Powerful new album After Now by South Texas-tied jazz duo looks for hope amid national turmoil

The album, which also features San Antonio Poet Laureate Andrea 'Vocab' Sanderson, takes listeners on a complex, ambitious and compelling ride.

click to enlarge After Now is a new digital album by Brandon Guerra (left) and Jonathan Leal. - Courtesy Photo / Brandon Guerra and Jonathan Leal
Courtesy Photo / Brandon Guerra and Jonathan Leal
After Now is a new digital album by Brandon Guerra (left) and Jonathan Leal.

"We wait for a time after now, a time beyond then that was, a time that now feels distant," San Antonio Poet Laureate Andrea "Vocab" Sanderson intones over a mournful saxophone during the opening of After Now, a new digital album by Brandon Guerra and Jonathan Leal.

From Sanderson's poetic introduction, the six-part suite dives headlong into a Monk-reminiscent section driven by angular piano passages and odd time signatures, then into gently lilting horn solos interspersed with synthetic whooshes before skittering into free improvisation.

And that's just the first four minutes of the 16-minute composition by the two South Texas-tied jazz artists. Before it's over, After Now cycles through neo-soul, low-fi hip-hop, trad jazz, ambient music and more spoken word interludes. It's an episodic journey that quests for a future beyond racial divisions, the climate crisis, political upheaval and gun violence.

While the album doesn't offer a utopian cure for all that turmoil, it does take listeners on a complex, ambitious and compelling ride. As its dual composers, Guerra — the house drummer at San Antonio's Jazz, TX — and Leal — an LA-based composer, author and researcher originally from the Rio Grande Valley — make able journey agents.

Leal, who performed on piano and synthesizer, and Guerra, who contributed both drums and keys, are joined on After Now not just by Sanderson but also Jason Galbraith on saxophones and flute, Adam Carrillo on alto sax and Curtis Calderon on trumpet.

The Current corralled Leal and Guerra via Zoom to discuss the album, now available for download on Bandcamp.

How do you guys know each other, and how did this project come about?

Guerra: Jonathan and I were part of these groups that are part of an organization called Drum Corps International ... which is kind of like marching band on steroids. There are these groups that are based out of different parts of the country, so you would fly out and audition. If you were lucky enough to get the spot, then you'd travel all summer long, and it was just really intense rehearsals and performances. We did that together. We were in the same groups in the summers of 2010 and 2011, and that's how we met each other. It was in Illinois, I think, even though we were both from Texas.

We've just kind of stayed in touch. I put out my first album earlier this year, and after that came out, Jonathan reached out to me and was like, "Man, I'm listening to this. This is really cool. I think we should work on some music and try to make a recording this summer." I was like, "Of course. Let's do it."

Was this a digital collaboration or were you in the same room together during the recording?

Guerra: We were in the same room together. It started remotely. Jonathan's in California, and I'm in San Antonio. We were bouncing ideas back and forth, but then we realized that Jonathan could come in town for just a couple days. That was in August, so we recorded the bulk of the music in two days in August together at my home studio in San Antonio.

The story you're trying to convey is complex. The darker, more outside passages convey how unsettling these times are. Then there are passages, where the music sounds more hopeful. How did you strike that balance between finding moments of accessibility and also realizing the power that a more outside approach can have to carry the theme?

Leal: When Brandon and I first started talking about wanting to make something together, one of our creative exercises was, "What are things that we care about right now? What are things that we can't get out of our heads right now?" ... What emerged for us was a kind of mutual sense of anxiety about what's transpiring in the present and what the shape of the future might be given the shape of the present. We're balancing how to think about what's going on right now with the desire for the future to be better — and also to think about the future differently. A lot of times when folks think about future stuff, it takes one of two modes. It's usually the straight-up utopian, "Everything will be rosy," or it's the straight-up dystopian, "Everything's going to shit, and everything's going to be awful in the future." We didn't want to fall into either one of those. We wanted to find something different, so we abandoned the word "future" altogether. We said, "Well, let's call it something different. Let's call it the 'After Now,'" so that's how we got to the title of it. We were just riffing on this. We didn't have any poetry or anything like that. Then Brandon and I were talking, and we said, "It would be great to have some spoken word on this or some poetry to anchor all of these feelings." So, Brandon reached out to Andrea "Vocab" Sanderson, who's the current poet laureate of San Antonio. [She's got a] genius composer's mind, and she's a poet and spoken word artist and performer. She really provided the sort of language anchor for us, and then she came and recorded that with Brandon at his studio before we'd written any music really.

Historically, great jazz has come out of trying times, especially creative music that pushes the genre forward. Do you feel like, in some way, this album is similar?

Leal: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, that's something that we've talked about together, and that came out in the improvisations and where we went musically. But you're right, jazz and creative music, improvised music, certainly in the '50s and the '60s and '70s — but even before that, in the '20s — it's a music that was born of struggle. It was born of strife. It was born of Black and Brown folks trying to find community together in incredibly repressive situations. ... I think that because Vocab's voice is part of this, it really anchors all of that together, and it does put this in a long continuum of musicians and artists who have been trying to respond to social pressures using the tools that they have. Music is not going to stop bullets, or it's not going to stop bombs from dropping, but it can create conversations and create occasions for people to come together and, hopefully, find new ways of responding to things that can be helpful for folks.

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Sanford Nowlin

Sanford Nowlin is editor-in-chief of the San Antonio Current.

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