On The Cover

Antonio Sanchez

Circling the globe backing masters of jazz helped him develop fearsome skills and a crystal-clear vision for his art. Now it’s time for him to let his own music light the way.

Story by Michael Parillo
Photos by Rahav Segev

At the March album-release show for singer Thana Alexa’s debut, Ode to Heroes, at SubCulture in New York City, Antonio Sanchez was called on to do a little bit of everything. Anchoring the band, Sanchez played airy swing beats, odd-time fusion rave-ups, slinky rimclick grooves, tasty 16th-note funk, a bluesy 12/8 with a bit of Bonham in the bass drum. He dropped to a whisper, with sticks, brushes, mallets, or just his bare hands. He soloed with fire, searing the stamp of the tune into his phrases, and offered a taste of his potent clave-based, full-body rhythms. He steered the other players with a firm rimshot or a casually authoritative glance. He simmered and, in short, intensely powerful bursts, he exploded. Sanchez was just doing his thing—supporting Alexa and her group above all, as he does as drummer and coproducer of Ode to Heroes as well—but he showed his mastery on every song.

Things got off to a wicked start. During the opening number, “Take Five,” after singing the lyrics by Dave and Iola Brubeck, Alexa turned around and faced Sanchez. She breathed fire of her own by improvising wordless scat-type vocals as the two traded phrases back and forth, pushing each other up, up, and away. Even if you didn’t know that Alexa and Sanchez are engaged to be married, you’d have felt the heat between them.

Alexa gushed over every one of her players in her introductions, but it was only of Sanchez that she said, “He’s so fine.” She dedicated a couplet of songs to the drummer, including her lovely ballad “Siena,” and the two had a cozy onstage rapport, with Sanchez playing a sort of straight man, making the crowd laugh with a raised eyebrow or a finger-rolling “get on with it” gesture as Alexa spoke. At one point she called him “Mr. Birdman.”

Ah, yes. This is where our story of the well-traveled contemporary jazz drummer takes a bit of a turn. As a teenager in Mexico, Sanchez was a fan of the radio show Magic Nights, on WFM 96.9; through that program he got his enchanting introduction to the Pat Metheny Group, courtesy of DJ Alejandro González Iñárritu. Much later, in the mid-2000s, a few years after Sanchez joined Metheny’s band, he met Iñárritu, now a film director (21 Grams, Biutiful), after a show in L.A., and the two hit it off. When Iñárritu had the idea of fitting a drumset score to Birdman, his latest wild ride of a movie, he knew who to call. It’s tempting to wonder if the director would have hatched such a brilliant/crazy concept in the first place, if not for his friendship with Sanchez.

This collaboration led to a truly unique moviegoing experience, a 2015 best-picture Oscar, and a good bit of controversy. From Birdman’s opening credits, as words appear on screen set to the sound of Sanchez detuning a drum, the score crackles with life, building in intensity as fading film star Riggan Thomson, played by Michael Keaton, becomes gradually more unhinged while working on a play in a Broadway theater. The drumming, sounding rich yet rough—Antonio’s trademark lush tones mussed up a little, quite deliberately—is a lot of things all at once: groovy, tickling, abstract, heavy. Sanchez’s trailblazing score won the Critics’ Choice, Satellite, and Hollywood Music in Media awards and was nominated for a Golden Globe. But, in a questionable move by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, it was disqualified from Oscar contention for being “diluted” by the licensed classical music in the film.

Of course, by then Sanchez was on to something new—something life altering: After many years as a sideman, with Metheny, Gary Burton, and countless others, he was gearing up to make the jump to full-time bandleader, with his own compositions at the fore. Two 2015 projects mark this fresh phase in high style—Three Times Three, which was released in April, and The Meridian Suite, which is brand new. Sanchez describes the rollicking Three Times Three as “a blowing record.” For it he formed a trio of trios, each with a different lead instrument. First we have pianist Brad Mehldau and bassist Matt Brewer, then guitarist John Scofield and bassist Christian McBride, and finally saxophonist Joe Lovano and bassist John Patitucci. These partnerships pulsate with the thrill of newly spawned alliances.

