Photo by Justin Bettman
Antonio Sanchez: For me, playing jazz is like problem solving, you know, you start improvising and you hit a wall, and then, like, how am I going to get around this wall? And then you do it. But the thing is, you can get around that wall in a million different ways, depending on your experience, your musical taste, your concept, your technique...
Jo Reed: That was drummer Antonio Sanchez. Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed.
Antonio Sanchez has played alongside some of the greatest musicians in modern jazz including Danilo Perez, Chick Corea, and Paquito D'Rivera. He's been an integral part of every project Pat Metheney has undertaken in the past thirteen years. Little wonder Sanchez is a sought-after musician. His drumming is dynamic and lightening quick with a range that is unsurpassed. Yet, he is probably the most melodic drummer working today, reveling in moments of quiet detail. Quick simply, Antonio Sanchez is a musician through and through. He studied piano and composition at the National Conservatory in Mexico before moving to Boston where he studied jazz at the Berklee College of Music. Five years ago, Sanchez branched out and began recording his own compositions as a band leader. In fact, "New Life," his third CD in five years, was recently released to glowing reviews. While Antonio Sanchez's choice of a career as a jazz drummer might have been a bit unexpected, his decision to make a life in the arts was not. In fact, you might even say that the arts are the family's business.
Antonio Sanchez: If I had to put it in a nutshell, I would say that the most important part about my grandfather being a famous actor and also my mother being in the film industry and my uncle is also an actor, my cousin, she's a tango dancer, I mean, there's a lot of arts in the family. But I would say that the most important thing is witnessing that you can make a good living doing what you love, and that's my grandfather, of course. You know, ever since I was a kid, never I had a doubt that you could make a good living and that you could make it and that you could survive by doing solely what you love, because he did it, and so if we would have grown poor or if I would have heard him maybe complaining about the business all the time, and "Oh, there's no work and blah-blah-blah," maybe it would have made a difference the other way, but it was completely the opposite. So there was never a doubt in my mind that that could be accomplished.
Jo Reed: And was there a kind of excitement about it when you were growing up? Did you go to rehearsals?
Antonio Sanchez: Oh yeah, I loved all that stuff, you know, even though I never really wanted to be an actor, I loved just the energy of the audience, and I loved being back stage, and in the dressing room, and just see the inner workings of a play or a show. So yeah, I used to love that.
Jo Reed: What kind of music did you listen to when you were growing up?
Antonio Sanchez: Well my mother, she's 60, she just turned 60 last month, so she's from the Woodstock generation, if you will, so I grew up listening to everything she was listening to, which was Santana and the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Janice Joplin, you know, all these great rock bands, so rock was definitely my first love.
Jo Reed: And you played rock for a while, didn't you?
Antonio Sanchez: Oh yeah, yeah, in my teenage years, I had a bunch of different bands in Mexico, and we'd be playing all over the city in these horrible rock clubs, but you know, that taught me a lot in many different ways.
Jo Reed: How did you move to jazz?
Antonio Sanchez: After trying to make it with a rock band for quite a few years, I started getting really fed up with the band, how could I call it, with the band mentality, in the sense that, "Okay, if you want to be a rock musician, and you want to have a successful band, if you don't have an incredibly charismatic singer and, you know, if your hair is this way or your looks are this way..." all that influences way too much your success, and that started really messing with my head. So when I started listening to jazz, I started realizing that if I got really good, just myself in my own instrument, then I could be like a hired gun to many people that wanted to play all kinds of music. It ended up being jazz, but I was training, if you want to call it that, to be the best all around drummer in the planet, you know, I wanted to be able to play every style and sound completely authentic in every style, and then little by little, I started liking more and more jazz and the freedom that jazz gives you, and then I just started going that way, basically.
Jo Reed: Now, meanwhile, you had studied at the National Conservatory in Mexico, and you studied classical piano and composition. How did you move from piano to drums?
