For drummer-composer Antonio Sanchez’ 46th birthday, here’s a feature article that I had the honor to write about him for Jazziz in 2015, framed around his soundtrack for the film Birdman and two contemporaneous releases.
Beyond Birdman, Jazziz, 2015
In the program notes for his new release, The Meridian Suite, Antonio Sanchez draws an explicit analogy between the raw materials of his long-form, 55-minute work and the invisible pathways along which energy flows through the human body, even the lines that criss-cross the globe and the celestial spheres. These days, Sanchez’s Q score is as high as any living drummer after 15 years of constant touring with Pat Metheny and the release last year of the widely admired solo-drum soundtrack that he created for the award-winning feature film Birdman, yet he was thinking of matters more prosaic than chakras and qi when he titled the ambitious five-part Meridian Suite.
Specifically, it gestated in a hotel room in Meridian, Mississippi, after an October 2012 concert by Metheny’s Unity Band. Sanchez saved a 5/4 motif that he had conceived, then named the file for the location. In 2014, at the beginning of a 10-month tour with Unity Band, Sanchez was pondering the next step that his quartet, Migration, might take after the previous year’s release of its eight-tune album New Life. “I remembered this cool intro that I thought was OK,” he recalls. “I listened and liked it again. That’s a good sign.” Working in short spurts while on the road, he added more sections, realized it would be a suite, and began to trace the metaphysical connections.
I spoke to Sanchez, 43, on a balmy May afternoon at the airy one-bedroom Jackson Heights co-op that he shares with his fiancé, singer Thana Alexa. He had recently returned from a 17-concert, seven-clinic sojourn to Canada, Mexico, Japan, Germany, Finland, Italy and England with the personnel from Meridian Suite (tenor saxophonist Seamus Blake, pianist John Escreet and bassist Matt Brewer), with whom he’ll tour extensively to support the CD during the remainder of this year. He and Alexa had spent the previous week house-hunting in neighboring Brooklyn, motivated more by practical imperatives than dissatisfaction with their current premises. “This place is super-quiet and beautiful, but I can’t practice, because it disturbs the neighbors,” Sanchez says.
The strength of Sanchez’s playing on Meridian Suite and the simultaneously released Three Times Three— both on the CamJazz imprint — demonstrates that attenuated practice time has been anything but an impediment. On the former date, he creates sections tailored to the tonal personalities of his bandmates, including Alexa’s powerful contralto. She sometimes doubles with Blake’s bass clarinet-sounding EWI (Electric Wind Interface) passages, which are reminiscent of vintage Mini Moog. Escreet contributes skronky Fender Rhodes; Adam Rogers interpolates high-octane guitar. Sanchez propels the flow with complex rhythmic figures drawn from rock, fusion, swing, electronica, Afro-Caribbean and free-bop. He executes them with an extravagantly detailed attention to texture, as on “Channels of Energy,” the third section, for which he compressed the drum sound in post-production, put a pillow inside his 20-inch bass drum to make it sound like a rock kit, and used piccolo and soprano snare drums.
“I’m tuning everything a little lower than I used to,” Sanchez says. “I like getting more meat from the drums. On a regular jazz record, you keep the sound consistent and don’t change the tuning for just one piece, but here it felt right.”
Sanchez says that his “first albums were mostly about improvisation, with everyone soloing over the form.” He mentions his 2007 debut, [igration, on which Metheny and Chick Corea (with whom he toured and recorded that year) blew a tune apiece with tenorists David Sánchez and Chris Potter and bassist Scott Colley, and its 2008 successor, Live in New York at Jazz Standard, on which alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón replaced Potter. “The approach was, ‘Let’s get in the studio and record some tunes.’ But Meridian Suite is the most structured thing I’ve done. We did it to a click, which I completely mapped out on the computer. I learned that from Pat, as well as compositional things and production elements.”