The Meridian Suite, the third release by Sanchez’s Migration group, on the other hand, is a tightly composed, highly ambitious work of great complexity, with rhythmic and melodic themes woven throughout a dynamic and unpredictable mix of acoustic and electronic sounds. With John Escreet on keyboards, Seamus Blake on saxophone and EWI (electronic wind instrument), and Brewer on bass, plus guest guitarist Adam Rogers and vocalist/muse Alexa (singing lyrics and wordless melodies), Sanchez takes a leap forward as a writer and also digs in deep on drums; despite the demanding through-composed nature of the piece, he and the band really let it fly. The five-part suite finds Antonio trying new concepts in the studio. His kit sounds enormous, and his soloing in the “Channels of Energy” movement rockets the track through the North Pole and into the celestial sphere. As always he tosses out little gifts of surprise, with, say, a scratchy cymbal-stack figure that cuts across the time feel, or an impossibly quick and precise roll to fill a space. Yet, again, the quieter sections reveal supreme sensitivity and pinpoint control.

Sitting down with Sanchez at his light-filled Queens apartment, we get started with the suite, chatting about, to reference the title of the first movement, its “grids and patterns.”


Prime Meridian

MD: How did The Meridian Suite come about?

Antonio: It’s got an interesting backstory. I was touring with Metheny in 2012, with the Unity Band, and I was in Meridian, Mississippi. After the show we usually have like four hours from the time we get back to the hotel until we get on the bus. Sometimes I’ll just veg out in front of the TV, but that night I kept hearing this thing in my head. I always bring a keyboard with me, so I started playing that thing. It sounded like a really cool intro, very rock-y.

I come from rock and fusion and all these things, and of course jazz is my life now, but I have those influences. So I started programming this thing, and I named it “Meridian” in my computer. I did the Three Times Three project in the meantime, and I never heard that thing again. Then, last year, when I was out on the road with Pat, I was thinking that I wanted to tour with my band for most of 2015, and in order to do that I needed to put something out.

I remember I was in Copenhagen, on the European leg of the tour—it must’ve been April 2014 or something like that—and I took out my keyboard. I started trying to come up with something, and nothing was happening. I felt horrible. The next day I remembered that intro. I took it out and I liked it again—which was a good sign, because sometimes I’ll listen to it two years later and think it sucks. So my question was what would happen after this intro.

I found something I liked and started developing that. There was more than four minutes of written material, and still no solos or anything. But I thought I’d keep going and see what happened. The first part, with solos, ended up at like twelve minutes. It needed to go somewhere else, and I started coming up with a completely different vibe. Now it was too long to be just a piece and too short to be a suite or a more complex long-form composition.

I’m a big fan of well-produced records. And the best-produced records are usually rock and pop, R&B and neo soul, and the production value is really cool. They’ll even have different producers on different tunes. So this music sounded to me like it could explore completely different sonic possibilities and still be one thing. That’s something I always wanted to try, but I didn’t know how to do it, to have a very acoustic, jazzy sound on one thing and then a completely balls-out rock, fusion, whatever-you-want-to-call-it drum sound with electronic instruments. It was the equivalent of writing a novel instead of short stories; I could develop my characters over an hour instead of over seven, eight minutes—which is not easy either. To write a concise tune is not easy at all.

I felt that this was the perfect vehicle to be unapologetic about anything I wanted to do, because the flow could take me places where I would not necessarily allow myself to go on a regular record. Of course, I didn’t just want to write and write without having any kind of cohesiveness, so I wanted to have things that you heard in the beginning come up in the middle, and later treat them differently. I was very lucky to be a part of the Way Up project that Pat put together a few years ago, and that was a great learning experience.

MD: That was tightly written, more so than usual.

Antonio: Very, yeah. It was not called a suite, but there were parts that intertwined throughout the composition. So I wanted to achieve that.

