Three Times Three: A Conversation with Antonio Sanchez by CJ Shearn

When one thinks of creativity, musicality, passion, and consistent challenge, the name of drummer Antonio Sanchez comes to mind. Since his arrival on the major jazz scene in 1997 with pianist Danilo Perez, Antonio has been known for his supreme feeling and good taste, and as one of the most in demand jazz drummers in the world. Sanchez has lent his unmistakeable beat to recordings from the likes of vocalist Luciana Souza, pianist Chick Corea, vibraphonist Gary Burton, and the late tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker, among many others. He is most known for his decade plus continuing association with Pat Metheny, sharing the distinction of being the only drummer the guitarist has had for multiple projects with a wide range of different groups. Sanchez is one of the strongest composers in jazz today, something made abundantly clear with the release of 2013’s New Life featuring some of New York’s finest musicians British born pianist John Escreet, bassist Matt Brewer, saxophonists Dave Binney, Donny McCaslin and vocalist Thana Alexa. The album is Sanchez’ most memorable writing to date showcasing his composition skills honed through his study of piano at the National Conservatory in his native Mexico City, his studies at the Berklee College of Music (1993-1995),where he graduated magna cum laude, before advancing his education in jazz improvisation at the New England Conservatory. He has been a jazz educator at NYU, also lending his very accessible teaching style to various drum clinics around the world. Recently he received the 2014 Echo award for best drummer and the New Life album, in addition to receiving 5 Grammies in his career.

I spoke with Antonio during the break in the schedule for the Pat Metheny Unity Group’s Kin World Tour which has now begun in Europe. We spoke about an array of topics: his forthcoming double album of all star trios Three Times Three, (scheduled for release this summer on CAM Jazz) playing behind the behemoth Orchestrion in the Unity Group,and jazz education. My thanks and sincere gratitude go to Antonio for his thoughtful responses during this interview. Additional thanks to Binghamton, NY music educator Joel Smales for some additional material in our discussion.

CJ: Antonio, thanks for taking time out to speak with me for the New York Jazz Workshop School of Music blog. I am sure the students and faculty of the school and readers of the blog will be thrilled to hear your insights.

Talk about your new project, the double album Three Times Three and what you wanted to achieve with these different groups. The lineups are dream bands: Brad Mehldau alongside Matt Brewer, John Scofield, and Christian McBride, Joe Lovano and John Pattitucci.

AS: This new record is a big step for me as a composer and bandleader. I’ve always wanted to put a project together where I could write material to be performed by some of my favorite musicians on the planet who also happen to be friends and especially, musical heroes of mine but I didn’t want to make an “all star” record that looked more impressive than it sounded. I was also trying to figure out conceptually the best way to go about it. I also wanted to do something radically different from my band “Migration”.

I thought the ideal situation would be to have three different trios with different lead instruments being anchored by bass and of course, myself. Piano, guitar and tenor saxophone seemed like the perfect voices to have leading the trios because historically there’s a lot of material to draw from any of these configurations and yet the sound and function couldn’t be more different from one another. The Trio has always been one of the most versatile and fun ensemble for me to be a part of. There’s so much room for everybody to breathe and to explore, that I was sure this concept would work for this project considering the caliber of musicians I wanted to have on board.
“Three Times Three” ended up as the name of the album because it seemed like a fun and accurate name that described what the project entailed.

CJ: I have been following your playing very closely since 2002 when you joined the Pat Metheny Group for Speaking of Now, (Warner Brothers/Metheny Group Productions) most of the sideman recordings you’ve been on with various artists like Michael Brecker, and Gary Burton, in addition to all your releases as a leader. New Life (CAM Jazz, 2013) the most recent, was truly a turning point for you as a writer, eclipsing the strong writing on your debut, Migration (CAM Jazz, 2008) which was such a great blowing record with singable, memorable originals. Live in New York (CAM Jazz, 2010) had wonderful expansions of the Migration material, and then the huge leap forward with the extended form compositions of New Life. What made you want to explore the trio concept for this new album?

