In May 2018 drummer Antonio Sánchez was performing with pianist/composer Arturo O’Farrill at the Fandango Fronterizo, a trans-border festival at the 18-foot-high fence that separates San Diego, California from Tijuana, Mexico.  What impressed him was how people on both sides of the divide were singing and dancing together to son jarocho. For an instant the fence had disappeared.

Afterwards, flipping through photos of the event, he came upon one of a girl in red playing on the beach, dwarfed by the towering black fence jutting into the ocean. This image became not only the cover of his latest album, Lines In The Sand (CAM ), but its guiding metaphor. With this album Sánchez captures the spirit of borderless music—and makes an unequivocal statement about humanitarianism.

Thematically, Lines In The Sand picks up where his 2017 album, Bad Hombre (CAM ), leaves off. On the earlier release, Mexican-born Sánchez—a naturalized American citizen—challenged the disparagement of Mexicans then occurring in the popular media. With the new album, he holds a magnifying glass up to the immigration policies that he sees resulting from that disparagement.  

Lines opens with the violent sounds of families being separated, real-life audio clips of exchanges between U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials and unidentified men, women, and children—some of whom are American citizens. This montage is the intro to “Travesía (Crossing),” an epic composition in three parts that matches Sánchez’s riveting grooves with oscillating electronics, dynamic strings, and lyric wordless vocals. In a recent phone call Sánchez explained his decision to lead with the most disturbing track on the record. “I wanted [sounds] on the album that were literal,” he explained. Not open for creative interpretation—and not so easily dismissed.  

Lines also recalls the 2017 album compositionally. Sánchez extrapolated the melody for “Travesía” from an arpeggio that he liked on one of the earlier tunes. From the Bad Hombre title track, he borrowed a bass line to create the angular “Bad Hombres y Mujeres.” And the current version of “Home” is almost identical to the previously recorded version, except that singer Thana Alexa, Sanchez’s wife and one fourth of his group Migration, provided lyrics. (“Where is home on this road?” she sings, affectingly.) Bassist Matt Brewer, keyboardist John Escreet, and saxophonist Chase Baird round out the ensemble.

For those looking for a Birdman redux, Sánchez’s compositions for Lines In The Sand, as always, contain plenty of filmic moments, though none of the extended solo drumming. “To me, one of the most fascinating things about composing or improvising is the development—it’s like storytelling,” he said. “The characters in this instance would be the melodies, the harmonic structure, the rhythms. So, I think, how many ways can I turn this around so that you get reminded that you’re listening to the same thing but in a different way?”

Sánchez gave as much thought to the narrative arc of the album as a whole as he did to that of each composition. The album closes with the title cut, a mostly through-composed piece that unleashes into three solos back-to-back  before reverting back to the tune’s initial structure. Like “Travesía,” “Lines In The Sand” lasts longer than 20 minutes and uses spoken word—to sucker-punch effect. At the end of this track, slam poet Jonathan Mendoza (son of Victor Mendoza, Sánchez’s former professor at Berklee College of Music) recites his poem “Blood Country,” a dramatic reworking of the Pledge of Allegiance that lays bare the hard-won triumphs of the Latin American immigrant.

Sánchez said that he closed the album on the Mendoza poem to leave his listeners with some hope amid all of the tough listens on this album. He doesn’t want this hope to obscure the all-important question, however. “If we were running away from famine, hunger, war, violence, persecution—how would we want to be treated?”

Photo: Justin Bettman

(Reprinted from the June 2019 issue of Downbeat magazine)