And then I started thinking of the “Meridian” title—it had a ring to it. I love the word meridian. I knew what meridians were, but I started doing more research, and I realized how these things are part of our everyday life even though they’re intangible. But they have to do with how you calculate time, how you calculate geographical positions, the stars, the sun, and then the new-age approach, which is the meridians of the body and chakras and the flow of energy. So the meridian concept seemed appropriate, because of how the motifs, the melodies, the grooves intertwine.

I think I just allowed all my influences—and especially influences that are very alive in me now—to come out. I’m into different bands nowadays that have brought different ideas; I don’t know how closely related they are to what I actually wrote, but for example I love Hiatus Kaiyote, which is a really cool band. Brotherly, that’s another band I like. Meshell Ndegeocello, I love.

I think it’s going to be interesting for drummers to hear me doing something they’ve never heard me do before. When I started getting more of a name, it was attached to this kind of sound that I developed, and here, in the third movement, for example, I completely changed the tuning of the drums and compressed everything. And I had my double bass drum pedal, which I never use.

MD: I thought I heard double bass, but I doubted myself: “No, he wouldn’t, he couldn’t, he didn’t…”

Antonio: I did! [laughs] Completely unapologetically, yes, I brought it out. I just heard it in that section. I’ve never used it on a jazz record, but for that part it seemed appropriate.

MD: It’s a very dramatic moment, especially coming out of the spacious “Imaginary Lines.”

Antonio: The interesting thing is that I do little flurries during that “Channels of Energy” section with that very rock-y, fusion-y sound, but they’re just teasers. When the actual drum solo comes later in that section, it’s very sparse and with a different drum sound—a lot jazzier, more acoustic. And then it goes back to that fusion-y sound at the tail end, before going into the free section.

MD: What was the idea behind that free section, “Magnetic Currents”?

Antonio: The third movement ends up so high that for some reason it didn’t seem right to go low again. So when I finished that part I could just hear chaos for a while. It’s been very loud and very powerful, but it’s been very organized up to this point. So I wanted to break out of that and just go completely insane, ballistic, and have that be an interlude and find a way to go from that chaos to the most delicate part of the suite. And then the suite ends up as epic as I’ve tried to do anything. [laughs]

MD: Overall it feels like a good balance between being written out and providing freedom to improvise. How precisely mapped out was it?

Antonio: It was very mapped out. One thing that I find incredibly helpful is to map out and program things to the smallest detail. I like to program it, then remove the drums and play with it. That way, and this happened with Three Times Three as well, when I get to the studio, we basically don’t change anything, because I’ve already heard the whole thing a million times.

I’m really good, actually, at programming drums with my fingers on the keyboard, and that helps me inform myself of what kind of grooves I might be playing. And something really interesting has been happening. All those drum flurries, I programmed with my fingers, just to get a sense of what the tune was gonna do. A lot of the things that ended up on the record are things that I programmed—things I would have never thought of playing. So that got me out of my normal kind of thinking.

MD: So recording would be more along the lines of a rock album, because you’re changing your sound and your gear for the different movements?

Antonio: Yes, way more than any record I’ve ever done. I’d detune the drums to their lowest, or I’d tune them higher. I put a lot of padding on the bass drum on one section and removed it for the other sections. It was the same drums, but with a completely different treatment, and also a bunch of different cymbals, different heads. I had a lot of fun with that.

And then in the mix we did even more. Compression here, less compression there; more room here, less room there. That proved very useful to make the different sections do exactly what I intended them to do.


MD: Did you use a bunch of different snares on the album?

Antonio: I had my regular 5.5×14 Yamaha maple drum—that’s the main one I’ve been using for a while. Then I had what they call the Loud snare. It’s 7″ deep. I put a towel on top. In the second section, that’s what you hear. And then the third section I used a piccolo and a soprano, as tight as they would go.

MD: It’s really effective to go from that pillowy sound to that cracking sound.

Antonio: Yeah, I love that contrast.

