Antonio Sanchez: Conversations with the Music

AAJ Staff By

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Music can range in its meanings and expression from the sacred song of the medicine man to the 2:00 AM syncopated notes in a smoky Village bar, but why do we do it? What use does it serve us? This is a first in a series of interviews with musicians about the nature of our relationship to music, particularly improvisational jazz.

Antonio Sanchez could be a poster child for what happens when you mix equal measures of extraordinary talent, deep training, exceptional discipline and focus the temperature of new-tempered steel in one human being. With skills bordering on those of a dancer, he's played drums with [guitarist] Pat Metheny's Pat Metheny Group and Trio for four years, in addition to other stints with [pianist] Danilo Perez, [saxophonist] Michael Brecker, [bassist] Charlie Haden, [singer] Claudia Acuna and [singer] Luciana Souza among others.

Quiet-spoken yet intense, Sanchez took time during the IAJE Convention in January 2006 in New York City for this interview with All About Jazz.

All About Jazz: Thank you for meeting with me. What year were you born?

Antonio Sanchez: 1971, in Mexico City.

AAJ: Can you tell me a little about your background? How long were you there?

AS: I was there until I was 21. I then moved out of Mexico. I did all of my schooling over there pretty much. When I was 17, I enrolled in the National Conservatory to study classical piano. I did that for four-and-a-half years and then I moved to Boston when I was 21 to go to Berklee [Berklee College of Music in Boston] for four-and-a-half years. I then went to the New England Conservatory for an extra year. And that's all my schooling.

AAJ: That's quite a bit, actually. What were your musical influences growing up? Was it a musical household?

AS: Yes, definitely, I mean, I think I am a drummer and a musician because of my mother, even though nobody played anything at home. My grandfather is a very famous actor in Mexico, Ignacio Lopez Tarso. He's been in a million soaps and especially theater and movies.

So it's an artistic family and I've been around rehearsals and opening nights and things like that so the lingo at least was familiar to me. And I kind of liked that life. But I think the biggest lesson I learned was from my grandfather even though it wasn't in a direct fashion, was that you could make a living doing what you liked doing, and make a very good living, actually. My grandfather, as far back as I can recall was very well off, which wasn't always the case. But he's so good that he broke through. So that was one of the biggest lessons for me, to have the courage to go for it. My mother was from the Woodstock generation, so she's a rocker, she loves rock...we'd always be listening to Creem and Jimi Hendrix, The Who, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and you know, Led Zeppelin.

AAJ: I noticed your ringer....[Sanchez's ringtone is the opening bars of "Kashmir by Led Zeppelin].

AS: Exactly, exactly. I love Led Zeppelin. So I was a rocker at heart and for a very long time. And I used to be in the rock circuit in Mexico and had a bunch of different rock bands. I used to be a songwriter, stuff like that. Then I started getting frustrated with the way things were going in terms of if you don't really have a charismatic singer, you really can't do anything much with your band. So we really couldn't get a hold of a charismatic singer, so I started thinking that if I'm not going to make it with a rock band I probably should start thinking about how I can make it on my own as a musician.

Rock is not like you can play with a number of different bands, there's usually a band and they stick together. It's not like, OK, now we're going to change drummers because we had the same one for two albums, they don't work that way. So I thought, well, if I get really good by myself, maybe people will call me just to get my skills on their album or for their concert or whatever. That led to jazz, so here I am.

AAJ: I've always been curious about, and I think other people have been too, truly, you can turn your back on you playing, and it sounds like a minimum of two drummers.

AS: [laughs] Hopefully playing in sync with each other...

AAJ: Yes, definitely. You really do seem to have extraordinary motor control. Did you go out of your way to train for that?

AS: Well, I don't know. I was probably pretty good at sports and gymnastics. I was on Mexico's National Gymnastics Team for a little while.

AAJ: Not many people can have all four appendages doing something different at the same time...

AS: [laughs again]Well, on the other hand, I have seen drummers who were fat and don't seem to care or work out, and they do the most amazing things, so it's very personal, how you're built, what your capabilities are.

