Story by Mike Dawson
Photos by John Abbott
There’s a long history of jazz drummers making the transition from the role of supporting cast member to bandleader: Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Max Roach, Art Blakey, Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Jack DeJohnette, Jeff Watts, Brian Blade…. Next in this great lineage is Antonio Sanchez, an award-winning drummer who’s spent the past fifteen years working his way to the top of the modern jazz echelon, thanks in large part to his long-running associations with the legendary guitarist Pat Metheny and vibraphonist Gary Burton, as well as earlier work with Latin and contemporary jazz artists such as saxophonists Paquito D’Rivera, David Sanchez, Michael Brecker, and Miguel Zenón; pianists Danilo Pérez and Chick Corea; and bassist Avishai Cohen.
Earlier this year, the forty-one-year-old drummer released his third solo album, New Life, which is the first to be made up entirely of his original compositions. While there’s no shortage of creative and adventurous drumming throughout the record (check out the musical and dynamic drum solos on “Uprisings and Revolutions,” “Minotauro,” and “The Real McDaddy” for examples), the music itself has much more substance than simply providing a backdrop for jaw-dropping fills and polyrhythmic flourishes. For instance, the title track is a fourteen-plus-minute opus that takes you on a slowly evolving journey, from a reflective piano arpeggio to a hard-hitting 3/4 vamp and epic saxophone solos, yet Sanchez’s drumming takes a decidedly supportive role, helping to mold the dynamic contour of the piece with subtle twists of shape and texture.
It’s clear from tracks like “New Life,” which showcase musical maturity over virtuosity, that Sanchez has gleaned much from his years backing some of the finest artists in jazz, and that his own artistry—as drummer, composer, and leader—is coming into full bloom. We met up with Antonio at Drummers Collective in New York City, a few days before his CD release run at the Jazz Standard, to dig into the concepts behind each track on New Life and to talk a bit about how and why he ended up adopting this new role.
MD: Being that you’re still active with both Gary Burton and Pat Metheny, why did you decide to start leading your own band?
Antonio: It just felt like it was time to start doing something like that. I knew of a lot of drummers who led bands, but what I didn’t see too much of was drummers that were also writing their own music. I always composed, but I was very shy about it, especially after playing with all these great bandleaders and composers. But finally in 2007, I decided to do a record [Migration] with half of my own material. Little by little, because of that record, people started calling me for gigs with my band, so it was an organic transition.
But it’s really hard as a bandleader. For example, let’s say you have ten gigs in Europe. You have to pay for everybody’s ticket to go from here to there and then from city to city, and on days off you often have to pay for hotels. Then you have to pay the band, the manager, and the booking agent. A lot of times, there’s absolutely nothing left. But I think of it as an investment for the future.
As a sideman, the natural process is to do tons of gigs when you’re young, for not very much money. When you start getting better, you get more calls, which raises your profile, so you can charge more. That can go on for a number of years, but behind you there are always young guys, who are getting really good too and are willing to play for a lot less. At some point, the work starts getting less. I want to be on the other side, where I can call people to work for me instead of me waiting to get called. If I lead my own band, I can work forever—hopefully.
MD: How do you choose personnel for your band?
Antonio: You tend to gravitate toward people who are in your same generation, because you’ve been exposed to a lot of the same stuff. I feel like my generation is very versatile. We have listened to everything from rock to jazz, pop, and hip-hop. I gravitate toward people who can handle all of that, and who are also nice people, because you have to be on the road for a long time sometimes. If you’re with people who aren’t in the right frame of mind, it can be disastrous.
MD: Let’s talk about the opening track on New Life, “Uprisings and Revolutions.” I hear some Elvin-ish swing, and it’s in 7/4. How do you get so comfortable swinging in seven?
Antonio: This used to be a straight-8th ballad, but one day I started hearing that bass line and decided to make it a super-aggressive tune with a Coltrane/Elvin vibe. It has a rubato section at the beginning, and we never know where that’s going to go. That’s why I called it “Uprisings and Revolutions,” because there’s a call in the beginning for something bigger that happens later.
MD: Are you hearing the bass line throughout to keep track of the seven?
Antonio: You could play in seven a million different ways, and the bass line is often what tells me how to approach the tune. Everybody is kind of playing off that, so we can agree on when to start and finish phrases, when to create tension, and when to release.
MD: Where in that bass line is your resolution point?
Antonio: You can end on the 1, but we play over the barline a lot. On the record, it’s more like a sample of what we do live. Sometimes we end up playing a funk thing over the seven. In my solo, I go from straight to swing, but it’s always based on the same quarter notes. It’s what you play in between that dictates the feel.
MD: Your solo starts with a very melodic motif. Let’s talk about melodic soloing.