Doing the Work

MD: How would you rate your piano playing?

Antonio: Functional. Everything I write, I can play—slower, a lot of times, than I want it to be. But it’s enough to get around. I really like spending time investigating chords. If I like the sound I go with it, and then I find the next chord. After I program the whole thing, I start writing it down. And then I start analyzing.

MD: So both the computer and the piano come into play a lot in your process.

Antonio: Completely. The piano is where I get all my ideas, but then the computer is so useful and necessary for me at this point, because I can really hear it with the piano and the bass and the drums. I can have Thana record the voice on top of that, and I’ll program the guitar as well. It’s a very long and obsessive process, but I think if you don’t do all that, then
you regret the results.

MD: It seems there’s a measure of obsessiveness within you that helps you do what you do.

Antonio: There has to be. And the thing is, working with some of the people that I’ve worked with, I’m not that obsessive. [laughs] But a healthy dose of obsession, I think, is very good for these kinds of projects.

MD: Were you that way when getting your drumming skills together? You’ve talked about periods as a student where you went through some humbling experiences, even though you’d gotten together lots of facility.

Antonio: Yeah, I mean, if you ask my mom about my obsessive/compulsive thing when I was a kid, it’s actually pretty funny. I believe her. Drums was the thing that stayed with me the whole time, but when I discovered gymnastics I got completely obsessed with that. I was on the Mexican national team for a little bit. Everything I picked, I got really obsessive with.

So now that I’m writing and I’m a bandleader, I’m obsessive with that. But yes, that obsessiveness helped me a lot when I was getting my stuff together. And, you know, back then there was no YouTube, and in Mexico we were isolated in terms of material you could get your hands on in order to improve. If a friend had the Weckl video, everybody would be like, “Please, just let me have it for a day….” And you would borrow somebody else’s VCR just so you could make a copy.

It was not about piracy; there was nothing you could get your hands on. Imports were very rare. So I obsessed about a few little videos and worked on my technique. When I got to the States, I had a fair amount. With technique, you don’t need that much guidance—by imitation I think you can get to a pretty decent level. Musically, that’s a different thing altogether. And those were most of the humbling experiences I had when I got to Berklee. My technique would impress a lot of people; my musicality, not so much. [laughs] Those experiences were a catalyst for me to change my way of making music, my ego too.

MD: You mean you’d been like, “Hey, I’m great”?

Antonio: Exactly. Coming from Mexico, I was one of the best guys over there, and I felt very confident in my abilities. But that was out of ignorance. I didn’t know how well I stacked up against the real guys. And when I saw what the real guys could do, I was like, Okay, let me think this through and work on my ego problems and my priorities.

MD: And you realize art is so different from sports—you’ve got Charlie Watts and you’ve got Neil Peart, and they’re so different but they’re both sublime.

Antonio: Exactly. And to me a real artist must be a combination of a healthy ego and total insecurity. I’m always second-guessing myself, but then I’m like, Well, I like it. If I don’t like it, I don’t record it, I don’t put it out. If it makes the record, it’s because I like it. And I hope it will resonate with people. That’s the only thing you can hope for. If you’re trying to write for an audience, you’re on the wrong track.

MD: Some drummers think faster than they’re able to play, but you seem able to execute things exactly as they occur to you, as if time is slowing down.

Antonio: On a good day that’s what happens. But then there’s many nights where it’s the other way around. On a good night you really can see everything in slow motion: Oh, I can get my snare in between these two notes, and then I’ll hit something that’s answering what the bass player just did, and it’s all so clear, so easy. Then, on other nights, everything is going so fast and you have no idea where to put your stuff, and you’re struggling with your own self and your technique feels clumsy and the sound is not flowing. So, yeah, sometimes you have to go to your meat and potatoes, because nothing else is working. But hopefully your meat and potatoes will be so good that nobody will be able to tell the difference.

MD: Do you ever like to have a little struggle, a little tension, in executing an idea?