In the notes, Sanchez compares Meridian Suite to “a musical novel instead of a group of short stories,” in which the composition develops analogously to “the way a novelist develops a story and its characters.” He acknowledges as an antecedent Metheny’s 2005 long-form epic The Way Up, on which he played. He adds that he shares with Metheny an aesthetic of contextualizing complex musical ideas within an epic narrative frame. “Music without storytelling doesn’t hold my attention,” Sanchez says. “My tunes can be over 10 minutes, because I love to tell that story as fully as I can. That’s why Meridian Suite was such a cool vehicle to tell a story over a longer period of time. Most of the stuff I’ve been influenced by my whole life seemed to come out.”
He continues: “I love the show aspect of things. I don’t like being in bands where you play the first tune, then discuss what you’re going to play next on stage while people are waiting. So, as a bandleader, I really like to plan. I grew up listening to rock and fusion, which is very arranged, and my attitude descends from that — but Pat’s methodology rubbed off on me.”
Metheny discovered Sanchez in Turin in 2000, when, while dining backstage after a performance, he heard the Danilo Pérez Trio playing onstage. He remarked, “The drummer and percussionist are playing really well together.” The promoter responded, “No, it’s just one guy.” Metheny decided to verify, and watched Sanchez operate. In London soon thereafter, Metheny attended the trio’s second set at Pizza Express, and asked Sanchez for his email address.
“Pat sent a long note that described in detail everything he liked about what he heard, and then posed some questions, like a job application,” Sanchez recalls. “He asked if I considered myself someone who could play any style or just did jazz. Did I consider myself someone who is stable? Did I like going on the road or not? Then he asked: ‘What are you doing next Thursday? Do you want to play?’
“His vision is very specific, and learning the parameters — which are very clear — was the hardest part. The first time we played, we did ‘Turnaround’ and then ‘All the Things You Are.’ Then Pat asked, ‘What would you play behind this?’ I started playing a rhythm I knew from the Pat Metheny Group that I thought would fit. Pat said, ‘Try 30 percent less with your left hand and 10 percent more with your hi-hat, and maybe 50 percent more, or 52 percent (he was seriously like that), with your right hand on the cymbal.’ He was half-joking, but completely serious. It was his way of telling me, ‘I need you to have that much command of your instrument.’ That was mind-boggling. Luckily, I was at a point where I could do it.”
Less scripted than Meridian Suite, but as cohesive, are the performances on Three Times Three, released in Europe in 2014. Three separate trios for which the only possible description is “all star” — pianist Brad Mehldau and Brewer, guitarist John Scofield and bassist Christian McBride, and tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano and bassist John Patitucci — play two Sanchez originals and a rearranged standard apiece. Himself a classical-piano student before migrating from Mexico City to Boston’s Berklee School of Music in 1993, Sanchez devoted particular attention to writing pieces that Mehldau “could sink his teeth into.” These include a reharmonization of “Nardis” and a 14-minute original called “Constellations” that occupied 15 pages of sheet music. “I got carried away,” Sanchez says. “I’d told Brad it would be an easy blowing session, so he was a little ticked off. But he had it down in no time.”
For Lovano and Patitucci, Sanchez offered the aria-like “Firenze” on which Lovano milks the melody like an operatic tenor. There’s an outer-partials, tempo-shifting treatment of Thelonious Monk’s “I Mean You” that Sanchez compares to “a race car that you can steer in any direction.” Scofield and McBride plumb the harmonic riches of Wayne Shorter’s “Fall,” and hit a deep, funky pocket on “Nooks and Crannies,” of which Sanchez says, “I can’t imagine another guitarist playing it.”
“Antonio writes for the occasion,” says vibraphonist Gary Burton, whose third album with Sanchez is 2013’s Guided Tour, which begins with the drummer’s “Caminos” and ends with his “Monk Fish.” “His pieces are tailored very much to my strengths and what interests me as a player. When you explain and demonstrate a new song, he picks it up immediately, and you hardly have to think about it.”
