Mexican drummer Antonio Sánchez; and Curacao-born percussionist Pernell Saturnino. They often play each other's gigs and record on each other's albums. And they've mentored a younger wave of players who've recently emerged on their own, like Puerto Rican alto saxman Miguel Zenón and Cuban drummer Dafnis Prieto.

As a leader Sánchez put out three undistinguished albums - post-boppy jazz Latin, to use Palmieri's term for Latin jazz lacking dance groove - before finding his stride with Obsesión, Grammy-nominated in 1998. Saturnino, Gomez and Benítez are in the lineup, along with a small string section. Sánchez indulged his jones for Latin classics on this set of tunes from Brazil, Cuba and Puerto Rico, including the improvisation-heavy title track based on Puerto Rican composer-laureate Pedro Flores' signature song.

Obsesión could have cut the strings, but Melaza is hot. Melaza means molasses, and bomba's cane plantation roots beat loud and clear. The 2000 double Grammy nominee features Sánchez, Branford Marsalis and Zenón on saxophones plus Saturnino and Cepeda on percussion. Sánchez comes out as a consummate composer with the almost danceable "Canto a Loíza" and his sweeping "Canción del Cañaveral" ("Song of the Cane Field").

Travesía, recorded two years later, sports a similar lineup, minus Marsalis and Cepeda. It's like Melaza's companion piece, "but Melaza's more literal," Sánchez says. "On Travesía the percussion's there, but the bomba's implied."

It's a slightly softer sound. Travesía, as its name ("The Crossing") suggests, marks a transition. "After that I figured I didn't need percussion all the time for people to get the feel of where the music comes from," Sánchez says. "I wanted to imply that in the bass or the composition or the guitar or the piano or just in the melody. I was thinking of [preeminent Brazilian composer Heitor] Villa-Lobos - his music is classical but if you listen carefully you hear Brazil. There're panderos in the woodwinds. The French horns sound like surdo [Brazilian bass] or repinique [samba drums]. Villa-Lobos' compositions reveal his experience of playing choro music in the streets.

"I thought I'd like to do that. I'd like to make a connection to the influences I take from the classical world. I'd like to do it with an orchestra. I wanted to play something by Villa-Lobos. I thought I'd put that on an album, drop in a couple of my own compositions and try a few works by Argentinian composer [Antonio Carlos] Jobim, who idolized Villa-Lobos."

Thus was born the succulent, if imperfect, Coral. There's a fine line between orchestral jazz and Hollywood movie music, and sometimes Coral crosses it. In fact the City of Prague Philharmonic famously plays for film and TV. The classical overture on Coral's title track, Sánchez's take on Villa-Lobos' "Coral: Canto do Serto" from Bachiana brasileira No. 4, anticipates storybook ballet or a Disney cartoon, though the juicy sax duets with Zenón save it from sinking once the samba sneaks in.

Mostly, in Sánchez's hands, the symphonic concept works, though his own jagged composition, "The Elements II," doesn't fit. On Coral it's Jobim's tunes that stand out. Sánchez's sax spins the saudade-dripping ballad "Eu Sei Que Vou Te Amar" into silky blues. Gomez's piano sparkles on the post-boppy samba "Matita Perê"; Saturnino's percussion melts seductively into the strings. But if you think about it, there it is - bomba's heartbeat, amid the cellos, drums and bass.

After Coral, Cultural Survival sounds liberated and fresh. The quartet-based studio album boasts multiple guests, including Saturnino and Pérez on several tracks. The addition of electric guitar, played by the young Norwegian-born, Juilliard-trained Lage Lund (who happens to be married to former Madison jazz chanteuse Joy Dragland), is a surprise.

"I was listening to pygmy music from Cameroon," Sánchez explains. "The way they use stringed instruments is so powerful, it made me switch gears and go for the guitar sound that's so present on Cultural Survival."

There are echoes of Miles Davis' Bitches Brew in the horn/guitar exchange, though Lund's influence is subtle next to Sánchez's powerful playing. Sánchez wrote six of the album's eight tunes; among them, the zippy opener, "Coast to Coast," comes closest to Miles-like fusion. "Manto Azul," at heart, is post-bop bomba; the title track's a little less Puerto Rico, a notch more New York.

The two homages add different spice. Sánchez does justice to the melancholy "Monk's Mood," originally recorded on Thelonious Himself in 1957 with Coltrane on tenor sax. The rendition's faithful, though Palmieri's "Adoración" is Sánchez-ized with playful post-bop improvisations over bomba beats that bear little resemblance to the mambo king's guaracha.

The album's 20-minute pièce de résistance, "La Leyenda del Cañaveral," epitomizes Sánchez's oeuvre. It's based on a poem by his sister Margarita, whose own inspiration came from Melaza. In his ode to "the bitter blood of our ancestors, who, in the mills, became one with the sugarcane," Sánchez finds bomba's roots deep in Cameroon, the crossroads of Central and West Africa.

"I was playing those records from Cameroon," he says, "and wow, I could hear some of that sound in what the poem says. Originally I intended to use spoken word, but that didn't work out. I made the whole piece around three motifs - the poem, Cameroonian polyphony and Afro-Caribbean polyrhythms."

All of Sánchez's hallmarks are there - heartbeat, call and response, the formal inventiveness of Villa-Lobos, wide-open stretches of post-bop improvisation, plus that savvy sax.

"Cultural Survival was influenced by Coral, and Coral by Melaza and Travesía," Sánchez says. "It's like anything else in life. Years go by, but when you learn something it becomes part of who you are. That process is so interesting. It never stops."

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