Antonio: I define being a jazz musician as being comfortable being uncomfortable. Because you put yourself in these uncomfortable situations constantly—you don’t know what’s gonna happen, yet you do it for years and you’re comfortable with not knowing. And you know you have enough experience and enough reflexes and enough facility to be able to react to whatever comes your way. And the uncomfortable side is very healthy. But unless you trust your abilities, you’re really going to be uncomfortable, and that’s not so good. [laughs]

MD: With Three Times Three, you had played with everyone except Brad Mehldau before, right?

Antonio: Yes, that’s correct. There had been times where Brad and I were about to play, but it never happened. I’ve been listening to him for years, and I’m a huge fan. I was lucky to play with everybody else. With Scofield, just one time; with Lovano, a couple of times. With Patitucci, Christian, and Matt, a lot. It was the “main chair” of each trio that I wanted to be people I hadn’t played with that much but that I deeply admired.

That’s another thing that got me out of my comfort zone, because when you start writing with somebody in mind…. For example, the tune “Nooks and Crannies,” the funkier tune in five, I would have never in a million years written that for anybody except Scofield. It was custom-made for him.


MD: When I first heard that one, I was sure he’d written it.

Antonio: [laughs] I’ve been listening to him for a long time, since I was growing up in Mexico. I was like, He’s gonna tear this up. I wanted to write something for each group that would be challenging but would be just a vehicle for them to kill it, basically.

MD: And you played a Monk tune, “I Mean You,” with Joe Lovano, who played so much Monk in his trio with Bill Frisell and Paul Motian.

Antonio: It was a tribute to his personality and his huge sound, this let’s-see-what-happens approach. But you know, all those guys are like cats: Throw them up in the air and they’re going to land on their feet. “I Mean You” was one take. At the end you can hear Lovano and Patitucci laughing. They’re like, “That’s it—why do another one?” [laughs]

MD: Those sessions must have just been pure fun.

Antonio: Yeah, because it was just three tunes each, and I didn’t do it on consecutive days. The first one was Brad. That was the most stressful, because Brad was traveling from Boston and we didn’t start until like three, four in the afternoon. And it was the hardest music too. “Constellations” ended up being like sixteen pages. I got carried away. But he’s such a badass player. With the other two sessions we had time to spare. I wish I had brought more tunes, but at the same time it was such a different experience to not be completely stressed out of my mind in the studio just because of time constraints, which usually happens.

MD: Really?

Antonio: Yeah. I love listening back when it’s all said and done, but recording is not a process that I enjoy. It’s very hard for me to get past the headphones and the sound and all those technical issues that affect your playing so much. And I’m not a rock or pop musician that’s used to recording drums by themselves and then they add all the stuff later. I’m used to being in the same room with a bunch of people reacting constantly to one another. So when you don’t hear it the way you want to, that makes it so much harder. I know my drums and my sound, and then I hear them through the cans and I’m like, Man, that doesn’t sound like me. It would be the equivalent, I think, of putting an individual mic on each key of the piano—it would drive the piano player crazy.

Obviously the solution would be to have just two overheads and kick and snare [mics], but then you regret it sometimes in the mix. So if you see pictures of my sessions, there’s so many mics; it’s just insane.

MD: We did a story on Migration’s previous album, New Life, with photos from the actual sessions, and there’s a shot of you at your kit. Now that you mention it, you don’t look as comfortable as usual.

Antonio: Oh, no—I’m miserable. [laughs] It’s a lot to think about; it’s like throwing your own party. If you have a bunch of guests at your place, you’re going to be concerned with how well everything is going, instead of just having fun. But I know ahead of time that I’m going to be stressed out for two or three days, and then in a few months I’m really going to enjoy what I did.

MD: Plus you’re clearly able to bear down and pull good results out of yourself under those circumstances.