Antonio: Melodic soloing and motivic development are my main concerns. I like to start solos by laying the groundwork for something I can develop, and I love to leave space. I can play a phrase and repeat it a few times, leave space, and then turn the phrase around. When you leave space, you have time to think of what you’re going to play next. If you just let your hands go, chances are you’re going to play some of the same things. I like to play different melodies. That’s also how people follow the story that you’re trying to tell.
MD: Did you study Max Roach for this type of soloing?
Antonio: Yeah, but I also studied non-drummers. Pat [Metheny] has been a huge influence on motivic development. Everything he does comes about because of something he played before. It’s storytelling.
In this tune, every time I play the main motif, I play something different in between. That provides something to latch on to between the other ideas. I also don’t play the motif at the same points in the bar, but the orchestration is the same.
At some point I’ll break from the motivic development and just go with the energy, and in this case it’s my job to bring it up to when the band comes in. Contrast is paramount.
MD: “Minotauro” has a subtle metric modulation where the bass plays a hemiola in 4/4 that later turns into the downbeat in 6/8. Can you explain that a little bit?
Antonio: This tune starts in 4/4. The bass plays dotted quarters over the barline, but it restarts every four bars. It’s fun to play with the hemiola, but I didn’t want to make it too obvious, because that’s a very easy place to go as a drummer.
MD: The song showcases your interactive approach when playing behind soloists.
Antonio: Yeah. What I like doing the most is to fill in the blanks when they’re not playing. It’s like a conversation.
The drum solo is over the same bass line. Again, I like to do as much motivic development as I can, twisting the same idea around in different ways. But sometimes I like to just play different sounds. I also go from feeling the bass line in 6/8 to feeling it in 4/4.
MD: How do you shape what you’re doing between the interactions with the soloist? It’s ever evolving, rather than just laying down a groove and filling every eighth bar.
Antonio: If I were to play a basic 6/8 groove in “Minotauro,” it would have been like putting handcuffs on it. I want to have enough of the groove going all the time but also leave space to have time to react.
MD: It’s in this part of your playing—interacting with the soloists—where I hear some percussion influence.
Antonio: Absolutely. I developed a lot of this from playing with Danilo Pérez, David Sanchez, and Paquito D’Rivera. With Danilo, I would have a set of bongos, a conga, a Gajate pedal with a cowbell, a flat timbale, and two or three extra cowbells and woodblocks. I was still trying to play loose, but with all of those percussion sounds. My intention wasn’t to sound like a timba drummer, which is more like funk with clave. This song is based on Afro-Cuban 6/8, but it’s looser.
MD: Let’s move on to the title track, “New Life.”
Antonio: This is one of those tunes where the drums were the last thing I thought about. It started with the piano arpeggio, which just turned out to be in seven. The drum part I created was on the computer, and the cymbal followed the piano part, which creates a comfortable bed. My drumming instinct wanted to break away from that, but it just wasn’t right. It’s a little of a Metheny thing, where the ride is there all the time. You can do whatever you want over here, but the cymbal is the basis of the groove.
MD: Then it switches to a heavier section in 3/4.
Antonio: The 3/4 part is something I had already written. I like how the different sections move seamlessly from one to another. For this song, there’s at least four minutes of written material before the first solo. I could have gone to the solo sooner, but I really liked how the melody was developing, so I wanted to keep it going.
MD: “Nighttime Story” is a very soulful ballad.
Antonio: Drumming-wise, this tune is super-straight-ahead, but it isn’t easy to orchestrate on the drums, because it has a really long form. I needed to figure out when and where to change things a little bit. It starts with brushes on the snare, and then I move one brush to the open hi-hat. When the two horns come in, I go to the cymbal, and then when it gets to the high point, I go to a stick on the cymbal, but I keep a brush on the snare.
MD: The deliberateness of the orchestration is almost like a producer’s mindset rather than a drummer’s.
Antonio: Totally. That’s another thing that Pat influenced. We did this tune where he wanted a perfect crescendo in two bars, so I had to go from brushes to rods and then to sticks. There was so much of that in his tunes that I had to have a drum case on each side of me with a set of everything on it so I could grab whatever I needed at any point. It was a lot of work, but it was very effective. On a tune like this, where it’s a groove that repeats, you have to be careful of when you do things, to make sure that the music goes where it needs to go.
MD: How did you decide what gear to use on the record?
Antonio: It’s the same basic set that I’ve been using for a while now. Drums and cymbals are so personal, but it takes a long time to get to know exactly what they do. I don’t switch cymbals often, for that reason. I know exactly how my crashes and rides are going to react.
MD: Did “Medusa” begin as a bass line? The bass part seems to be the underlying theme throughout.
Antonio: Yes, this was an experiment to write everything over the same bass line. Chick Corea and Pat do this type of thing a lot, where you play all kinds of crazy stuff over a bass line, yet it’s not so difficult that you’re sweating about losing it.
MD: What does a syncopated bass line like this do to your drumming?