McBride, who toured and recorded with Sanchez on various Metheny projects from 2003 to 2008, elaborates further on his qualities. “He’s one of my few friends I can make inappropriate jokes with,” the bassist says. “When Antonio told me he was doing his first CD, I said, ‘Oh, that means you’re going to get everybody else to do the writing for you, right?’ But when I heard it, I was shocked. I said, ‘When did you write that? We were together almost a year; I never saw you at the piano.’ I have to point to his work ethic. You’d be hard-pressed to find a drummer who practices as hard as he does, just on technique and learning forms and how to play inside and outside those forms.”
Sanchez has put in his time, and then some, since his teens in Mexico City, when he spent mornings at the Escuela Superior de Musica, afternoons in regular high school and evenings training in gymnastics (he was a member of Mexico’s Junior National Team). From age 13, he found time to play occasional rock gigs on drums. Fearing burnout, he dropped out of high school with his mother’s blessing, and “immersed myself way deeper into music and gymnastics at that level.”
He modeled his discipline and professionalism from examples in his immediate family. His grandfather, the esteemed actor Ignacio Lopez Tarso, is still active at 90. “He’d have to be about to die to miss a performance,” Sanchez says. His mother, Susana, still in her teens when she had him, “was single and working from the beginning. She studied literature and philosophy, and was a film critic for years. She took me to rock shows and the symphony, and to the theater to see my grandfather. When I was super-heavy into rock drumming, she tried to play me an Art Blakey record, but I had no interest.”
A family friend gave Sanchez drum lessons at 6, teaching “basic technique and how to play along with the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin.” Later, Sanchez took three lessons with Tino Contreras, “the Buddy Rich of Mexico.” Otherwise, he learned by doing, playing along with progressive rock and fusion records, and emulating the examples of Dave Weckl, Vinnie Colaiuta and Dennis Chambers on hard-to-come-by videotapes. “I’d devour them for days on end, very methodically,” he recalls. “I’d put a mirror before my drum set and check that my hand position was exactly like theirs. I learned a lot that way. Most people I was playing with in rock bands weren’t as serious as me, and I thought if I got better I’d be able to play with different people. That led me to Latin jazz and fusion, and I got more technique and general knowledge.”
At Berklee, Sanchez, who had elected to study piano because “I thought I knew everything there was to know about the drums,” discovered that his self-regard was illusory. “I had chops, and a lot of drumming friends told me I could play, but I didn’t know left from right,” he says. During first semester, an instructor spotted him with his stick-bag and suggested he attend a bebop ensemble. “I brought my humongous kit, with a 22-inch bass drum, 7 cymbals and double-bass pedal.” The group began playing Sonny Rollins’ hard-bop classic “Pent-Up House.” After adjusting to the time feel, Sanchez “started blowing as many chops as I could — and I had some fancy ones. I thought I was impressing the hell out of everyone.” The instructor approached, “and started taking my drum set apart as I was playing. He left me with a hi-hat, bass drum, snare drum and ride cymbal, and told me, ‘Now solo in the form and trade choruses.’ I built myself up from there.”
While matriculated, Sanchez studied and jammed every day for hours. “I would volunteer for anything,” he says. “I was afraid of tendinitis because I was playing way too much.” Already playing frequently with Zenón, a fellow student, Sanchez developed a relationship with Pérez, six years his senior, then on faculty at New England Conservatory. “Danilo took me under his wing,” Sanchez says. “We’d have lunch and listen to music, and he started to come to a lot of my gigs. Then an opportunity arose to study with him at NEC. The lessons were mostly about rhythm. But my plan was, ‘Danilo, I love that tune of yours; how does it go?’ I’d pretend I didn’t know it well, although I did. He basically started training me for the job without even knowing it.”
