Whether playing duo with the likes of Wadada Leo Smith, or convening a group of her adventurous peers, pianist Angelica Sanchez seeks the unscripted. Over the course of six albums as a leader, Sanchez has cultivated a distinct pianism both patient and playful. This week, Sanchez returns to The Jazz Gallery with a new book of music written especially for her bandmates, bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Billy Hart. We caught up with Angelica to talk about this new group and getting into the improvisational mindset.
The Jazz Gallery: You recently did a presentation on improvisation at Columbia University colloquium. I know a lot of people there who are interested in improvisation outside of music as much as in it, so I was curious what you talked about.
Angelica Sanchez: That talk came out of years of experimentation and learning from elders, figuring out different ways of approaching improvisation. I learned on the bandstand, the old way. Initially, I grew up learning bebop and learning the tradition of reactive responses. Some people say it’s like having a conversation, and that’s usually where I start when I’m teaching a beginner. The first thing you have to do stop listening to yourself and learn to speak with someone else on the stage with you.
And then as the years went by, I started improvising in a different way. I found my people here in New York and started experimenting with different textures at the same time. It was about developing a language within a band. I had always thought of a musical language as something solitary, that you did on your own. So finding my people was the first step in finding a new approach to improvisation.
From there, I thought a lot about what it means to improvise. You spend all this time alone in the practice room, making sure you can play your instrument well, so when you go to the bandstand, you can be free. All the things you work on in the practice room, I like to call them grips—sounds that we like. I would bring those grips to the bandstand, and so I didn’t consider that to be improvising—it was stuff that I had thought about already. I really liked the idea of not knowing. You have to have the courage to not care what you sound like when you’re improvising. True improvisation is being in the moment and seeing where it takes you. So I found people to do that with, and find ways of expanding that idea. Later, I started using composition, and that made it even more interesting for me—I’m still working on it.
This is how I started thinking about what it means to improvise, and how to explain it to people—the difference between reactive improvisation and the other kind where there are two paths, but you’re still playing together and there are still some common bonds between players. I might be playing something that’s the complete antithesis of what someone else is playing, and it will work from how we’re listening to each other. So that’s where the talk came from.
TJG: I definitely learned that same kind of reactive approach to improvisation, really emphasizing call and response between the soloist and rhythm section. But then I could find myself in a situation where everyone is waiting for someone else to make a choice and it all goes on autopilot. How do you think about instigation in an improvised situation? Do you think about throwing musical curveballs to get another player to interact in a new way?
AS: I don’t necessarily think of throwing curveballs in the mix, trying to play the opposite of what I just heard. Now, I can do this very quickly, but it’s a meditative state that you get into. I mentioned this in the lecture, too. It sounds a little corny, but I’m trying to live in the place that people call the zone. When I was first getting into playing this music, it would take me like twenty minutes to get into that mindset, get connected to it. I wasn’t used to that kind of focus, that meditation of music.
I practiced martial arts for a while, I did Tai chi for a few years, and from that I learned about my lack of concentration. From doing this, now when I sit down to play, I’m already there. When I’m in this space, I can be listening on a micro level and a macro level all at the same time. But then I’m not really thinking about what I’m going to do.
Early on, I would anticipate what someone would do, rather than just see what happens. Now, I just go to the edge of the cliff and jump. I’m not standing there to look at the landscape before jumping. On the way down, you don’t know what’s going to happen and that’s how I explain it to students. And when I say jump, they go “no!” It’s definitely scary at first, particularly when you’re teaching somebody new how to do that. And sometimes a student will say, “I don’t want to step on your toes.” And I’ll say, “Try to step on them and see what happens.” It’s about having the courage to sound bad, or to not listen to themselves.
TJG: Are there ways that you can encourage fellow improvisers to jump off that cliff through your playing?
AS: With that, I feel it can turn into having preconceived ideas when sitting down to improvise, and I don’t like that. That’s not being in the moment. I’ve had concerts where I’ll played for five minutes and not feel it or be in it, and I have to get myself to sit back and wait. That’s challenging to do because I like to play! When improvising in a group, the music isn’t mine to create—it’s just there and I’m hoping to catch it. With the people I’ve played with for a long time, we can get to a point where we can all think the same thing, but without having to talk about it. It’s absolute trust.
