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Antonio Sanchez: Cookin' With Class

After A Decade Of Formal Study And A Lifetime’s Worth Of Top-Billing Jazz Gigs, Antonio Sanchez Changes His Tune On The Fundamentals Of His Craft

Antonio Sanchez

In a dinner theater in downtown San Jose, California, a fit-looking thirty-something clad in black, enters from stage right. He walks calmly toward a 4-piece bop kit and takes a seat. With zero fanfare, he picks up a pair of sticks and begins softly chiseling textures around cymbals, each metallic ting discrete and deliberate. Forty-five seconds later a spritzing of hi-hat chicks, combined with convulsive right foot, bolster the dancing hands. Suddenly, a loud flam announces, Here I am. Beats, the kind that prick up your ears, are the only introduction Antonio Sanchez needs.

The 39-year-old New York—based drummer/bandleader comes across as a sharp-dressed, super-mellow dude sporting a small hoop in his left ear – not someone who carves grand architectures into thin air with his drums. The evening’s pyrotechnic display seems mostly wasted on the sleepy afternoon crowd eating tapas and sipping chardonnay, but Sanchez doesn’t mind – performance is an adventure either way. The only partners he needs to swing this evening are bassist Scott Colley and saxophonist Chris Potter, and during the next hour and 40 minutes, the trio will blaze a selection of cuts from Migration, Sanchez’ solo debut from 2007 featuring Chick Corea and longtime collaborator Pat Metheny, neither of whom is present tonight.

We played Migration at the DRUM! offices so much over the last few weeks every note is committed to memory, but the versions flowing over us now are scarcely recognizable. After the performance, Sanchez is kind enough to enlighten us. “I can’t play the same stuff today I played yesterday,” he says breaking down his loaner kit. “I feel like I would betray the situation a little bit because that would just be regurgitating stuff instead of trying to create stuff on the spot that relates to what everybody else is playing.”

Celebrating Independence

Catching up with Sanchez a few months later, he was down in Guanajuato, Mexico, celebrating along with the rest of the nation the bicentennial of his native country’s liberation from Spain. Sanchez is part of a Jazz At Lincoln Center—sponsored orchestra that includes Paquito D’Rivera and other luminaries hop-scotching across the land playing flamenco, Latin jazz, and various hybrids of folkloric music.

Besides some QT with his mother in Mexico City, where he grew up, Sanchez gave us the skinny on the recently released Live In New York, a double CD recorded at Jazz Standard on the final stop of a tour he did in late 2008. “Man, you can’t even really tell it’s live except for maybe like tinkling of a glass sometimes in the background,” he gushes. Live In New York is not a proper successor to Migration but as far as Sanchez is concerned it may as well be. “This is like the follow-up because even though we’re playing some tunes from that album, we’re also playing four new tunes, and really, the way we play the tunes that were on Migration are a completely different ballgame altogether. When we got to New York and played those four nights at Jazz Standard we were really trying to figure out different ways of approaching those tunes and I think the recording is a pretty good example of that.”

The jazz world runs counter to the rest of the music industry. In mainstream music, a recording is an official document or statement of a band’s intentions. For jazz musicians, a live recording is a mere glimpse or snapshot along the way of a much larger, continually evolving process. “Going to the studio is really just an example of what you do because you’re always trying to keep everything under seven/eight minutes,” he explains. “And for jazz that’s really nothing. So that’s why I wanted to do a live record because I’ve never really been able to record something live where I actually can stretch as long as I feel that it should happen.”

Messing With Time

The musical entity with which Sanchez has been most closely associated is Pat Metheny Group (PMG), where his kit – featuring a double-pedal on the bass drum, pedal-mounted bell for claves, auxiliary 10" x 8" snare with mounted woodblock, and loads of crashes, splashes, and effects cymbals – is a good deal more elaborate than his gigging jazz kit (at left). “It’s just Pat Metheny Group music is a lot more orchestral,” he explains. “I feel like it’s a lot more introspective, and more instruments to accompany. So I feel with more cymbals and more drums I have a wider palette of sound that I can use.”