Antonio Sanchez: It was one of those things that I didn't really choose drums, but drums chose me, completely. I was five and I saw this drum kit that my uncle's girlfriend's brother had, yeah, it was just love at first sight with that drum kit that he had. It was a see through drum kit like the one John Bonham from Led Zeppelin used to play, and it was just the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. And I just started taking lessons with him since I was five, and the lessons consisted on basically just me going to his place and he would teach me basic technique and just playing along to the records, so that's why I fell in love with playing rock in the beginning. But then after a while, I thought it would be interesting to study a different instrument where you could play chords and melodies and you actually could see the music theory in the instrument because the piano is so graphic, you know, you can see the notes and it's easy to learn theory in that instrument. So I wanted to be a more complete drummer, and a more complete musician, so that definitely helped me a lot to open my ears, and when I went to Berklee in 1993, that helped me a lot to keep writing and to keep, just my music theory up.
Jo Reed: And it was at Berklee that you met Danilo Perez and that turned out to be a very important relationship for you?
Antonio Sanchez: Yeah, he wasn't teaching there, but he lives in Boston still, and we became friends, and then I started studying with him at New England Conservatory when I was done with Berklee. What was really poignant for me, in my relationship with Danilo, was that he basically jump started my career in the big leagues, if you want to call it that. I was studying with him, and I had this evil plan in my head, very clear, that I was going to study with him, learn all his music, and he was going to basically coach me while he was teaching me, basically to play in his trio, in his band, to play his music. So he might not have known it, but that's exactly what I was doing, and I thought, okay, if one day his drummer can't make it, then I know everything, and he's even taught me verbally how to play his music, and it did happen one day, the drummer who was playing with him at the time couldn't make some gigs in Paris, and they called me. I did a good job, and they started calling me for a bunch of stuff after that, and then I became part of the trio. We toured all the time, year round for like, two and a half years, and it was great learning experience. You know, I was pretty green. I had just come out of Berklee and he was kicking my butt in every way. It was a lot of tough love, but I learned so much from him from those years. I'm very grateful for all that stuff happened.
Jo Reed: What was the biggest challenge for you, when you were so young and green?
Antonio Sanchez: Well, I just didn't have experience, so jazz and playing music, I think it's a lot about experience. You can have great technique, but you come into situations where you are not sure what is the best way to play. That's always happening, night after night, and for me, playing jazz is like problem solving, you know, you start improvising and you hit a wall, and then, like, how am I going to get around this wall? And then you do it. But the thing is, you can get around that wall in a million different ways, depending on your experience, your musical taste, your concept, your technique, and all those things, it takes time for you to start getting all that stuff together. So that was the biggest challenge for me.
Jo Reed: This is something you do so well as a drummer, to hold back a little bit, to leave some space. And I think when one is younger, that enthusiasm can just charge through any space that might better be left.
Antonio Sanchez: Oh, I couldn't have put it better myself. I mean, you don't want to hear recordings from me when I was like, 21. I was just going insane on the drums all the time, and you know, I had a lot of technique so I was just trying to showcase that technique all the time, not in the best way, and that was one of the biggest challenges when I started playing with people like Danilo, who started making me scale back on all that stuff, and just thinking a lot more of the stuff when I was actually playing, and not just playing by reflex, which was, you know, for a musician that has been practicing hours and hours every day, you know, your hands kind of do the job for you, sometimes you don't have to think that much and that was my problem, I was not thinking everything I was playing through, really, I was just letting my hands go and that, a lot of times, got in the way of the music.
Jo Reed: You're known for many things as a drummer, and one of them is the dynamic range that you possess on the drums, from being able to play softly, yet still very intensely, and the ability to go full out, as loud as anybody.
Antonio Sanchez: Yeah, that's one of the things that I enjoy the most about the drums, that you can be the loudest instrument, and you can be as soft as anybody else, and just the element of surprise and the dynamic range that the drums give you, I think it's great if you can really manage that. A lot of drummers tend to play from the half of the dynamic range of the drums, up, and then there's all the stuff down there, that a lot of people don't play, and for me, it's a great pleasure, when I get to play incredibly loud music, and then two seconds later, you're playing the softest thing that almost you cannot even hear and the ear reacts to that in a very dramatic way.
