Drummer Antonio Sanchez has been getting a lot of press lately, including a cover story in the July issue of Downbeat magazine. His award-winning, propulsive drum-solo score for the film “Birdman, Or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance” and the controversy of it being disqualified from the Oscar Awards had the unexpected virtue of introducing Antonio to audiences beyond jazz enthusiasts.
“You know, I think the controversy helped more than hurt, in a way. It gave the score way more attention than it probably would have gotten otherwise. That was the silver lining in that cloud,” Sanchez told me in a phone interview last week.
Antonio has been in good musical company for most of his career, and he’s grateful for that.
A native of Mexico, he started playing drums at the age of 5 and began performing professionally early in his teens. Antonio pursued a degree in classical piano at the National Conservatory in Mexico and in 1993 he moved to Boston to enroll at Berklee College of Music and New England Conservatory. He graduated Magna Cum Laude in Jazz Studies, and relocated to New York City in 1999.
“I think nowadays, musicians have to become bandleaders very, very young, because there are not too many apprenticeship gigs anymore. The business of music, and jazz, has changed so much in the last few years. I was very glad that I caught the tail-end of that, being under the wing of people like Danilo Perez and Pat Metheny, Gary Burton and Michael Brecker, David Sanchez… all these great musicians. That was my real school, my real education, to be on tour with these guys, to play their music. I feel like I learned so much from them and I try to bring a distilled version of everything I absorbed from all these great musicians into my music, into my band, and into my shows.” He feels his time in the conservatories and at Berklee gave him the tools to get to the next level, but his actual experience on the road contained the best lessons.
“I was there to witness and experience how these musicians led their bands and presented their music to the audiences all over the world. It’s a priceless education.”
He’s always been a composer, as well. “I always wrote music, ever since I can remember, ever since I had a piano, I came up with little melodies and little riffs, but I was always very shy about taking my compositions outside of my practice room and having other people play them. When I started playing with really accomplished jazz musicians, I became even more shy, because these guys were amazing composers and bandleaders and I felt inadequate in the presence of these giants. But, little by little, I started writing more and getting more confident in my pieces. I did my first solo record “Migration” in 2006, with Chick Corea and Pat Metheny, Chris Potter, David Sanchez and Scott Colley, I though ‘OK, it’s now or never.’ I brought some tunes and we played them. Everybody seemed to like them and that gave me more confidence to keep writing.”
Sanchez has two CD projects out right now. “Three Times Three” is comprised of three different trios: a piano trio, a guitar trio and a saxophone trio.
“The trio is like the Ferrari of jazz,” says Antonio. “You get into that thing and you can go anywhere you want, as fast or as slow as you want. It’s such a malleable and versatile context to play in.”
“I wanted to pay tribute to my three favorite kinds of trio by enlisting some of the musicians that I haven’t got to play with yet, but I was always a big fan of. I really wanted to write music specifically with these musicians in mind.” His admired artists are pianist Brad Mehldau with bassist Matt Brewer, guitarist John Scofield (“one of the funkiest human beings alive today”) with bassist Christian McBride, saxophonist Joe Lovano (“one of the most beautiful tenor sounds on the planet”) with bassist John Patitucci. “These were some of the most fun recording sessions I’ve had in my life,” he says. Composing for these musicians gave him the opportunity to write things he wouldn’t have written for his own band, or in any other context. “Listen to the last tune on the record, my arrangement of Monk’s ‘I Mean You’ and you’ll hear Lovano and Patitucci laughing hysterically at the end. We did one take of that tune, it came out so perfectly, so loose, exactly what I wanted, to represent the fun of it all.”
The other CD, “The Meridian Suite,” he likens to writing a novel instead of writing short stories. “I wanted to see what would happen if I didn’t have the standard time restrictions of a regular jazz recording, which is like 8 or 9 short pieces. I just started writing to see where it would take me. You get a lot more time to develop your story and your characters and your themes and your melodies.” The idea is that meridians are imaginary lines that cross the celestial sphere, the earth and our bodies and minds. “They interact and intertwine in many different ways that we cannot even see. Accordingly, the motifs and ideas and melodies in the suite intertwine and meet in different places of the composition.”
The Meridian Suite played live takes about an hour and 20 minutes. Sanchez invites the audience to participate by clapping and cheering whenever they like.
“It’s not like a classical piece, when the first movement ends and you’re not supposed to clap, because the piece is not over. It’s really not like that.”
Antonio’s next project? “I have many, many ideas, but the next thing…is top secret. I can’t tell you yet.” I’m convinced that whatever this talented young man produces next will be well worth waiting for.
Antonio Sanchez and Migration present The Meridian Suite at Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley in Seattle on Tuesday and Wednesday, June 30 and July 1.