For Orchestrion, the extravaganza Metheny cooked up last summer involving pneumatic contraptions based on an actual 19th century device of the same name, the composer triggered all the parts from his guitar. Obviously, a human drummer’s services were not required for the steam punk—esque experiment, but he remains in awe of the wildly innovative guitarist, a major inspiration for Sanchez’ own evolution from sideman to bandleader. “Listen to a lot of fusion; it’s very lick-oriented,” he says. “And a lot of times you don’t really hear ideas or melodies on the drums. And since I started playing, especially with Metheny – or we will be playing a lot of trio situations with Metheny and Christian McBride – they will both play amazing solos. When it was my turn I was like, ’I really have to come up with something meaningful!’ [So it was about] developing an idea, telling a story. And that was way, way harder to do for me than just, like, blowing chops and sounding impressive but empty.”

The main reason for the long stretch between solo albums is that Sanchez is too busy. Whether it’s Tokyo Day Trip: Live EP with Metheny; Gary Burton: Quartet Live from late 2009; or – hot off the presses – From Brooklyn With Love, a one-off with Orlando Le Fleming taped at Freddy’s Back Room in Brooklyn, Sanchez is quick to point out that he was a sideman on these dates. “Those are not my tunes and that’s not my band so I really didn’t have a say in how long everything should be and stuff like that.” The set in Japan with bassist McBride and Metheny illustrates the ways a performance can bring to life – or sell short – a composition. “It’s still very condensed compared to my record. I really wanted to show on the [New York] album what we can do live.”

There was also a sense of urgency with Live In New York. Sanchez will not get to play with this group of musicians again for a while “because everybody is so busy and they’re all accomplished leaders in their own right. [McBride, Metheny, and Burton] do their own records and they do their own tours and they have their own bands so this was pretty special, and so that’s why I really wanted to capture it.”

Sanchez is vague on the direction his upcoming solo record will take except to say that all the pieces will be composed by him alone this time (Migration contains two jazz standards and originals by Corea and Metheny). He’s not being cagey: Jazzers live so in the moment that it’s hard to plan anything – even the lineup. “I’m not sure, to be honest,” he says. “I’m just thinking of the music right now.” David Binney (alto sax), Donny McCaslin (tenor sax), and Colley or Matt Brewer (bass), all of whom he’s been jamming with around town, are contenders. “This configuration is really gelling, so that might be the way to go for the next record.”

Until that artistic statement arrives, Sanchez has other projects in the pipeline, including yet another album with Burton slated for this month. In fact the band, including Sanchez, will be trying out new material next week at Blue Note. “[Burton]’s career is just incredible,” he says of the iconic vibraphonist. “Every solo he played is like he thought it out a million times before playing it. It’s pretty freaky, actually.”

Vibes occupy a special place in Sanchez’ heart. Maybe it’s because they split the difference between two percussive instruments – drums and piano – both of which he studied separately. “[Gary Burton: Quartet Live] is a pretty good example of how different I play when there’s vibes around, or really, just any harmonic instrument,” he says. “The way Gary plays it can be incredibly delicate or he can be really aggressive and hardcore. You get the full spectrum with him, which is very cool.”

Antonio Sanchez

Refusing To Play The Role

Growing up in Mexico City, Sanchez was transfixed by the acrylic drum set that belonged to his older sister’s boyfriend. After demonstrating for the eager kid how to play a basic rock beat, 12-year-old Antonio knew what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. He mimicked the drummers on his sister’s rock and pop records convincingly enough that before long his mother enrolled him at the National Conservatory Of Music in Mexico City to study classical piano.

After four-and-a-half years of Bach and Chopin etudes, Sanchez fell under the spell of the swing band in the rehearsal room next door. This led to a prolonged infatuation with the trail-blazing drummers of fusion: Dave Weckl in Chick Corea’s Elektric Band, Vinnie Colaiuta with Allan Holdsworth, Dennis Chambers with P-Funk. Pretty soon the piano became a distant memory. The change seems as motivated by economics as it does a love of drums. “I realized I was going to make a living a lot easier playing drums than piano at that point.”

The first step was moving to the U.S., and at the suggestion of his mother, continuing his studies. What was supposed to be a simple polishing of his resume at Berklee turned out to be a wholesale deconstruction of his approach. He recalls in humiliating detail the time instructor Ron Savage asked him to sub for a classroom tutorial reading off a sheet of Sonny Rollins music. As Sanchez worked his way through the piece, Savage kept stopping him, removing a piece of his kit each time, right down to the double pedal. Eventually he was left with nothing but snare, hats, ride, and as he recollects with a twinge, a ridiculous 24" rock kick without a resonant head. It was fairly brutal but the message was clear: Play for the song.

