Marta Sánchez brings Berkeley High home

Spanish pianist Marta Sánchez makes her East Bay debut Saturday at the California Jazz Conservatory with a quintet featuring three Berkeley High Jazz Ensemble alumni. Photo: Antonio Sambeat

In a recent Fresh Air review, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead noted that pianist Marta Sánchez’s gorgeous new album Danza Imposible (Fresh Sound) effectively captures the Spanish composer’s “quintessential New York band.”

Reflecting the Big Apple’s enduring power as a magnet attracting international jazz talent, Sánchez’s band renders her lapidary compositions and intricate rhythmic forms with arresting fluency. “You might think a Spanish-French-Cuban-Canadian-Israeli quintet would go haywire somehow with so many rhythmic accents in play,” Whitehead wrote, “but New York has a way of helping musicians get their time together.”

You could say the same thing about Berkeley High. When Sánchez makes her East Bay debut Saturday evening at the California Jazz Conservatory the majority of her ensemble will consist of alumni of the award-winning Berkeley High Jazz Ensemble. Aside from the lush-toned alto saxophonist Caleb Curtis, who hails from Ann Arbor, her band features the Berkeley natives Evan Hughes on drums and the brothers Raffi and Noah Garabedian on tenor sax and bass, respectively.

The players all met in New York City over the past six years, though Raffi and Hughes have since moved back to the East Bay. “We all ran in the same circles as Caleb and Marta and played sessions in New York, mostly in people’s living rooms,” says Hughes, 28. “With the holidays people come home to visit family. I don’t know if Marta planned it that way, but I think she knew there would be some good musicians in the area.”


While the Berkeleyans hadn’t played Sánchez’s music before, they joined her on New Year’s Day for a San Francisco house concert at Chez Hanny “and they played beautifully” she says. “They definitely put in the work to learn the pieces.”

Rather than sketching themes that serve as launching pads for extended improvisation, Sánchez tends to work with longer forms marked by sinuous counter melodies and subtly shifting textures. The two horns often play long flowing lines in unison while the rhythm section creates an interlocking lattice that can evoke the stuttering beats of electronica.

“The most interesting thing about playing her music is that it’s very through composed,” Hughes says. “In jazz, a lot of times you write a ‘head’ and the tune is about soloing. In Marta’s music, the solos are meant to serve the composition. It feels like everything we do is there to emphasize the compositional aspect of the song.”

Growing up in Madrid, Sánchez was drawn to the piano as a child, and she started composing long before jazz caught her ear. A concert by the Brad Mehldau Trio offered a window into the possibilities of bringing European classical influences into jazz. Early on she gained recognition as a composer and bandleader, performing around Spain with her first combo, the Zafari Project, while winning competitions with bassist Javier Moreno’s trio and vocalist Natalia Calderon’s quartet. Eager to move to New York, she applied for a Fulbright Scholarship, and in 2011 Sánchez started studying at New York University.

But her real education took place at informal sessions and gigs. When she’s not leading her own projects, Sánchez can be found accompanying some of the city’s finest players, like her long-running weekly gig at the Brooklyn hotspot Barbès with the collective Crooked Trio featuring bassist Jeong Lim Yang and drummer Oscar Noriega (who’s better known as a clarinetist and saxophonist).


“The most amazing thing about New York is that all the time you meet musicians from all over the world,” Sánchez says. “That’s why we all want to be here. It’s constant.”

She’s hardly the only artist on the New York jazz scene looking for ways to foreground composition, but judging by recordings like Danza Imposible and 2015’s Partenika, she’s forging a particularly flavorful body of music. Respectful of jazz tradition but not beholden to it, she’s creating music that ebbs, crests and flows with an emotional logic all its own. It’s the sound she’s hearing today, but Sánchez has her ear to the ground, and may change directions tomorrow.

“I love hard bop, but I’m not this kind of player,” she says. “I love electronic music and I wanted to imitate some of those textures. I added the second horn because I wanted an extra voice and I choose tenor saxophone because the sound is warmer, the lines are always mixing with each other. It gives you way more possibilities to create more textures. I want more of the same sound, rather than a brass player, trumpet or trombone. I want a blend that’s warmer. It gives me more possibilities, but that doesn’t mean in the future I won’t do something different.”