Antonio: It gives you a lot of things to play off, because it has so many accents in it. The idea is for it to be like a snowball that gets bigger and bigger all the time and is always moving. I like these kinds of bass lines because they never settle. They give you so much liberty, and there’s space for a lot of conversing.
MD: “The Real McDaddy” is more playful and really exposes the adventurous spirit of your music.
Antonio: This is the most fun song for me to play live, and people always go crazy for it, because they never know where it’s going to go. Live, we leave really long pauses in the melody, and the intro is completely free.
The idea was to write a tune that had a bunch of kicks within the structure that we play during the solos. That allows you to play all kinds of crazy stuff and still land together on those hits. I also love soloing over the form, which is more interesting than playing over a vamp.
MD: Your solo is very dynamic.
Antonio: The element of surprise is super-important to me, so I like to get soft and loud in different parts of the solo.
MD: You have amazing dynamic control. How did you learn to play quietly?
Antonio: That’s something you really have to practice, and playing intense and soft is the hardest. I really started developing that when I was with Danilo Pérez. We would be working in places where we couldn’t play very loud, so I had to keep my level down. I struggled like crazy in the beginning, because I wasn’t used to playing so soft. But everybody should practice that.
It’s like if you want to learn how to play super-fast. You have to practice it. You cannot just get to the gig and expect to be able to do it. You should always be able to do more than you need. You have to do that with everything—playing fast, loud, soft….
MD: Your solo phrasing always emphasizes contrast.
Antonio: I learned a lot of that from listening to other musicians, like Keith Jarrett. I’ve learned so much about shape and overall form and structure from him.
I love to start open solos without a clue of what I’m going to do. It’s like problem solving. If you get into trouble, you have to try to get out of it in a musical way. You don’t want to start something and then move on to something completely unrelated. You can do that, but I don’t think it’s going to sound that good.
MD: So you work with the ideas that you start with, no matter what.
Antonio: Exactly. For me it’s all about transitions. It’s like when you play swing and want to go into 6/8 or a Latin groove. You have to prepare that transition, or else it feels like it comes out of nowhere. But I love getting myself into a mess and seeing how I can come out of it. For that, you need patience. It’s easy to change it too fast. But if you stick around with the same thing and see how many different ways you can play it, and then move to the next subject, it’ll sound better.
MD: “Air” is a very spacious song with mostly light brushes and cymbal colors and textures.
Antonio: This tune has a lot of space, and I like how it builds up. Even though it’s a ballad, it’s more dramatic. It’s so much fun to be able to go from nothing to really loud and back in a ballad. A lot of people don’t know what to do in ballads, and often the tempo drops. Every time I play one, I have to really concentrate to keep it moving.
It’s important to record yourself so you can know your tendencies. That’s why I don’t like to just do four takes in a row in the studio without listening. If you do that, you’re basically using the same approach all the time. But if you had listened to it, maybe you would have realized that the vibe wasn’t exactly what you wanted, and you could have made adjustments. I’ve learned that lesson the hard way.
MD: The closing track, “Family Ties,” has a really nice vibe and flow.
Antonio: The entire record has some hope to it, and this was a nice closer because of that. It’s also a lot of fun to play, because it has some stuff in seven, and it’s not too hard, but it’s not too easy either. And there are hits in the melody that we do during the piano solo.
MD: There’s some fast ride cymbal work in there too.
Antonio: Yeah, that’s also some of the Metheny influence, where you’re almost playing bebop, except that nothing about it is really bebop. That’s the cool thing about this kind of music. It’s all based on bebop and straight-ahead jazz, but what we’re actually doing ends up sounding like something completely different.
Antonio Sanchez New Life, Live in New York, Migration /// Pat Metheny Unity Band, Tap, Speaking of Now, The Way Up, Day Trip, Tokyo Day Trip Live /// Michael Brecker Wide Angles /// Chick Corea Dr. Joe /// Gary Burton Quartet Live, Common Ground, Guided Tour /// Miguel Zenón Ceremonial, Looking Forward, Jibaro /// Avishai Cohen Colors, Unity /// Danilo Pérez Motherland /// David Sanchez Travesía, Melaza /// Kenny Werner Balloons /// Donny McCaslin Soar, In Pursuit, Perpetual Motion
Antonio’s Studio Setup
Heads: Remo Coated Ambassador X snare and tom batters and Clear Ambassador bottoms, Yamaha single-ply logo head on front of bass drum
Sticks: Zildjian brushes and Antonio Sanchez signature model sticks
1. 14″ vintage A hi-hats
2. 18″ K EFX crash
3. 22″ Constantinople Medium Thin High ride
4. 16″ EFX crash (or stacked ZXT Trashformer and 12″ splash)
5. 21″ vintage K ride
6. 22″ A Custom Flat ride
7. 6″ A Custom splash inverted on 18″ prototype crash (with holes)
8. 22″ A Swish