Jo Reed: I have no idea if this will make sense to you or not. But, it reminds me of Beethoven and the piano, and the way he uses the whole keyboard.
Antonio Sanchez: Yeah, I mean, of course, it's a good analogy. The thing with the drums is that you have so many different sounds. You can get a lot of sounds out of a piano, but it's the piano, or with a saxophone, it's the same thing. But with drums, the thing is, you can add, drums, you can add cymbals, you can remove every drum and every cymbal depending on where you're hitting it, it sounds completely different, depending on the brand, depending on the model, depending on what drum heads you're using, depending on what sticks you're using, so what is very cool about the drums is that it's completely personable, you know, you can personalize it and customize it to a really deep extent, and I think that makes the drums stand alone in that regard.
Jo Reed: The drums, I think, it's also responsible for keeping the music moving, for kind of setting, I could be completely wrong, but it seems like it sets the boundary, it sets the map, in some ways.
Antonio Sanchez: Yeah, I think a lot of really good musicians, they all agree probably a band is only as good as the drummer, because the drummer is the heartbeat, the engine of the whole equation, and you can have really good band with a great bass player and a great piano player and a great saxophone player, and if the drummer is not very good, then the band is not going to sound that great. But if you have, you know, a really good drummer with an OK band, you know, that's a better equation in general, I think.
Jo Reed: OK, explain the difference in your drumming when you are backing up a saxophonist, say like, Paquito D'Rivera, as opposed to a pianist, like Danilo Perez?
Antonio Sanchez: Actually I love playing with sax players, and I love playing with piano players. Obviously when you're playing in a piano trio, you have to keep things, I think, at least dynamically, in terms of how loud you're playing, at a certain level. And usually when there's a sax player in the mix, you can raise it up a little bit, I think, because the saxophone just...and well the piano, too, but the saxophone just exudes power and energy. So one of my favorite instruments to play with is the saxophone players, and that's why, in my bands, I've always had basically two horn players, because I love just that energy that saxophone will give you.
Jo Reed: You have a great cut on your new CD, "New Life," well you have many, but that really speaks to you interacting with the saxophone, and I'm thinking of "The Real MacDaddy."
Antonio Sanchez: Mm-hmm.
Jo Reed: Talk a little bit about that piece, that's such an interesting piece of music.
Antonio Sanchez: Yeah, I mean, that piece was designed exactly for that, and "The Real MacDaddy" is like an inside joke I have with Donny McCaslin...and McCaslin, MacDaddy...it's kind of dedicated to him. And he was one, he's one of my favorite sax player, and Dave Binney as well, so I just wanted a piece that they could just do their thing in the beginning.
[Musical Interlude from 14:18 - 16:06]
Antonio Sanchez: And when we recorded it, it's a fairly short intro, but when we play it live, man, sometimes we go for, I don't know, five minutes. First they improvise by themselves, and then I come into the mix, and we start going places that sometimes we've never gone before. So it's a lot of fun to play that piece, and also I wanted to write a piece where people really didn't know what's going on. You know, we stop, we start, and when we play it live, is really funny, because people never know when to clap, because we stop so many times, and it's designed to kind of throw people off, and it's just a lot of fun to play live.
Jo Reed: You and Pat Metheny have worked a lot together over the years. How did you guys first hook up?
