First night of Advent in 2015, a perfect reason to have one of the biggest drummers in the jazz scenery in Tallinn. Antonio Sánchez is presenting his latest project as a musician, composer and bandleader – his new album The Meridian Suite. This special piece of jazz art grasped the audience with the first melodies by John Escreet on piano. After a bit more than one hour of intense music with ups and downs, with emotions, feelings and seasons, a warm applause broke out, the audience whistled and shouted giving a standing ovation to those great artists.
When the concert ended, I took a great pleasure in meeting with Antonio Sánchez to ask some questions about his past, present and future projects. In a truly relaxed atmosphere, the musician answered all the questions with his calm voice.
Is this your first time in Estonia? You have performed in so many places, I wonder if there is some country where you haven’t played yet, but dream of playing?
We came to Estonia last year with Pat Metheny. The last time I could walk around the old town, which is amazing. In addition, I didn’t expect the people to be so warm, usually the more north you go, the colder the people are, but not today.
A place where I would love to perform, and for some reason I haven’t yet, is Turkey. I’d like to go there because the cymbals that I play are the traditional Turkish Zildjian, so it’d be great to have a concert there and buy the original ones.
When you were 17 you enrolled in the National Conservatory of Mexico to study classical piano. How did you feel changing the sticks to piano keys? Did it have any influences on the way you used to play the drums? Why did you decide to quit it?
I have never changed sticks to piano keys, even when I was studying this instrument I never forgot the drums. I could say that the drums is my wife and the piano was my lover.
I always say to percussionists that they should study piano. It gives you another sensibility within the music, the chords and the colours. Colours are really important to orchestrate the music. Studying piano helped me a lot when performing later with big artists such as Pat Metheny or Danilo Perez. When you have so many sections you need to know how to orchestrate in different ways, so that music can get alive. If I hadn’t studied in the conservatory it would have been way too difficult to compose.
In a past interview by Mark Smal, you said you used to write a lot of music earlier, but after playing with musicians like Pat Metheny, Danilo Perez and so on, it didn’t sound so good anymore. However, as you wished you lead your own band now. How do you feel your music skills have developed? What do you do to keep improving and surprising all the time?
I think everything in life is the same, if you try and practice constantly you improve. In these times I was shy as a composer and I couldn’t find the way to set my composer side free. However, after a while I made a decision that I knew how the good music sounds, I only had to make the effort of getting it out from the inside. As I have played with first class musicians, my ears can recognize the right sounds, so if I compose something and it sounds good, then it is. If it doesn’t, then I modify it or erase and start again.
The name of your current band is Antonio Sanchez & Migration. Why “Migration”? What does it mean to you?
Migration is essential to our music, in geographical and musical sense. Obviously, I left Mexico, my country, to emigrate to the United States. As you know, the life of an emigrant is not easy at all, it has its positive and negative sides, and arriving to a new country to start your life from scratch is difficult, especially for me as a Mexican. Creating jazz music in the country where it was born was a challenge.
To be more specific, if you look at my band there is only one guy from the United States – Matt Brewer. Seamus Blake is from Canada, John Escreet from the United Kingdom and my wife Tana who couldn’t come today is Croatian-American. As you can see, the keyword in our band is migration. We are like jazz-gypsies, all the time travelling and performing.
Furthermore, presenting the same music every single night to audiences with diverse cultural backgrounds is a great experience. It sounds so different, although it is the same music. This is the moment when the music gets alive.
At the beginning of the concert you said that this concert was going to be one hour of non-stop playing as part of your only song and album The Meridian Suite. You defined it as a musical novel and not as a short stories book. So, what is the novel about?
While creating music I don’t think of the dawn or the planets, I just flow with the chords. Contrary to the most musicians I usually name the song after the composition process.
In this case, this is the story of melodies, rhythms and ideas that develop during the whole piece, from the beginning until the end. For me, the story was a self-related narration and before I realized, I already had almost an hour of music.
The public is not used to sit and listen to more than one hour of music non-stop, so this was kind of an experiment as a composer, musician and bandleader. However, we try to make the peaks and valleys extreme: soft and loud, fast and slow, electric and acoustic. Also, I want that everybody in the group has their own solo moment, to show their own voice through their instruments. I must say that the audience gave a good response. This is why I like to begin by explaining my project, so they know what to expect.
This is a new concept for me, it’s like a film, instead of enjoying four or five short movies you have the long one at once.
How do you think your Mexican background has influenced you as a musician? Do you have any influences from your culture in your beats?
Geographically, Mexico is a special country because it is close to the United States, the Caribbean, the Central and South America. We get the influences from all those places, the good ones and the bad ones, so I grew up listening music from all over the Americas.
When I am creating my own pieces, I think the influences work unconsciously. Somehow, The Meridian Suite is autobiographic because in it are all the things that I’ve been playing and listening since I was a child – rock, fusion, free jazz, bebop, electric and acoustic tunes. It’s like making guacamole – you put inside all the ingredients that you like. My band is like me, they don’t like the limits and stylistic borders, that’s why I love playing with them. We don’t have rules, jazz doesn’t have rules.
You were asked to write the soundtrack to the Mexican movie Birdman by Alejandro González Iñarritu, and it won a prize in the Venice Film Festival. How did you like collaborating in such a rewarding project? Would you do something similar in the future with other films?
Amazing. It was an incredible experience, because I usually take part in projects with musicians, but this was the first time that I was collaborating with a film director of this level. The thing I enjoyed the most was going deep inside his thoughts and see his creativity and energy feeding my inspiration, in order to get the product that he was looking for. Showing the feelings and the emotional state of the main character Riggan Thomson, who was played by Michael Keaton, was the key to get the film-spectators into the feelings of stress and anxiety necessary to follow the movie.
To be honest, it was quite easy. The director wanted me to improvise. So for me it came naturally, it’s what I do in jazz. The composition was my reaction to the screening and the story, in the same way I do it with musicians on stage.
It took me just two days to finish the soundtrack.
A fresh question before we finish: if you had to identify yourself with a part of the drum set, which one will you be?
I would be the ride cymbal, the main one. It’s the one which marks the tempo, overall in jazz, and you can take so many colours from it, everybody follows it, it gives the tempo, the groove and the rhythm.
To end the interview: what are your next projects?
Next year I will write a soundtrack for an independent British movie.
Can you say the title?
No, it’s still a secret (laughs).
After that, I will be touring with my band and continue with a new project by Pat Metheny. Although, I would like to write the music for my new album as a soloist drummer. After the release of the Birdman soundtrack, I realized that if I had to do a solo drummer album, it would be much different. I got the idea and I want it to come true.
Antonio Sanchez & Migration performed at Vaba Lava on 29th of November at 6 pm.