“I would say that probably the best thing that I got out of Berklee was discipline,” he says. “And I think being surrounded by people like me that just wanted to do music 24/7 for four years was really good because I didn’t have any distractions. I was just completely focused on music and trying to improve as a musician and as a drummer.”

He may have dropped out halfway through the program at the conservatory in Mexico, but he made up for it with four-and-a-half years in Boston and an extra year at the New England Conservatory. All told it’s a solid decade of music schooling. “By the time I was done I could have been a brain surgeon instead of a drummer.”

Aiming to play with the best jazz musicians in the world, Sanchez knew the only place that was going to happen was New York. Word got around quickly about the young shedder’s skill set. Dates with Corea, Michael Brecker, Charlie Haden, and Toots Thielmans quickly followed before landing in PMG.

The intense years of schooling notwithstanding, it was a good dose of real-world gigging experience that gave Sanchez an edge over his peers. Luckily he had played with the likes of Danilo Perez, D’Rivera, David Sanchez (no relation), and other established players just before and right after graduation from Berklee. “So by the time I got to New York I had already been on the road for a few years and played in a bunch of festivals and I knew a lot of people, so that was really helpful.”

Practice Made … Pointless?

You are not likely to come across too many drummers who extol the virtues of blowing off practice (at least not in a drumming magazine). You’re especially not likely to hear it from a part-time member of the NYU music faculty, which Sanchez joined in 2006. Yet it’s this particular omission of your everyday drummer’s routine that makes Sanchez who he is. “Before, when I was practicing a lot, I had a lot of stuff that would come out just by reflex. It would be just automatic,” he says. “And then I stopped practicing and I realized I had to think a lot more before I play because the reflexes were not so much there. So I want to have fast ears before I have fast hands, so that I can react to whatever the situation is fast enough and make sense of what’s going on instead of composing something I’ve been practicing for a long time.”

Sanchez routinely offers up audible evidence of his mastery of four-way independence as well. The key to this multitasking feat is not psyching himself out. “With this kind of thing, I will leave maybe my two legs doing their thing on automatic pilot in a certain tempo, and then I can play counterpoint going in and out of whatever my legs are playing,” he says weaving his hands in the air. “And one day I discovered I could completely separate my torso from my legs, basically. I remember I said to myself, ’Okay, let me try this.’ I was keeping the clave pattern with my left foot and the tumbao pattern with my right foot. I was pretty sure I was doing it right, but I wasn’t thinking about it. So I was like, ’Maybe I’m fooling myself, and I’m doing something completely different. Maybe the clave’s all wrong.’ So I recorded myself and I was like, ’Wow! I think my legs are in the right direction!’ I sometimes compare it to a piano player that is playing an ostinato with the bass with their left hand, and playing whatever ideas they want on their right hand.”

One thing you’ll notice about Antonio’s left hand is that it’s not a normal traditional grip. Sometimes it almost seems like he’s writing on the snare with a giant ballpoint pen. “I feel like I can control the stick really well with my fingers that way and also I got a different tone when I play pretty close to the tip.”

On at least two separate occasions Sanchez told us he plays both heel-up and heel-down, but that didn’t square with the way his kick consistently sings. We finally squeezed the truth out of him: “Yeah, mostly I would say it’s heel-down, especially because lately I play more and more with the 18" bass drums, and with those if you leave the beater in the head you kill the tone a lot, and I really like to have a nice ringing tone.”

Maybe Sanchez’ neatest trick is how well he disguises the technical proficiency of his playing. Musical as the approach is, drumming essentials such as timing are still the foundation. “If you were doing a bunch of fancy stuff and the time goes out the window, then you are completely on the wrong track,” he says. “I really try for it to be perfectly timed, or as perfect as I can do it. I would never sacrifice time for the sake of trying to do something, drumming-wise, really fancy.

But isn’t temporal fluidity part of the free-form nature of jazz?