Antonio Sanchez: I was in Torino, playing with Danilo's trio, this was in 1999, 2000, something like that, and we were doing a double bill with Pat's trio, and Pat usually likes to open the concert, he doesn't like playing second, so he played first, in Italy, he's like a rock star over there. So he got this huge crowd and this open air, in a festival in a park, and he just tore it up. And then we were supposed to play and I was really scared, like, "Man, what are we going to play after that?" So back then, with Danilo, I was playing this jazz kit but I would add some percussion. I had a set of bongos and I had a conga drum and I had a timbale and I had a bunch of cow bells and I had this cowbell activated with a bass drum pedal that I would put to my left, the left of my high hat, so I was getting a lot of sounds out of the drum kit. And the funny story was that the promoter that organized the concert, after Pat played, they were having dinner back stage, but they could hear what we were playing. And the promoter asked Pat, "So what do you think about this band? Do you like it?" And he said, "Yeah, yeah, I really dig it, and I especially like the way the percussion player and the drummer play together." And then the promoter said, "No, no, but it's just one guy." And then he's, "What?" And then he got up and went to the stage and he saw me playing all this crazy stuff, that I was playing back then, and he got really interested in me, and then he came to see me to another gig that we had in London, and we exchanged e-mails and he wrote me this really long e-mail the first time, saying everything that he liked about my playing and then asking me questions, like, do you only play jazz, do you like other styles of music, do you consider yourself a person that is open-minded when it comes to arts? I mean, it was almost like a questionnaire, you know, to get a job or something. I thought, wow, that's interesting. And then at the end, it said, oh, by the way, are you around next Thursday, and do you want to jam? And you know, I was floored, so we started jamming every time we would both be in town, and basically all those questions were, he wanted to see if I would be a good fit for the Pat Metheny group that had been around for over 25 years, and by getting together every so often, he started realizing more and more that I definitely was a good fit, and then at the end of, maybe six months of just jamming and playing, then he offered me the gig, and the great thing is that I love playing with the Pat Metheny Group, because it's a big production with voices and six or seven people, and we play with sequencers and computer, and you know, it's just really nice big lush sound that we get. But the cool thing is that I think Pat really felt like we had such a thing, when we played, that he started calling me for the trio, for a quartet, and another project next year, so I've been involved with virtually every project he's done for the last 13 years, so I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to say that.
Jo Reed: Now, during this time, were you also writing music?
Antonio Sanchez: I was writing not that much, because, first of all, I was on the road constantly. I mean, I'm still on the road quite a bit, but the difference is that now I make holes in my schedule just to write. Before I didn't do that. I would just go from one tour, to the next, to the next, to the next, and actually I hated being home. I just wanted to be out. And now I'm engaged, I have a wonderful woman with me, which also happens to be a great musician, so now I love being home, and I really don't want to go anywhere, but you know, it's my job. And once I'm out, of course I enjoy it, but yeah, when it comes to composing, it's hard for me to write on the road. It takes so much energy out of me just to be traveling and to be playing every night, so to be thinking about writing, it's really hard for me. Some people do it, but I can't. I have to be home and have some peace of mind, and be relaxed and then the music starts flowing a lot easier.
Jo Reed: Can you talk about just a little bit about your process of writing?
Antonio Sanchez: Sure, I mean it's very different with every tune. For example, "The Real MacDaddy," that, I basically wrote pretty much the whole thing in my head, when I was on the road. I just started humming this thing, and I was, I think probably out for a month, and I kept humming it every day, and I never even had to record it, or you know, or sing it to a recorder or something, not to forget it, I just had it in my head. And at the end of that month long tour, I came back home and I sat down at a piano, and I basically transcribed it from my head, and it was done, like, in a couple of hours. I wish I was able to write like that every time, because that's so easy, but most of the time, I just start with an idea, you know, of a base line or a melody, and then I sit on the piano and I start developing, sometimes for a week, sometimes for months. Every tune kind of has a different birth process.
Jo Reed: Your first CD, the one in which you led a group, is "Migration."
Jo Reed: What led to you deciding to make this happen?
Antonio Sanchez: I don't know, I felt like I just needed to get a little out of my comfort zone. That had been playing with a bunch of different bands led by other people, and I could have kept on doing that forever, and I would have been totally cool, and you make very decent money and you travel all over the world, but then I was like, I feel a little bit of an itch to do something myself and to present something, and I felt at that moment, that I was mature enough musically, that I could present something that would be something people would want to check out, and I had enough of a track record that people would pay a little bit of attention. I wasn't a completely unknown musician, I had been playing with Metheny for a while, I had played with Michael Brecker, with Chick Corea, with Danilo, of course, David Sanchez, Paquito D'Rivera. I mean, I had a good track record and I was on a lot of records already, so I thought it was a good time to try to showcase what I had in my mind, musically, at the time.