AAJ: Definitely, although there's probably some natural talent in there as well.

AS: Well, I think that definitely might help.

AAJ: Do you compose now at all?

AS: I write, but I'm very shy. I play with such great composers and musicians, my music doesn't sound as evolved as what I would like to play, so I'm really a shy writer. But I do write and I want to do an album this year, hopefully. At least record some of my music.

AAJ: What is your process composing? And then I'm going to ask about improvising as well. I'd rather know about your internal process.

AS: Oh well, you know, since I've never considered myself an accomplished or methodical composer, I'd have to say that it's really the spur of the moment. A lot of it is based on what I've heard or that I've played that I like; initially with some sort of bass line, some kind of drumbeat and then try to come up with some kind of melody and harmony on top of it that I think is appropriate for what I'm hearing in my head.

Which is hard, you know, because my main obstacle as a composer is, every time I'm playing, I'm thinking harmonically and melodically, but I'm not applying it on my instrument as such. I'm definitely thinking about the harmonies and I'm thinking about the melodies. But I'm not thinking about the A flat or sharp and stuff like that. I'm really just choosing colors, really.

I mean, because as a drummer, for example, if you're playing a blues, an F blues, you know, I don't think, OK, now comes this chord, I just hear the chord. But I don't have to think, exactly what is it and how I'm going to substitute it and how I'm going to voice it. I don't think that way because I'm playing drums. So I don't have those tools available to me immediately just as a pianist or a saxophonist or, a guitarist does. Every time they're playing, they're improvising, they're thinking in those terms. I'm not.

My biggest hurdle as a composer is to sit down at a piano and start thinking theory, you know, right then and there. I'm not thinking about playing like that because I'm playing drums most of the time. A piano player has that great advantage. Every time they sit down for a gig or a recording, they're thinking that way so when they sit down to write, it should be way easier. So that's basically what I try to do.

AAJ: But do you feel your process, is it cognitive, emotional or is it intuitive? Is it based on life experiences or is it not? You just mentioned colors, how is it based on colors? Is it based on a combination of all these factors?

AS: Well, if it is based on life experiences I cannot tell. It might be, I'm not one of those guys who thinks about something specific that happened to me and write a song about that. That doesn't work that way for me. So it's usually intuitive. I start hearing something and go for it, try to develop it. And I use all of my other references to kind of gauge if it's good or if it sucks.

A lot of times I feel like it sucks. Then I either leave it or try to improve it. You know, by playing with people like Pat especially, who is such an accomplished composer and sometimes what I write is what a two-year old would write compared to what someone like him would write. I know I just have to keep doing it.

AAJ: Absolutely. How about improvising, like on stage? When you're performing a solo? Do you feel the process is different then?

Antonio SanchezAS: Wow...you know, you do things without thinking about them too much. They just come out. And they either come out cool or they're bad, and you try and cancel them and go to something else right away. It's a very, I mean, I'm sure every jazz musician gets asked that and thinks about it from time to time-"What makes you play this thing instead of that thing? I don't know if anybody knows the answer, but what I try and do is play as much music as I can. By that I'm trying to think of many things, melody, space...

AAJ: Can you say something more about space?

AS: Yeah, as a drummer for me it was always scary to leave space, at least for a long time. I don't know, it seems like it empties out so much when you stop playing. And also, to be playing is like a shield. You know when there's people in front of you—I don't know how sax players do it. They stop playing and they just have to stand there.

AAJ: I would find that hard, too.

AS: Yeah, that's what I like about playing drums—they're all the time—you don't have to think about "Oh my God, what am I going to do now for people to not notice me. I mean, it's an interesting thing to think, what makes you play a certain thing. But now, in terms of space, I find it really refreshing. And that's not always been the case, it either comes or not. But one big thing that I've learned or improved on by playing with Pat is the dynamic aspect. As a drummer, I have this instrument that you can top just about anything on the bandstand. You can bury them if you want to. But you can also play as soft as any other instrument on the bandstand. A lot of drummers don't explore that possibility because of the nature of the instrument. It's easier to play loud than to play soft.