TJG: Your last album was a duo with pianist Marilyn Crispell. The music seems to reflect that kind of relationship where you don’t need to talk about the music before going in. How do you know that in a working relationship like that?
AS: I can’t speak for Marilyn, but I feel we’re of like minds in terms of musical approach. That music came out of a deep friendship and love for each other. I’ve been a huge fan of hers since I was a kid. She’s someone I admire and look up to, and she’s generous in all aspects of her being. That’s where the music comes from.
I did write short pieces for us—rather than freely improvising—but I didn’t write long pieces. I would write maybe an eight-bar phrase down and we would see where it would take us. When you’re working with a master like Marilyn, you don’t need to give direction.
The first time I heard Marilyn play, I was 19 or something. It was on a Fred Anderson record with Hamid Drake and I was like, “Who is that piano player!?” I was just floored by what she was doing. Several years went by, and then I was up at Karl Berger’s music camp. At the end of the night, they have a jam session and she came. We just started talking, and I didn’t think she knew who I was. I said I was a big fan, and then she said, “Are you Angelica?” So she had heard my name somewhere, and from there we became friends. After about a year, I asked if she wanted to do this project and she said yes. During that year, we just shared a lot with each other. She paints and writes wonderful poetry, and I love going up to Woodstock where she lives. We ended up recording the album there in Woodstock.
TJG: I love it up there too. It sounds like a great place to really explore a piece, rather than having to get tracks down.
AS: Oh yeah—we took our time.
TJG: This week at the Gallery, you’re going to be playing with Billy Hart. Like Marilyn, he’s one of those players that exudes incredible calm and confidence when jumping off that improvisation cliff. How did you get connected with Billy and what are you looking forward to about playing with him?
AS: I met Billy first when I was 18 or 19. It was at the jazz festival in Sandpoint, Idaho that Gunther and Eddie Schuller ran back then. Like Marilyn, he’s just super generous and lovely, and he shared a lot. I’ve always loved the way he plays. He doesn’t fit into a category—he just plays good music and plays with everybody.
So I had known him for many years, but had never played with him. I finally called him to do a gig, and that was last year, before COVID hit. He said, “Why did it take you so long?” I was really happy that he could do it since he’s always really busy. We’ve yet to play together, but I feel I already know him so well from the all the records I’ve listened to with him over the years.
TJG: You’re playing with Michael Formanek too, and he was on your last trio record with Tyshawn Sorey in 2017. Are you going to be doing material from that record, or is new stuff written with Billy in mind?
AS: Yeah, all new stuff. And specific for Billy and Michael for sure. Now I don’t write for instruments, I write for people, at least for my own groups.
TJG: With that in mind, you’ve talked about wanting to play in a piano trio where the piano isn’t the leader. A lot of people say that, but it can be hard to do, especially with how the different instruments work and sound together. How do you get in the mindset to really make the improvisation feel that everyone is on equal footing?
AS: There’s such a long history of piano trios, and it’s not a new idea to get rid of subservient roles in music. Ornette [Coleman] was talking about that in 1958. I approach that idea through the compositions. Like there will be a piece where Michael doesn’t keep time, or Tyshawn isn’t set in a specific role. Beyond that, there needs to be air and breath in the music. You always hear from people, “You have to leave space!” but it’s another thing to do it. In that group, we’re breathing together, so that leads to having space for everybody. Even when we’re all playing, there’s still space. I don’t think it’s a conscious thing when we’re doing it—it’s just what feels musical and not filling up every space with whatever I have to say. It’s as if we’re speaking as one voice, rather than three voices. It takes a bit of courage to not play, to let something happen rather than make something happen. But when we’re all breathing together in such a way, it’s so meaningful. It’s almost a form of telepathy.
The Angelica Sanchez Trio plays The Jazz Gallery on Friday, June 18th, 2021. The group features Ms. Sanchez on piano, Michael Formanek on bass, and Billy Hart on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved table seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.