Marta Sanchez is a composer and improviser with roots in Spain and the United States, European classical music and jazz, and simplicity and complexity. For a decade, she has been living and working in the creative music scene of New York, and SAAM (Spanish American Art Museum) is her fourth recording in a quintet format: two saxophones, her piano, bass, and drums. This set is masterful and meticulous but with a center that aches. It is music built on two contrary systems: compositions that interlock like small puzzles and add up to a feeling of yearning. If Sanchez embodies an array of dualities, SAAM is a brilliant act of resolution.
The intricacies of this music are delightful rather than forbidding. “When Dreaming Is the Only” begins with Sanchez chiming a high eighth-note octave with her right hand, lulling our ears into hearing a pleasing version of common time before her left hand and the rhythm section enter with a funky bass line that upends it all, immediately. The time signature, instead, is irregular. Still, drummer Alan Mednard keeps it cooking with propulsive, perfect timekeeping that is locked into the bass line (first composed, then ingeniously embellished) of Rashaan Carter. The written bass part is woven together with a contrapuntal pair of melodies for alto saxophone (Alex LoRe) and tenor saxophone (Román Filiú), and each line is tonal but not quite obvious.
The effect of all four elements together (the three melodies and the jagged but dancing drum groove) is quizzical, dizzying, and slightly blue. On the one hand, the feeling established by the rhythm section and the back-and-forth improvisational lines by the horns exhilarates. But in another sense, you are being jostled by a set of waves that—though beautiful in how they surge and crash—make it hard to remain wholly afloat. The chiming returns, along with the crisp melodies, and Sanchez somehow puts you back on solid ground.
Other performances are less tricky but also rich in emotional complexity. “The Eternal Stillness” begins with the saxophones alone, playing a legato melody into two wistfully harmonized parts, all in a swaying 4/4. As the rhythm section enters, piano and bass play just whole notes on the downbeat while drums skitter in a quiet polyrhythm of brushes against the snare. While there’s “stillness” at the top of the performance, the undercurrent is somewhat agitated, which tracks with the sense of sorrow the melody implies. Improvisation by Carter is full of powerful syncopation, after which Sanchez plays a solo that moves from gradual harmonic motion to flowing lines. As the horns return to their poignant harmonies, the effect is mournful.
As a composer, Sanchez reflects the influence of Guillermo Klein, the Argentine composer and pianist with whom she studied in Barcelona before her time in New York. On a track like “If You Could Create It”, Sanchez uses a straightforward piano part, a countervailing bass line, then two simple saxophone parts to create something whirling and circular in the manner of a Swiss watch. Each element, on its own, has a folk simplicity, but the collection of parts is a marvel. Like Klein’s work, much of the music on SAAM embodies this duality, which invites wonderful improvisations. Each player has a cool tonality, but the heat of friction comes from how their improvised lines spin and rub against the clockwork of accompaniment.
Filiú and LoRe both play with lightness leavened by rhythmic power. Inevitably, they evoke the “cool” soloists from the past (Lee Konitz, Paul Desmond, sometimes Johnny Hodges, sometimes the contemporary Mark Turner), suggesting the tradition of bossa nova and its rhythmic nuance. The opening track, “The Unconquered Vulnerable Areas”, also allows LoRe to connect to the whirling rhythmic complexity of how Steve Coleman plays the alto in his take on the “wheel within a wheel” style of arrangement that links Sanchez to her more contemporary influences.
The leader and composer makes an impact as a pianist and soloist as well. Her trading of statements with Filiú on “Unconquered” is fiery and clarifies that she can leap out of the band as necessary. But the primary purpose of her work is not to feature her pianism. Her quintet is ever balanced—no one soloist is supposed to grab you by the neck. Like Myra Melford‘s delicious bands Snowy Egret and Be Bread, the Sanchez quintet is a work of collective tonality. Like Henry Threadgill‘s Zooid, the voices emerge from the swirl of the whole composition, with individual parts whooshing the canvas as pastels, even the full effect is more powerful.
Harder to explain about Spanish American Art Museum is the feeling of weariness and sadness that is so present throughout. “Dear Worthiness” is the most explicitly minor and mournful tune, with the saxophones seeming to beg for relief as they improvise, and then Sanchez playing her most affecting solo of the album, the complicated response to the woodwind prayers. It’s not an answer of relief but one that poses more hard questions.
More explicit in some other ways is “Marivi”, the track that sits at the album’s center and is the only one with different instrumentation. Vocalist/guitarist Camila Meza sings a plaintive Sanchez lyric and melody that is a conversation the composer is having with her late mother, who died in 2020, while Sanchez was separated from her by the pandemic. Meza is then joined in wordless counterpoint with the exquisite trumpet of Ambrose Akinmusere. It is a song, and of course, you come to realize a whole album about loss. Sanchez’s solo is simple and moving like any one of the folk melodies she tends to mix and match on other tracks. Here, it just sings with an uncomplicated beauty and longing.
“Marivi” casts the whole album in a different light. “The Hard Balance”—with its stately, slow sadness—contains plenty of riveting counterpoint writing but mainly sets up Filiú for the most moving saxophone solo on the date. “December 11th” is the day that Sanchez’s mother passed, and though there are no lyrics, it seems less like a whirling mystery box than the other compositions. All the pieces are there, but there is a sense of air or light rushing through the center of the performance. The counterpoint of the quintet is still there, but each note is clearer. When Sanchez improvises a three-note phrase, then repeats it several times, I have a feeling I’m not the only listener who hears “I miss you” coming through the instrument’s hammers and strings.
SAAM (Spanish American Art Museum) is powerful without ever being loud, Spanish and American as its title suggests, complicated in its construction but clear as can be in its emotional power. All the dualities resolve in the hands of an artist as fine as Marta Sanchez.