Pérez was in the vanguard of a cohort of generational contemporaries from the nations shaped by the collision of the Iberian and African diasporas who focused not only on playing jazz with idiomatic fluency, but also on exploring their own cultural heritage. “I met a lot of students from Brazil, Cuba, Venezuela and Puerto Rico who all seemed to be so connected with their music,” Sanchez remembers. “I was almost envious. Mexican music was always in my life, but it didn’t draw me to want to write something Mexican-sounding or grab a Mexican rhythm and incorporate it. I wanted to play jazz, not be pigeonholed into Latin music, even though I loved it and it came easily to me. It has too many rules. Clave is so embedded in the culture that people have fist fights, and I wasn’t interested in being part of that, especially since I didn’t grow up playing it. We’re close to the U.S. and the Caribbean. We have a lot of influence from everywhere.”
After joining Pérez’s trio in 1998, following a consequential stint —on Pérez’s recommendation — with Paquito D’Rivera’s United Nations Orchestra, Sanchez developed his mature style. “Danilo made me jump from student to a high level in a relatively short amount of time because we played so much and so intensely,” he says. “You can’t slouch for one second in a piano trio, and his physical and psychological approach exhausted me at first. We would play the Afro-Cuban and Panamanian rhythms and bend the rules, as we did later in Miguel’s and David Sánchez’s bands with Puerto Rican rhythms. It was a new way to combine Latin music with jazz and make it open. I started experimenting with different sounds on the kit, exploiting the size of the drums, the rims, cross-stick combinations. When I started transitioning to other kinds of music, that stayed in my playing. It’s become my own sound, in a way.
“My own band really should have no rules. The name Migration has a lot to do with my story — leaving Mexico, leaving my family and coming here — but everyone in the band is from somewhere else. I’ve played with immigrants my whole life. If what we play comes from Latin influence, great. If it comes from rock or jazz, great. But I don’t want to pigeonhole in any way, shape or form.”
Sanchez’ storytelling mojo may have reached an apogee in the solo-drum soundtrack that he created for Birdman, available on Milan Records, which aurally depicts the lead character’s descent into madness. Perhaps it’s because his connection to director Alejandro Iñárritu, who is eight years Sanchez’s senior, has deep roots.
“I started checking out Pat after hearing the Pat Metheny Group on Iñárritu’s radio show, when he was a deejay in Mexico City,” Sanchez says. “Then he came to hear us in 2005, when we were touring The Way Up, and we met. Nice guy, super-unassuming. We hit it off. We kept in touch. When he’d come to New York for, say, a screening of his movies, he’d call me. When I was in L.A., I’d call him, and he’d come to my gigs if he was around. He’s a hoot. I’ve never met anyone more Mexican than he is. The connection was easy.
“When he called me for the project, he put me on the spot. ‘Do you want to do it or not? Are you into it?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘I’ll send you the script.’ I thought it could either be amazing or a train wreck. He said it was a dark comedy, but I didn’t laugh once the whole time I read the script. It would be the equivalent of me sending him the charts to my music, and ‘This is the idea for my new record,’ and expecting him to decipher what it’s going to be in the end.”
Thinking Iñárritu wanted something scripted and specific, Sanchez wrote separate rhythmic themes for the different characters. Iñárritu praised the results, but told him he wanted the opposite — “something jazzy, improvised, very organic.” Toward that end, Iñárritu talked to Sanchez about each scene, then sat facing him as he improvised so that they could imagine it together, raising his hand whenever he wanted to denote a shift to the next phase of the scene.
“As a jazz musician you react to your surroundings — to your band, or somebody else’s music, or to what I just played, if I’m playing by myself,” Sanchez says. “So reacting to the storyline or to an image, once we had an image to react to, wasn’t that different. It wasn’t conscious; you see something, your brain goes there, and you play something. You don’t have time to think about it. But most of the time, if you’ve done it enough, that part of your brain makes the right decision. I was just reacting to what was going on.”