AS: The Trio is to me, the ultimate driving machine in jazz. It has everything you need to make it sound big, lush and full and to make it sound sparse, minimalistic and open. I played in a lot of great trios through the years that inspired me to want to write for all three different configurations. Also, writing specifically for all such strong individual voices made it a very interesting and fun challenge.

CJ: How did you arrive at selecting the personnel for the date?

AS: I had very specific people I wanted to call for this recording. I had the pleasure of playing with some of them to some degree in different situations but never in the combinations that I had envisioned.

The first person I thought I wanted to have was Brad Mehldau. I’ve been following Brad’s career for a long time and have always been a huge fan of his. Although there were some very close opportunities for us to play, our musical paths never quite crossed so I saw this as a great chance to make some music together. Matt Brewer has been my bass player of choice for a number of years and I’ve been fortunate to have him in my band Migration since 2011.The combination of the three of us was nothing short of amazing. Great chemistry right off the bat and I think the music I prepared for them speaks for itself. The tunes I wrote for us were the most elaborate of the three trios because, as a piano player myself, I feel the most comfortable writing for this configuration and having Brad and Matt in mind I knew there were absolutely no limits in terms of what we could accomplish as a unit.

Another one of my favorite musicians of all time is guitarist John Scofield. We had a chance to play together with Gary Burton once but it was over too quickly and what I really wanted is to write material for him to sink his teeth into that stylistically would be something he enjoyed playing. I thought the perfect fold for him would be the amazing Christian McBride on bass. Christian and I worked together for many years as Pat Metheny’s Trio. We toured constantly all over the world and know each other’s playing intimately so I knew our chemistry would be instantaneous. The material I wrote for us worked like a charm and it was one of the most fun sessions I’ve ever been a part of.
The third trio I thought of was with Joe Lovano on tenor saxophone and John Patitucci on bass. Both Joe and John have been some of my favorite musicians for a long time. I had the pleasure of playing with Joe in a few different situations but as with Scofield, I wanted to write something especially designed for us as a unit. John and I have played a lot over the years with the likes of Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, Michael Brecker, Danilo Perez and also in his own projects so we’ve come to know each other’s playing very well.
What I wanted to achieve for this trio was to use the space that the lack of a harmonic instrument provides for a very open and improvised environment. I tried to write tunes that would bring out the best of the three of us in this context and both Joe and John created amazing universes on the spot. It was a total thrill to be a part of.

CJ: Let’s talk about the current state of drumming in jazz today. You’ve contributed so much to the “new” vocabulary that’s been developed in the community alongside players who are your contemporaries and a generation younger: Chris Dave, Eric Harland, EJ Strickland, Jeff Watts, Terri Lyne Carrington, Marcus Gilmore, Mark Colenburg among many others. One thing that’s always struck me about your playing is that it’s always so authentic no matter what style of playing it is. Talk a bit about the importance of jazz drummers learning to play authentically in any style.

AS: Stylistic truth is one of the hardest and most important things to accomplish as a drummer. There’s so much music out there with deep roots that it’s really a challenge to play all these styles in an authentic way. When I was a student at Berklee I was fascinated by the variety and the extent of modern drumming and I wanted to explore all these styles to the max. Then it became a matter of survival because if I wanted to work around town I realized I needed as much versatility as possible as a sideman. I used to play all kinds of stuff ranging from Top 40 to Brazilian to Calypso to Afrocuban to Straight Ahead jazz and everything in-between. It was a great time to learn. Then I started narrowing all of those styles down to make my own drumming composite which is what makes my own sound nowadays. The key to that was many years of playing very involved music with musicians that were a lot more seasoned than myself in front of listening audiences. It’s very different when you’re playing a little club where nobody is listening than when you’re performing for people that payed good money to come and see you. Your level of awareness is way more heightened in the latter situation.

CJ: Using the last question as a thematic tie, I mentioned to you after the Unity Group concert at Town Hall, you have mastered and redefined the nuances of Pat’s very specific cymbal language, rooted in bebop but wisely camouflaged. You told me that you were playing on “Speaking of Now” when you first joined his regular band, the PMG you played the way you “thought” Pat wanted you to sound. Talk about how authenticity has informed your growth through the 15 or so years you’ve played with him in various settings.

