Leaving home for the first time is never an easy transition, but Antonio Sanchez had to contend with more than culture shock when he moved from Mexico City to Boston in January of 1993. The 22-year-old drummer enrolled in the Berklee College of Music with a full scholarship, looking to immerse himself in jazz. He hadn’t counted on a near-biblical winter onslaught, culminating with the Storm of the Century that shut down the Eastern seaboard in mid-March. On top of homesickness, insecurity and a disconcerting dearth of good Mexican food, the icy conditions served as a constant reminder that Sanchez was in a foreign land. “I had never even seen snow in my life, and then I’m in the middle of one of the harshest winters in years,” recalls the drummer, 39. “I can’t tell you how miserable I was, away from my family, my girlfriend and my dog. I was so lonely. The good thing was that having nothing better to do than practice and play, that’s what I did.”
For Sanchez, practice, practice, practice paved the way to Carnegie Hall, and dozens of other storied theaters, halls, clubs and auditoriums, transforming him from a promising musician into a singular force. On a scene brimming with exceptional drummers on the south side of 40, Sanchez stands out as one of the most extravagantly gifted, a rhythmic muse to masters like Pat Metheny, Chick Corea, Michael Brecker, Kenny Werner and Gary Burton.
After graduating magna cum laude from Berklee, Sanchez earned a master’s in jazz improvisation at the New England Conservatory, where within months he so impressed Danilo Perez that the pianist recommended him to reed master Paquito D’Rivera for a tour with the Dizzy Gillespie United Nation Orchestra. His ascent gained unstoppable momentum in 2000 with his contributions to two prescient albums, Perez’s pan-American manifesto Motherland and David Sánchez’s excavation of Puerto Rican folklore, Melaza. He seemed to emerge in the spotlight fully formed, with an encyclopedic yet highly personal sound that reflected his meticulous personality, having absorbed generations of modern jazz drumming and Caribbean rhythmic practices.
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Many a pianist who came of age during the 1930s has described hearing Art Tatum on the radio, assuming a piano duo was at work, only to be demoralized by the realization that one man was making all that music. With a similar kind of awe, Metheny describes first hearing Sanchez from backstage when the drummer was performing with the Danilo Perez Trio, thinking he was hearing a percussionist and trap drummer playing beautifully in sync. It was a fateful encounter that changed the course of both their careers. In much the same way that Metheny’s recent immersion in robotics expanded his creative palette in certain areas, the guitarist found that Sanchez’s comprehensive technique opened up new territory for his writing.
Starting with 2002’s Speaking of Now, he rebuilt the Pat Metheny Group with vivid voices from the rising generation, including bassist Richard Bona and trumpeter Cuong Vu. It’s no coincidence that the next PMG project, 2005’s album-length work This Way Up, was by far Metheny’s most ambitious undertaking up to that time. Looking for more exposed situations to explore with Sanchez, the guitarist launched a new trio with Christian McBride, followed by a quartet with Gary Burton that revisited the vibraphonist’s seminal chamber-jazz-rock. It’s a relationship that’s made Sanchez one of the most visible drummers in jazz, at least until Metheny disassembled Jack DeJohnette’s kit and turned the solenoids loose on the drums and cymbals for his Orchestrion project. (“This is the first time I get replaced, and it’s by robots,” Sanchez says with a chuckle.) “Antonio is probably the most significant musician to join the band ever,” Metheny says, talking about Sanchez’s impact on the Pat Metheny Group. “It opened up so many possibilities for us. He’s truly the drummer I thought would never be born. If I had to write a description of the dream guy, it would be Antonio. When I first heard him, I wasn’t really prepared for someone that good to come along. It actually took me some time to just wrap my mind around the fact that we have all these new possibilities.”
The Metheny connection has opened numerous doors for Sanchez, none more satisfying than with Burton, a relationship that is rapidly evolving. During his Berklee years, Sanchez recalls feeling awed seeing the dean walking around the school’s halls, and longing for an opportunity to work with him. “I was fresh out of Mexico, and that was as close as I could get to jazz royalty,” Sanchez says. Mexican-born vibraphonist-composer Victor Mendoza, another longtime Berklee faculty member, was one of the first high-profile musicians to feature Sanchez, which gave the drummer a thorough education in the intricacies of the vibes. He started performing with Burton when Metheny suggested that his one-time boss delve into the repertoire they played together in the 1970s with Steve Swallow, for a 2005 performance in Montreal. Rather than recruiting one of his former drummers, Burton decided to hire Sanchez. The gig was so rewarding that the one-off turned into a galvanizing musical relationship, documented on the 2009 album Quartet Live (Concord Jazz) recorded at Yoshi’s in Oakland. In August, Burton introduced a new group featuring Sanchez, bassist Scott Colley and guitarist Julian Lage, focusing on tunes contributed by every member. (Burton declined to be interviewed for this article.) “Working with Gary is as good as it gets,” Sanchez says. “At Berklee, I had some of his records. Every band he would put together was stellar, and there are tons of drummers he played with who I dug. It’s an amazing thing he does. Every solo he plays feels like he thought it over like a composer.”
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Sanchez has admittedly come to bandleading relatively late, an unintended consequence of having spent the last decade working with Metheny, Burton and Corea. (Seek out Dr. Joe, a Japanese import from 2007 featuring Corea, Sanchez and bassist John Patitucci.) He finally stepped forward with his own project in 2007, releasing Migration (CAM Jazz) with Colley and the torrid saxophone tandem of Chris Potter and David Sánchez. Metheny and Corea, the latter of whom also contributed the opening tune, “One for Antonio,” expand the band to a quintet on several tracks. On the road, the drummer has occasionally employed other, equally formidable saxophonists, such as Donny McCaslin and David Binney. For Sanchez, taking his time to introduce his own music and establish a group sound seemed logical, a case of adhering to the high standards he sets for himself and the pragmatic realization that he could learn more as a sideman than as a boss.
“I’ve been working non-stop,” he says. “The younger generation usually plays with their peers. They have to come up with stuff way earlier, put out their own recordings in their 20s. I had been busy for 13 years straight, learning lots of things, and I’m glad I took that time. I feel like it’s a little easier for me to have an impact now. I had written some tunes, but I didn’t feel it was up to the caliber of the musicians I was playing with. As drummers we have a stigma: We’re not really musicians; we don’t play chords and melodies. I wanted to lead a band with original music to offer. I didn’t want to do something where I just played standards or asked friends to contribute originals. That’s why it took me so long to do my first record. I didn’t feel like I had it together until a few years ago.”
The rest of this article appears in the December 2010 issue of JazzTimes.