Jo Reed: You knocked that one right out of the park.
Antonio Sanchez: Thank you.
Jo Reed: It was an extraordinary CD. And you kept it small. You had Chick Corea and Pat Metheny on as featured players, but it really was a quartet.
Antonio Sanchez: Yeah, I've always loved the sound and the freedom that not having a piano in the band gives you, which is just bass and two saxophones. In that case, it was two tenor saxophones, and two of my favorite players, which is Chris Potter and David Sanchez, both of them masterful, and the bass player was Scott Colley, which I had been playing for many years in very different situations. So I just loved that freedom and the space it gives you when you don't have a quartile instrument. But by the same token, having played with Pat so much, and then having played with Chick, and both of them being two of my biggest heroes, I was like, "Man, it would be such an honor, such a thrill to have them both on the CD," and I actually asked them to write something for the CD, and they were totally into it, and when it all came to fruition, it was just like a dream come true, of course.
Jo Reed: The current CD, "New Life." You've expanded the group a bit. You do have a piano in this one.
Antonio Sanchez: Yeah, after having said that I love that freedom, that not having a quartile instrument gives you, then you know, I was like, wait a minute, I studied piano, I write on the piano, it would make sense to have a piano in the band. So yeah, this time I decided to go for it, and because there's a lot of things that you cannot play when you don't have a quartile instrument behind you. The space is great, but sometimes you feel like you're walking on eggshells when it's just a bass and the drums, you know, accompanying the saxophones. So when you have a piano that fills up that space, or a guitar, it's just, oh man, it's just so much easier in general, just to come across, but when we were playing ballads or stuff with more space, then as a drummer, as a bass player, you feel that you can lay back a little more and not have to fill all the time, that space. And just the texture that the piano gives you, is just incredible for me, so this time around when I started using the piano and writing for the piano and the two horns, I just found so many more possibilities, sonic possibilities and I think the record documents them pretty well.
Jo Reed: Probably the centerpiece of "New Life," is in fact, the track, "New Life," which is over 15 minutes long. Can you just talk a little bit about it?
Antonio Sanchez: Sure, I mean, I didn't start writing it and I thought it was going to become this huge piece. I thought it was going to be a nice kind of ballady piece that maybe would last, I don't know, maybe five, six minutes.
[Musical Interlude from 25:58 - 27:05]
Antonio Sanchez: But then as it went by, and I started writing more and more material, I kept thinking, "OK, let me try to keep going a little more..." because this is the thing with jazz, you can write a tune that is 16 bars long, and then you start soloing over those 16 bars long, and you can do that for 20 minutes. But the written material is basically 16 bars. So in this record, my goal was to just push myself as a composer. My first two records were more the other kind of writing, which is very short tunes, and then we just improvise the hell out of the form. But on this one, I just wanted to see how far I could take it, you know, with the writing. And "New Life" was basically the epitome of that, you know, I started writing, "OK, let me keep going a little more and then add another theme, and then do this other thing, and then maybe add this completely new section that had nothing to do with the beginning, and then how am I going to get back to that section..." so I just started challenging myself, and that track, "New Life," was the result of that.
Jo Reed: The CD also has an extraordinary singer, Thana? Am I saying her name correctly, Thana Alexa?
Antonio Sanchez: Thana.
Jo Reed: Thana. Thana Alexa. What a voice. It's an instrument.
Antonio Sanchez: Yeah. I'm biased because she happens to be my fiancé. She's that missing woman I was talking about. Yeah,right from the first time I heard her, I was like, "Wow, she can really sing..." and when I started writing that piece, I was like, "Man, it would be so nice to have a voice." And I wasn't sure if it would be a male voice, or a female voice, and then one day I was like, "Wait a minute, you know, I have a great singer that is living with me. I'm just going to use her..."