AS:That’s where all the playing of different styles has come in so handy. A gig like this requires to know a lot of styles in depth but not really play them in the most authentic fashion because Pat’s music draws from a lot of genres but it is also it’s own stand alone thing. He has kind of created his own musical lexicon and grammar and after many years I feel I’ve learned to master it and “speak it” correctly.

CJ: Tell me about the challenges of live playing behind the Orchestrion. What were your thoughts when you first played behind such a unique instrument?

AS: It’s been really interesting. Since I started working with Pat I had to master playing with sequences and click tracks but there were never live instruments on stage being triggered by a computer and definitely never percussion instruments that I had to play along with. When you play with tracks like strings, keyboards or sounds that don’t have a very specific attack you don’t have to be so precise when playing along with them but when there’s live percussion being triggered on stage like marimba, vibes, shakers, bongos and cymbals you really have to be ON with the sequence.

CJ: I would like to switch gears and ask you about jazz education. You attended both the National Conservatory in Mexico for classical piano, Berklee, and after graduating magna cum laude, you embarked on a Masters degree in jazz improvisation at the New England Conservatory. Currently, you are on the faculty of New York University, so you possess an impressive wide array. of educational experience.

Tell me about your teaching philosophy.

AS: Unfortunately I had to stop teaching at NYU because of my touring schedule. I didn’t feel like I could commit they way I wanted to but I think the ultimate schooling for me has been the experience playing with incredible musicians in many formats and stages for so many years. I like to share that wealth of knowledge in a practical way. I learned a lot of what to do and what not to do as a player, as a leader, as a composer and as a human being so my philosophy is to pass that along as accurately as possible.

CJ: For you, what makes a great teacher?

AS: Someone that is very good at articulating a point from different angles so that the student can make his own mind about something. Music is very subjective because taste is in the eye and ear of the beholder but technically there are definite rights and wrongs. I want the technique to be executed correctly but I want students to develop their taste by playing, listening and being exposed to all kinds of music.

CJ: Discuss methods that you feel could be used in the classroom to make students excited not only about the contemporary languages used in jazz that they recognize, but also the rich, and varied history. To use one of your tune titles, the “Challenge Within” in jazz education is how to keep things moving forward, because this music is still evolving.

AS: The worst mistake musicians can make is get stuck on one style for too long. We all have periods where we will listen to something a lot and not listen to anything else. That’s fine for a while because it’s good to really get stuff inside your ear by listening in an exhaustible fashion but the richness of our creativeness is informed by what we hear and experience on a daily basis so the more we listen to the wealthier our vocabulary will be.

CJ: What do you believe is most important for someone finding their own individual voice?

AS: We’re all unique and our experiences are vastly different as human beings. We have to take those life and musical experiences and let them all come out in our playing, writing, performing or whatever our creative outlet is.

CJ: What are tips you have for improvisers just starting out?

AS: Less is more. You can go your whole musical career playing a lot of notes and not every say anything interesting. Always concentrate on telling a compelling story when you improvise.

CJ: These next two questions come via a drummer friend of mine and music educator located in upstate NY.

What are you listening to/for while playing?

AS: I try to listen to music as a whole. I want to be a unifier. I want to make the music feel good, coherent, relaxed, exciting and everything else the music calls for. I want to tell a story and help the other musicians tell their story. There’s a very thin line between imposing and proposing. As a drummer this line is extremely delicate and important. You want to help the music have forward motion and excitement but you don’t want to impose your will over it because then you’re forcing and muscling it into something you think it should be instead of just serving as a vessel for it to do what it needs to do.

CJ: What do you feel are the most important things you learned and practiced at Berklee?

AS: I really got familiar with different drumming styles and also got to be immersed in music 24/7 with hundreds of people that wanted to do the same things I wanted to do. I played for hours on end every single day. It was a great experience for me.