AAJ: Can you add to that? One of the things that you wouldn't think first about drumming is changes in volume, I think.

AS: One of the things that attracted Pat to my playing was that I can play intense and really play soft. When I'm playing with Danilo Perez, I used to play these sets that we didn't have any monitors or anything. I would really have to play softly to able to hear what he was doing. But he's an incredibly intense player; I would have to match his intensity with low volume, which was incredibly hard for me. I wasn't used to playing that way.

But then I really started getting a kick out of doing it. Pat can play incredibly loud but he can play really soft, too. I can now explore both sides of the dynamic range. Danilo, I couldn't get too loud because of the piano. Pat, you know, he turns it up and he's louder than anyone else. You have no louds unless you have softs and vice-versa.

But do you know the thing I don't like about some drummers? They're always so delicate that it's boring. I mean, for me, there's got to be forward motion, dynamically, as a drummer you have to keep it really interesting. You have to keep proposing ideas. So one of the things I like about the great drummers is that they all have that—they can leave space, they can play soft, they can play loud, they can compose, they can solo. Everything they do is really interesting.

AAJ: That's one thing I had noticed about your playing is that it was the closest thing in drumming I had heard yet that approached changes in pitch, it possesses a melodic line.

AS: Well, that's another thing, when I'm playing with Pat, since he's a very lyrical player, melody after melody after melody, so that playing with them, when it's my turn to play a solo, I'd just have all these melodies in my head and it would force me to play very melodically. It would make me shape ideas and especially, I'm very into big development. That's something that I like the most, soloing, improvising, storytelling. Pat is great at that. So I strive to be that way also when I'm playing; just myself or with someone else.

AAJ: What is the meaning of music? Why do we do what we do? Why is this important to us?

AS: Just to lift your spirit, that is the sole purpose of music, I think. Music can completely change the way you feel in a second. For me, anyway—and to be involved in the making of music, that makes it even stronger. I can probably say that the only time that I am not thinking about anything else is when I'm playing—I get into a zone that, for example, if something really bad just happened, you know, like an hour ago? I start playing and I get so immersed in it, I just forget about it. When I'm done playing, maybe I'll remember it, but I'm just there, in that space, and I love that.

AAJ: This is a recurring theme because it's common to a lot of different endeavors. This one is tough—can you describe "The Zone for me? Can you elaborate on that?

AS: To me, it varies a lot, there's not just one zone. It depends on the night, it depends on many factors. For me to be able to get into the zone that I want to get to—everything's flowing, my body is flowing, my hearing is flowing, the equipment is flowing, the sound is flowing, the audience is flowing, it's just magical. And if you want to be honest, usually all of these things don't happen all at the same time. Something goes wrong, there's a train wreck and you've got to recover from it.

There are times I don't feel in sync with myself, like when I try and go for something, just my body doesn't want to go there in the way that I'm hearing it. So then there are all these obstacles that you're fighting all the time while you're playing, how well you can fight them varies a lot depending on how much you can concentrate and get in that zone. But to get to that zone is incredibly hard.

AAJ: From my experience, it is a mindset that you cannot desire, you have to get to a completely desire-less place.

AS: Exactly. Kind of like meditating, you have to kind of empty yourself, and then let yourself get filled up with whatever's going on. I remember, especially playing with Danilo, I was younger and very eager to show that I could play. So a lot of times, I would force things to happen on the bandstand and something would just not click. And then slowly I started relaxing, trying to let the music guide where we had to go. That's exactly when the best moments were. You're like an empty vessel and you're just letting yourself be guided by the higher power in that moment, that is music.

AAJ: Yes. Do you meditate?

AS: No. But I know a bunch of people that do. I've tried it, I just don't think that I...

AAJ: Well, from what you're describing, I think you do, but it's within the music.

AS: Well, yeah, probably. I think anybody needs a release of some sort in their lives. A lot of people are very wound up and haven't found what that release is, and I think musicians are very lucky because they get to release all their own negative things that they might have into something very noble. You may not think of it that way, but I love doing this thing that is very intangible, but it just makes you feel better for some reason.