Jo Reed: Can you talk just a bit about the difference between being in the studio and laying down tracks for the CD, and actually performing.
Antonio Sanchez: I think it's quite different, actually. Because in the studio, it's just a sample most of the time, of what you do live, and it needs to be a lot more concise, and it needs to be a little more to the point, I think. I mean, that's why my second record was live, because I wanted people to hear some of the same tunes that we recorded in "Migration," and then hear them expanded when you play it live. And for example, there's a tune on my first record, called, "Greedy Silence," that is probably, I don't know, seven minutes or something like that, and then when we recorded it live, and it's on the second record, that's 20 minutes long, and it's exactly the same tune, but the improvisations just get completely to a different level. But now I like to keep a little bit of a balance and I think I've also been very influenced by Metheny in that way. That yes, you're playing live, and you're playing in front of people and you're improvising, but also I don't want to stray away too much that it's just kind of like an ego stroke. Okay, let me see how cool I can be, or how far I can take it. Nowadays I really like to keep the people's attention in mind. The attention span of people has reduced dramatically over the last years, I think, because of social media, you know, the music that is being played now, so yes, I want to push them a little bit, but I don't want to push them so hard that I lose them, you know, and I think Metheny is a great example, Chick Corea, too, that people that play amazing music, but they always have the people in mind. I think sometimes jazz musicians can be like, "Oh well, you know what, I'm going to play what I play, if you don't dig it, sorry." I don't want to be like that. I want to, of course satisfy myself and my musical spirit and my musical instinct, but I want it to be inclusive. You know, I don't want it to be such hard music that people don't understand it, or the improvisations are so long that we're just stroking our egos.
Jo Reed: I'd just like you to stop for a second and think, why do you think we listen to jazz? What does it do for people, when they hear jazz, when they hear music in general, what does that art give listeners?
Antonio Sanchez: Well nowadays, I have the theory, that, for example, there's so much music out there and so much of it is so bad, you know, it's very well produced, but really the meat of what's there, it's very lacking. I'm generalizing, of course, there's great pop, there is great rock, but by the same token, there's terrible pop, rock and all kinds of music out there. And I think we've been catering, as a society, to the lowest common denominator because it's a lot easier to make, you know, you don't have to put so much thought into it. It's like a movie, you know, if you put a blockbuster together, you have a few formulas that you know people are going to love because it's been proven over and over again, and they just make another one, and it's a huge hit. But is it good, is it surprising, is it original? Not really. So I think the difference with jazz, and why people like listening to it and going out and checking it out, is because I think they can see that something is being created in the spot by people that have put hours and years and lifetimes of trying to research what can be done with this music, and to witness that on the spot, with three or four, five, six people, that are masters at what they do, I think it's a little bit like going to a basketball game and seeing Michael Jordan, you know, it's just incredible to witness such talent and such command of something, you know, live. So when you go to see jazz played by great musicians, it's a little bit like that, it's like going to a great soccer game, or a football, or basketball game where you can see, oh wow, they've trained a lot and they're improvising and they're coming up with these amazing plays on the spot. You know, how do they do it? And I think that kind of fascinates people, just like it fascinates me.
Jo Reed: Well Antonio, thank you for giving me your time. I really appreciate it.
Antonio Sanchez: Oh thank you, Jo.
Jo Reed: That was drummer Antonio Sanchez. His recent CD is called "New Life."
You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
Excerpts from "Family Ties," "New Life," and "The Real McDaddy" from the CD, "New Life" composed and performed by Antonio Sanchez. Used courtesy of Antonio Sanchez and DL Media, Inc.
The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at arts.gov. You can subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U -- just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page.
Next week, the 2013 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction, Adam Johnson.
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
Antonio Sanchez talks about the melody of jazz drumming and his new CD, New Life. [34:21]