BY ANDY DOERSCHUK
Bandleader, composer, virtuoso performer, jazz innovator, and improbable Academy Award nominee Antonio Sanchez blew full- speed into 2015. The wind at his back was strong, thanks to Birdman, the 2014 Michael Keaton art-film-turned-Hollywood-blockbuster, whose soundtrack consisted of Sanchez improvising on his kit. No orchestral swells or hip-hop hits — just drums.
“I had no idea of how big it was going to become,” he admits. “I thought it was actually very risky. It could be one of those things that people either love or hate. But people started digging it and all of a sudden my name was resonating in spheres other than jazz.” The timing was perfect because Sanchez had already decided that 2015 would be his year of phasing out session work and concentrating exclusively on his own projects. “Birdman kind of sealed the deal,” he says. “I’m playing with practically nobody but [guitarist Pat] Metheny because if I lend my name to other bands going through Europe or the States, then when it’s time to do my band, they tell me, ‘You were here just a couple of months ago.’ Besides, people don’t see drummers as leaders. I’m very conscious of that and I’m willing to work hard to change it.”
Sanchez did this partly through screenings of Birdman, with his soundtrack muted so that he could conjure a new one on the spot. These events took place this year in New York, twice in San Francisco, and in an air-conditioned tent at Bonnaroo, filled with sweaty attendees seeking some epic drumming along with respite from the 100-degree heat. He also piloted two very different recording projects. Composition is at the heart of The Meridian Suite, an 80-minute piece conceived for his quintet Migration. Most of it was written while on the road with Metheny. Recorded in December 2014, it was released last spring. “I recorded The Way Up with the Pat Metheny Group in 2005,” Sanchez notes. “It lasted an hour more or less, with all these themes going back and forth. I took that as my blueprint for the Suite. It starts and ends the same way, with the same chords and arpeggios and tonality; you go through this crazy trip and arrive back where you began, but in a wiserway. I was able to go raw fusion for a second and then go to completely acoustic jazz, all within the same composition. If we had tried to do that with the tunes being separate entities, like on a regular record, it wouldn’t have made sense. This way, it makes sense because it’s all one story.”
Sanchez’s other landmark recording, Three Times Three, released just before the Suite, is equally ambitious yet set up quite differently. In this tribute to and exploration of the jazz trio format, the emphasis was on contrast rather than unity. The album spotlights three groups; for each one, Sanchez wrote material intended to reflect the strengths of the players, and played the drum parts as well. “For [pianist] Brad Mehldau and [bassist] Matt Brewer, I wanted it to be lush and full,” he explains. “For [guitarist] John Scofield and [bassist] Christian McBride, I wrote a funky tune and a swinging tune and arranged [Waynes Shorter’s] ‘Fall’ in a more open fashion. Then for [saxophonist] Joe Lovano and [bassist] John Pattitucci, I wanted to see what happens if we just make up some stuff in the moment. So I wrote material that wasn’t too complicated or rigid, like an opening statement for whatever we would do afterwards. That’s why the three trios work so well independently and so well together, because they’re completely different from one another, but you also have the trio mentality that unites the whole thing from beginning to end.”
2015 was a big year personally as well as musically for Sanchez. He performed two especially memorable concerts with Migration, in Mexico City’s historic Coyoacan Square before 10,000 quietly attentive listeners, and in an amphitheater in Sète, France, on the edge of the Mediterranean. And just a week and a half before speaking with DRUM!, he married Migration vocalist Thana Alexa. They’ve been looking to buy a house together too, one that will fit their professional and family needs. “It’ll be the first place I’ll have a basement where I can dedicate myself to improving my technique, my time, my chops, and my musicality. I can’t wait to start reinventing myself a little bit because,” he says, with a laugh, “to be honest, I’m getting a little tired of myself!”