AAJ: OK, let's pick an optimal night, you're in The Zone, and so is everyone else. What is happening?

AS: It's just a synergy of energy. It's everyone's energy coming together somehow. I think that's when the best music happens, and you can never tell when that's going to happen. You might feel great when you get out on the bandstand and all of a sudden, "Oh my God, this feels so weird . On some other night you're tired, you don't feel like playing and all of a sudden, boom, everything starts flowing effortlessly. And I think that's the never-ending search. Searching for something that you have felt and you're always striving for it but it doesn't always come.

But that's really good, because that's what makes you very humble. I can play my ass off—I'm going to show them that night—and the music definitely teaches you a lesson. When you go into it feeling that way, it's either not very musical or you can't make it happen because you're forcing yourself.

AAJ: The door locks somehow...

AS: Exactly. You have to separate yourself from your ego, you know, just let it flow.

AAJ: That's another thing that keeps coming up as well, becoming egoless. You can be however you want to be offstage, but for that moment you have to move aside.

AS: And I think the transcendence of music is when very established people can get rid of that on the bandstand. They let their talent guide them through the music without thinking to suppress anything, it just works in very interesting ways. Whenever there is someone I want to play better for in the bandstand, I usually play better.

AAJ: Can you explain that a little bit?

AS: Pat always asks, "Are there any target members in the audience? Do we have any guests? To have a target member in the audience usually helps me focus a little more. I used to find that when I played the little bars and no one was paying attention to me, I was a little careless when I played. You know, I used to always think, "How can these guys who are my idols, watching them on videos, hearing them live and on records, how do they seem to get better every time I hear them, more mature, more refined?

Antonio SanchezAnd I think that the secret is inside the big leagues, when you're playing with really good musicians all the time in front of a lot of people who paid a lot of money to see you, that really does put you in a different frame of mind than when you're playing in a little bar, I think that no matter what anyone says. Because a lot of people will say, "No, that's not true, music is music, that shouldn't matter. I think musicians are some of the most affected people when other people are not paying attention—and they always say otherwise. They're not playing for the audience, they're doing it because they like it. But if the audience doesn't clap, if they don't react—it's so frustrating, no matter who it is. If you can get something across, you've done what you came to do.

AAJ: You talked about a musician achieving a state of transcendence. Transcendence to what?

AS: You know, something bigger than us. And I am not saying that in a religious way at all. Something bigger in terms of what can be created by two, three, four, a big band, twenty people, whatever. And when everyone can transcend their own beings and egos into creating this higher thing together, that is music. That's when you transcend.

AAJ: Well, I think that pretty much sums it up. What have you got going on these days.

AS: Well, I'm touring with the revival of the Gary Burton Quartet with Pat Metheny and Steve Swallow, then I'm touring with the Pat Metheny Trio. I just did a record with [bassist] Scott Colley's band, I'll be doing some stuff with [bassist] John Pattitucci's band and [pianist] Kenny Werner's Quartet. I did something with [pianist] Chick Corea. I'm also doing some clinics and drum festivals and teaching at a few different events this summer. I'm hoping to do my first solo CD too. We'll see how that goes.

Selected Discography

Diego Urcola, Viva (CamJazz, 2006)

Donny McCaslin, Soar (Sunnyside, 2006)

Pat Metheny Group, The Way Up (Nonesuch, 2005)

Alex Sipiagin, Returning (Criss Cross, 2005)

Miguel Zenon, Jibaro (Marsalis Music, 2005)

Janis Siegel, Sketches of Broadway (Telarc, 2004)

Miguel Zenon, Ceremonial (Marsalis Music, 2004)

Michael Brecker, Wide Angles (Verve, 2003)

Pat Metheny Group, Speaking of Now (Warner Bros., 2002)

Avishai Cohen, Unity (Stretch, 2001)

Danilo Perez, Motherland (Verve, 2001)

David Sanchez, Travesla (Columbia, 2001)

Marcus Roberts Trio, In Honor of Duke (Columbia, 1999)

Photo Credits:

Top Photo: Dragan Tasic

Center Photo: Tony Rodgers

Bottom Photo: Bruce C Moore

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