Antonio Sanchez interview
When we caught up with drummer Antonio Sanchez, he was at home in New York City making last minute preparations for his West Coast tour.
Growing up in Mexico City, were you playing jazz at all?
Not really. I was mainly playing rock. I was taking private lessons with a friend of the family and I would play along to records of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin. My mom always liked rock so I grew up listening to rock and classical music -- not that much jazz. She did try to play me an Art Blakey record, when I was in my rock stage, but I didn't like it too much. I wasn't ready for it.
And you were playing in bands?
I had a bunch of rock bands. I would play with singers, stuff like that, but no jazz. Then I went to the conservatory in Mexico City and they had a jazz workshop. I used to go and hang out with the guys and started listening. Some of the guys told me, 'You should listen to this guy or that guy,' and they gave me tapes and I started listening. One of the first things I listened to was the Chick Corea Band -- that changed a lot of things for me because I came from rock and that music has rock elements, but it's instrumental and they're soloing all the time. That brought me to fusion and from fusion I went to Latin jazz and eventually straight ahead jazz.
What was the shift from rock to jazz like as a drummer?
It's a lot more demanding technically playing high level jazz. You have to solo a lot and that requires a deep deep knowledge of your instrument and the music. Rock is demanding in many ways too, but you don't solo that much and you're not improvising that much. It's a different set of skills.
And after the conservatory...
From there I went to the Berklee College of Music in Boston in 1993.
Did you go there specifically to study jazz?
I went to study jazz -- that was my goal.
I know you went from Berklee to the New England Conservatory. Was it on to New York and professional gigging from there?
My whole stay in Boston I was playing professionally, but only locally. At the end of my Berklee stay I started playing with Danilo Pérez and Paquito D'Rivera. From there it started snowballing, playing with David Sanchez and Pat Metheny, Michael Brecker, Gary Burton, all these people that I play with today because they heard me with someone else and liked what they heard.
The first few musicians you mentioned are big names in Latin jazz. Do you think of yourself as a Latin jazz drummer?
In the beginning I used to play a lot of Latin jazz and play with salsa-based bands and play AfroCuban music. But I really wanted to break out of that. I knew it would be hard because my name is Antonio Sanchez and I come from Mexico, so people assume I play Latin jazz. But when I started playing with Pat Metheny and Michael Brecker -- people who don't belong in the Latin jazz circles -- then I started getting more credibility as a drummer who can play more than Latin jazz, who can play straight-ahead jazz.
Do you think perhaps some straight ahead players hire you because they see your skill, but also they want to add some Latin flavor?
Maybe a bit of both. Not necessarily because they want the Latin flavor, but a different flavor. When I fuse my influences with straight-ahead jazz it sounds different from someone who grew up playing straight-ahead jazz. I think I play it well, but I like to mix it up with other stuff I know - that's what makes my voice different.
At some point you put your own band together, Migration. Is it a lot different being the leader?
Oh yes. I've been a sideman for such a long time, but I've been around band leaders pretty much all my life, so I know it's very hard and very taxing on somebody to lead an ensemble, to write music for it, to get gigs, to pay everybody. It's a hard job. I knew it would be hard, but I had some music that I wanted to play and I really felt I had something to offer as a bandleader. So I put this band together that was basically two saxophones, bass and drums. It's a peculiar formation because you don't have piano or guitar to provide chords -- it has a very different color when you have all that space. So I wrote songs for that ensemble and it's been a lot of fun. I love that space that comes from not having a harmonic instrument.
And you're writing most of the music, the melodies?
Yes. On this tour I think pretty much everything we're playing is something I have written.
When you're behind the drums and someone else is playing your melodies, I suppose it takes a lot of trust...
I know exactly what you mean. Of course we're all musical kindred spirits in a way. We all share the same musical values and musical views and concepts. When I called the guys who are playing with me -- Donny McCaslin and Dave Binney play saxophone and Scott Colley plays bass -- well, I've been playing with them on and off for many years. I've played in their bands actually. So it's a healthy musical relationship.
There are not a whole lot of bands led by drummers historically. There's the band your mother played for you, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and a handful of others. Why do you think that is?