Antonio: It’s something that, luckily, I’m kind of used to by now. My first session [as a leader], for Migration, was so stressful. And, you know, it was with Chick [Corea] and Pat and Chris Potter and David Sanchez—all these ridiculous musicians—and I’m bringing my little tunes. I hope they like them! I was so insecure. I really like that album, but I’ve done a lot of growing since then. Also, watching all these years how people record in the studio, especially Metheny—he’s meticulous in organizing his recording sessions. I’ve learned a lot from that…except he’s got like two weeks to record and I have three days. [laughs] But I’ve learned how to organize those three days to the best of my ability.

MD: When you’re the leader working with these great musicians, what kinds of things do they need from you?

Antonio: I think the role of a good bandleader is to let the musicians do what they do and steer them toward the place you want them to go. I want to tell them, “Okay, this is the story I’m trying to tell, and I need you to accommodate that—but do your thing. You’re in my band because I love what you play.”

I’m in a very scary place in my life right now, because I’m saying no to everything, just so I can do my thing, which I’ve never done. But I’m determined to get my product out because I believe in what I’m doing. And I think it’s becoming clear from New Life, Three Times Three, and The Meridian Suite that I have a wide range. As a drummer I think I proved that, but as a writer and bandleader I want to prove it too. I’ve been trying to put on a great show and leave the audience as positively impressed as we can every single night. At the end of the day it’s your product and your brand, and at this point in my life that’s the most important thing.

Taking Flight

MD: A big part of your brand now is your work on Birdman.

Antonio: Absolutely. I’ll forever be the Birdman guy. [laughs] Which is not a bad thing.

MD: Did the idea of a drum score come from you and Alejandro González Iñárritu?

Antonio: Actually, it was Alejandro. He knew exactly what he wanted. He’s such a music lover; he’s in awe of what we do as musicians, just like I’m in awe of what he does. When we were recording for Birdman, he would look at me and go, “You’re so lucky.” [laughs] I was like, “You’re lucky too!” He’s just fascinated with music.

MD: Is that your voice at the very beginning of the credits, speaking Spanish?

Antonio: That is my voice, at the beginning and end of the movie. There’s so many interesting things.

Sanchez with singer Thana Alexa, at the release party for Alexa’s Ode to Heroes album at SubCulture in New York City on March 23, 2015. Ben Flocks is on sax.
Sanchez with singer Thana Alexa, at the release party for Alexa’s Ode to Heroes album at SubCulture in New York City on March 23, 2015. Ben Flocks is on sax.

MD: How did the score take shape once you’d signed on?

Antonio: My first instinct was to write little rhythmic themes for the main characters, so every time you’d see Michael Keaton you would hear this beat to accompany him. And then I’d have, like, a comedic theme and a softer theme with brushes. I sent Alejandro some demos, and he wrote back, “Man, this is great—but it’s exactly the opposite of what I’m looking for.” He wanted something very spontaneous, very spur of the moment, very jazzy—almost improvised. When he said that, I totally relaxed instead of freaking out.

When they started shooting, here in Kaufman Studios in Astoria, I went to the set, and that informed me a lot about the character and color of the film. One day Alejandro and I went into Avatar Studios to work on some stuff, but there was no film to show me. Basically he started describing every scene, in great detail. “In this scene Riggan Thomson is in his dressing room; his mind is all over the place, and he’s thinking very heavy, dark thoughts, and he gets up and opens the door and walks through this long hallway; he turns a corner and a few people talk to him, and then he gets to the stage door and waits a second and knocks on the door; then he’s on stage and starts the scene.”

These are really long scenes; you don’t even know when they start and end. So he would be sitting in front of me imagining the scene with his eyes closed and I would be playing something, and then, when it was time for the next phase, he’d raise his hand and I’d play something else. We must have done sixty, seventy takes of different scenes. He knew more or less where he wanted the drums, so it was just a matter of getting different approaches. Then they rehearsed and shot with some of those tracks. I think Alejandro wanted to see if it would actually work, because it was such a weird experiment. I remember he sent me a note: “We rehearsed with the tracks yesterday. It’s gonna be great.”