“Yeah, I mean, you can do that a little bit, but if you’re speeding up a little bit, that doesn’t mean that you’re going to speed up just for two beats, and then slow down again. So, it has to be gradual; it has to be natural; and it has to be organic.”

Celebrating Independence, Part 2

Thinking back on his boyhood in Mexico and that Bonham-style kit he first bashed on, Sanchez often wonders what would have happened if he had taken a more mainstream pop direction with his drumming. He might be better sorted financially, we suggest, but he swats the idea away. “I think it’s actually more likely for a jazz musician to get a lot of work than for many other kinds of music because jazz musicians are usually pretty versatile. For example, I can play any style. I can play rock, I can play calypso, samba, salsa – whatever you want to play, I know how to play it. And jazz really integrates a lot of these styles nowadays so if you don’t know a lot of these languages then it’s really hard to survive.”

The other cool thing about jazz is that your fate isn’t hitched to a band trying to make it. “So if I get fired from one band I can work with ten other bands. You can play in a restaurant; you can play a wedding; you can play a private function; all these little things. Jazz musicians are able to hustle a lot of work usually because of that ability to be kind of a chameleon.”

Another option for Sanchez would be part owner of a studio or freelance producer – anything to get off the road for a bit. “It’s a little bit of a catch-22 because I love what I do but travelling all the time is really hard.” Sanchez figures he makes 12—15 times as much playing in Europe as he does locally – and he likes to live large – so a life of constant touring is the bargain this self-described “eternal student” has struck. “I’m always going to have to be around New York because of what I do but I already have a little apartment in Puerto Rice that I escape to in the winter months,” he says, smiling as though he were on the beach already. “Yeah, I’m slowly planning my escape.”

Sanchez’ Setup

Antonio Sanchez

DRUMS: Yamaha Maple Absolute Nouveau (Black Sparkle)

1 18" x 14" Bass Drum

2 14" x 5" Snare Drum

3 12" x 8" Tom

4 14" x 14" Floor Tom

CYMBALS: Zildjian

A 13" K Hi-Hat (1960s era)

B 22" K Constantinople Medium Thin Ride

C 22" A Custom Flat Ride

D 18" Prototype Crash

PERCUSSION: LP

F Black Mambo Cowbell

G Cowbell on Gajate Bracket (with Yamaha pedal)

Antonio Sanchez also uses Zildjian Antonio Sanchez Signature sticks and Zildjian brushes, Remo heads, and Yamaha hardware and pedals.

Groove Analysis: Real Time Twister

You may know Antonio Sanchez mainly as the drummer who blended left-foot clave with traditional jazz drumming. But the reality is he’s an extremely musical drummer in any setting. His new release, Live in New York At Jazz Standard, showcases his fantastic and fluid jazz drumming, along with nods to his funk and Latin mastery. Frankly, deciphering a drummer of Sanchez’ abilities is a daunting task, so I chose some simpler yet very musical moments from this disc that would allow me to feature that overlooked side of his playing.

DRUM! Notation Guide

Antonio Sanchez

“Did You Get It”
This is the first of three drum breaks that occur later in the song and are interspersed with the bass solo. Beginning in bar three, Sanchez uses linear phrases of nine notes that he repeats and tags with phrases of six notes to create two bars of triplets. The inverted “v” accents above the “x” note heads are used to denote what sounds like a very loud yet muffled rimshot. Here, his left hand is likely playing cross-sticks with his palm resting on the head. The non-accented “x” note heads refer to cross-sticks. The dynamics vary widely, from nearly inaudible to better turn down your speakers! The linear nature of this break continues throughout the section, though the patterns vary, yet always support the melodic tom-tom motif.

The second excerpt is from the third drum solo. Here again, we see Sanchez playing around the tom motif established in the first solo. The last part is hard to make out since he’s playing so softly, but the ride cymbal hits occur approximately where notated. I believe he’s either rolling and/or playing paradiddle-diddle combinations between the accents.

Antonio Sanchez

“It Will Be Better”
For this crazy track, Sanchez plays a funk groove with washy hi-hats that reminded me a little of Tony Williams on his great Believe It disc. This song has an unusual and complex rhythmic structure that would have made Frank Zappa smile. There are two measures of 4/4 followed by a measure of 5/4, followed by two more measures of 4/4 and a measure of 21/16. The remarkable thing is this song is actually pretty catchy.

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