I'd say the primary reason is that a lot of bandleaders are leaders because they write a lot of music. They want to show something that they have created. If you have never studied anything but drums, it's hard to write music. Music is written on a guitar or a piano or a saxophone, but for me mainly on piano. That's why I studied piano, because I wanted to have an option of writing music. I always loved classical music and at some point I want to compose -- and I did compose classical sounding pieces. When I got into jazz I wanted to transfer that knowledge into the jazz world and write music. I think the reason there are not a lot of band-leading drummers -- and there are great drummers like Elvin Jones and Roy Haynes who led bands -- but they don't write music; they always play somebody else's music. I didn't want a band where I played somebody else's music -- I wanted to play my own music and have my own concept of what the band should be.
How do you lead from behind the drum kit?
Since it's my music, I feel like I have more authority to shape the music dynamically in term of, You're going to play soft, You're going to play loud, play slow, play faster. I can control those nuances that make the music sound one way or another. And the drums are such a powerful instrument -- you can drown everybody if you play loud enough, but you can also play incredibly soft and be very musical and sensitive. I like to explore all of that as a bandleader. But I don't want it to seem like I'm the bandleader -- I just want it to be like, that's a band playing music. Maybe you don't know who the bandleader is because everybody has an equal share in the ensemble.
Are you teaching also?
I teach, I do a lot of clinics, but I don't teach privately because I'm on the road so much. In my clinics I have drummers and different kinds of musicians, sometimes people who don't even play instruments, who just like music. I try to keep my clinics open in terms of concept, where everybody can use something. If I get too technical and start talking about my foot technique or stuff like that, then a lot of people don't get anything out of it.
Is there some broad stroke thing you are trying to get across?
I'm always trying to teach about musicality, and that goes across all instruments. You know, how to develop solos, how to interact with other musicians, and I also try to talk about the business, what it takes to make it in this business, both as a musician and as a person, as a human being. That's something I think a lot of times is overlooked.
What does it take?
It takes being a nice person actually. You're going to be dealing with people all the time, you're going to be going on the road, you're going to be sleeping badly, eating badly; you're going to be in a bad mood, but you still have to put on a nice face and try to make the best out of it. That can actually make or break your career, how you interact with other musicians on a daily basis.
It seems like it's getting harder to make a living as a musician in this day and age.
It isn't getting any easier. I think the economic downturn has hurt in general. For example, if anybody these days calls me for a tour, it's never a tour in the United States. It's always a tour in Europe, or sometimes Japan, but mostly Europe. That's where 80 percent of the stuff is happening. Last year I must have been over there 10 times for different things.
Why do you think that is? Because the American public doesn't support jazz?
It's the mentality of the United States right now. I think they're so drugged by TV and by the Internet, that I don't think they want to go out that much. I don't want to generalize, but there's a problem. Why would you go out to hear music that you've never heard on the radio or on TV? How are you going to get to know somebody if you never hear their name mentioned anywhere?
So partly it has to do with the fact that jazz has no place in broadcast media today...
It has everything to do with it. Why do you buy a record? Because you've listened to it somewhere else, on the radio or maybe someone plays it for you. Then you get to the record store, there are thousands of jazz records and you've never heard them, you have heard nothing, so what are you going to get?
I have to admit; there are big parts of the jazz world that I know little about.
Well the guys in the Redwood Jazz Alliance do, the people who are bringing you here. They have a radio show, and a deep knowledge of jazz, and they love to share what they know.
People like that are sort of keeping jazz alive.
How do you see your role in the problem? What's the solution?
The only solution is to keep going out like we're doing now and try to play some music. Hopefully people will come and they'll like it and they'll spread the word around.
Sounds like a plan... Anything else you want to add?
We covered a lot of ground. The only thing I would like to add is that I have a new record coming out in the summer. It's a live record we did at the Jazz Standard in New York. It's a double CD called Antonio Sanchez Live in New York.
Who else is on it?
It's with David Sanchez, Miguel Zenon and Scott Colley. It should be out in June or July on Cam Jazz, the same people who put out my first record, Migration. I think people will like it.