Once the rough cut was finished, they spliced those demos and put them on their respective scenes. They brought me to L.A. and showed me the rough cut with the drums, and they wanted me to redo everything, looking at the film this time. We went into a studio, and now we were really homing in on dialogue and cues, movements—“When he hits the wall the third time, do something there,” that kind of thing.

Alejandro didn’t know exactly how to express it, but he was like, “Your drums sound too clean on the demos.” I said, “I know what to do.” So I put Fiberskyns on and I put tape on most of the drums. I detuned them in weird ways, and I put a really hard beater on the bass drum and tuned it way low, just to kind of make it sound older, because the movie happens in the bowels of this run-down theater, so he wanted something that sounded old and beat up. The kit was amazing—it was a Phoenix [PHX] and it sounded unbelievable in the studio—but it sounded kind of dirty at the same time.

The interesting thing is that they used things from both sessions, and sometimes they mixed the new kit with the old-sounding kit. And sometimes I’m playing the older-sounding kit and they would superimpose a fill on the other kit.

MD: There’s a dynamic arc to the drumming. It gets denser and seems to grow.

Antonio: Definitely. Because, you know, the plot thickens, and it gets more and more chaotic and frantic—that’s what we wanted to portray.

I saw the movie for the first time way after it opened, because I’d been on tour in Asia and it hadn’t opened over there. When I saw the finished thing, with the effects and the sound, I was just in shock. I could not believe what they did. I’ve heard my drums a million times in different situations, but never in a surround-sound movie theater, with those images. It was just mind-boggling.

Alejandro is such a creative genius. That was one of the most fun parts of the project, just to hang out with him and see how crazy his mind is. When I started detuning the drums [while recording], he was like, “Ah, maybe we’ll leave that in!” I was like, Yeah, sure… And then I see the movie and I hear my voice and then the detuning of my drum. I was like, Man, he actually did it…and it works! You have no idea where it’s going, and then all of a sudden the credits start.

I come from a family of actors. My grandfather is like the Laurence Olivier of Mexico. He’s ninety and he’s still acting. He’s like Roy Haynes. And my uncle’s an actor and my mother was in the film industry for a long time, not in front of the camera, but she was a critic and a teacher. So all of that stuff is completely fascinating to me.

MD: Your family must have been thrilled.

Antonio: Man, they were beside themselves. They loved the film. I could have done the same thing in an okay movie that didn’t go anywhere, but this movie won the frickin’ Oscar, you know? When it did, I jumped out of my seat and started crying. It was so emotional. To be part of that piece of pop culture—for a jazz musician, especially—it was just bizarre. And also the fact that Whiplash was around, all this drummer stuff. It was a crazy year.

MD: It would have been nice if they’d had a drumset on stage at the Oscars.

Antonio: Well, the Oscars were definitely not going to have me, because they’d disqualified me. But they could not get rid of me in the end, because the movie won, and that score is going to be there forever and a lot of people will check it out. So that’s a nice redemption.

What pissed me off about the whole thing was that first it got disqualified on a technicality. Originally it was thought that there was more licensed music than original music. It’s got to be more than 50 percent original music for it to qualify.

MD: Which it clearly was.

Antonio: Which it clearly was. So we were all like, “Great—let’s resend it.” I wrote a letter to the academy describing the process, Alejandro wrote an amazing letter, Fox wrote a letter, the producers wrote letters. We thought we were on very solid ground. And they wrote back saying they had another meeting and decided that the use of licensed music dilutes the effectiveness of the score. So that seemed a little fishy to me. And it’s completely subjective.

MD: The word dilutes strikes me as ridiculous.

Antonio: Yeah, because if something is diluted, it means it has less of an impact. Man, the scores that were up for Oscars were all amazing, but not one comes close in terms of how easily you can recognize it. That’s why they kept using [clips from the drum score] at the Oscars, the whole night. But I think the controversy actually helped, because so much was written about it. And everybody was on our side, even the composers that were nominated for different things. I think good composers like it when there’s a completely different kind of work being done, because that opens the door for them to do different stuff.

