This solo piano work from composer Angelica Sanchez is strikingly original, yet accessible to many musical tastes. Born in 1972, Sanchez has worked with respected, gently avant-garde folks like Tony Malaby, Drew Gress, Wadada Leo Smith and Paul Motian, and A Little House features the element of beguiling circumspection common to all of them. It also contains the sort of impulsive excursions and suite-like tributaries that help prompt a kindred iconoclast like Carla Bley to write terse but gushing liner notes.
Sanchez makes spare but impressive use of a toy piano. It arrives about halfway through her cover of Hank Thompson's "I'll Sign My Heart Away," its small, brittle tonality a perfect fit for the plaintive chorus of the 1960s Western swing tune. It is deployed in tandem with a full-blown piano to good effect on "Crawl Space," and is most predominant on the closer, "Mimi," its harpsichord-like quality meshing well with the song's Baroque-oriented melody.
Some of the titles on A Little House seem a bit ironic. "Trickle" does indeed begin with a trickling introductory phrase, but that's soon contrasted with rubbery low notes, which increase in frequency as they diminish in volume, the way gravity pulls a bouncing ball to rest. Another odd title is "Glow," named for a song that is among the sparser tunes here, beautiful in its own way, but almost collapsing into silence. There's no mistaking the reference in "Giant Monks," however, as Sanchez opens with the sort of short, angular phrasing that typifies Thelonious Monk, before extending it into a more polymath approach a la Muhal Richard Abrams, or, more recently, Ethan Iverson of The Bad Plus.
Along with the Thompson piece, there are two other covers: a Brazilian folk tune from the early 20th-century classical composer Francisco Ernani Braga, entitled "A Casinha Pequenina" (translated as "A Little House") that is the album's longest and most varied and amorphous song; and a relatively faithful version of Ornette Coleman's "City Living."
Considering the range of music she covers, the adept and inspired use of the toy piano, and the caliber of her musical associates, Sanchez would be a talent to watch even if her original compositions weren't so compelling. But Bley is right when she states in the liner notes, "Every piece is like a story told to you privately…[e]ven the completely improvised pieces seem to have a plot."