If I had participated and I didn’t get nominated, that’s fine—the people spoke. I’m not pissed because I didn’t win the Oscar, which I probably wouldn’t have won; I’m just pissed that they didn’t give people the chance to vote. To me that just seemed bad for music, bad for jazz, bad for drums, bad for Hollywood, because they’re saying this new proposition that we have, let’s kill it right off the bat. It also makes me feel like my instrument is not taken seriously, as an orchestra would be. The fact that it’s just a one-man show playing an instrument that many don’t consider worthy of a film score, I think that had a lot to do with it.

MD: I’ve read about numerous examples of licensed music that might have diluted an original score but did not lead to disqualifications.

Antonio: They have their rules, and they’re very keen on enforcing them when it’s convenient, and then they bend them when they want to. It’s not that their standards are so high; it’s just that their standards change from year to year. But the redemption was that the movie itself got the recognition and won so many Oscars. [sits back and smiles] I’m happy.
I’m not bitter.

Antonio’s Kit

Drums: Yamaha PHX in turquoise fade finish, including 7×14 Loud series or 5.5×14 Maple Custom Absolute snare, 4×14 brass piccolo snare, 8×12 or 10×12 tom, 13×14 and 15×16 floor toms, and 16×20 or 14×18 bass drum

Cymbals: Zildjian, including 14″ Constantinople or vintage A hi-hats, 14″ and 16″ K EFX crashes, 22″ Constantinople Medium Thin Low ride, 6″ A Custom splashes (inverted and stacked), 22″ K Left Side ride or 21″ vintage K, 22″ A Custom Flat ride, 18″ prototype crash, 12″ Hybrid splash stacked on 14″ Trashformer, and 22″ Swish with ten rivets

Heads: Remo Coated Ambassador or Fiberskyn batters

Sticks: Zildjian Antonio Sanchez Signature model

Percussion: LP cowbells, woodblocks, and tambourines


More Beef, More Trash

Antonio on gear and the evolution of his sound.

If you hear records from seven, ten years ago, I was tuning my drums a lot higher, like the 18″ bass drum, and I was playing the kind of music that fit well with that. Since I’ve been doing my band-leading thing, I’ve been hearing beefier sounds from the drums. I hadn’t used a 20″ bass drum in years, but when we did Three Times Three, for Scofield I thought I’d bring the 20″ and see what happens. And, man, I love how that sounds, because it still has resonance and body, but it’s so much beefier. Then I tuned the drums a little lower, especially the floor toms. The rack tom I can leave relatively high—not too high. That combination started feeling really good, because I can play all the jazz stuff that I was playing before. Adding the second floor tom, really low, when you need that extra meat, I love that feeling. And it’s even more apparent now, in The Meridian Suite. The whole thing is with a 20″, but sometimes I would tune it higher, depending on the section.

Then I started realizing that the only dry sound you have coming from cymbals is the hi-hat. A lot of people have been experimenting with this, but I started stacking different kinds of cymbals and seeing what they do. Immediately it became part of my sound. To do a gig without those, I feel like I’m missing out on a big chunk of sonic information that I have at my disposal.

My kit in terms of the number of drums is more or less steady, but the cymbals vary from session to session. I love the Flat ride. I was lucky that when I started playing with Metheny back in 2001, Zildjian made me two 22″ A Custom Flat rides; usually a 20″ is the biggest. Those things have been a godsend, and I play them on recordings all the time. I go to them for bass solos or more delicate stuff; I love comping with those.

For The Meridian Suite I used a few sets of hi-hats for different sections—I used Constantinoples, and I also asked Zildjian to send me something that has a lot of bite and attack. I used a Flat ride for some sections, a Left Side ride for some, an old K. In the third section I put a splash under the main ride on the Rhodes solo, which gives it a trashy sound. It vibrates a little bit—sounds like it’s almost broken—but it still has the resonance of the ride.

Man, if I could have five ride cymbals and eleven crashes, I would. But that’s just not practical.