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Antonio Sánchez: Not Such a Bad Hombre After All

A virtuoso drummer and visionary composer who’s constantly expanding the possibilities of his instrument, he’s also a real sweetheart

Antonio Sánchez
Antonio Sánchez (photo: Fernando Aceves)

I can personally testify that Antonio Sánchez, who adopted the sobriquet “Bad Hombre” several years ago for a solo drums-and-electronics album, is a truly nice guy. On Labor Day afternoon, Sánchez and Thana Alexa, his wife and bandmate, who’d flown home early after playing the Detroit Jazz Festival the night before, showed me extreme hospitality when I visited their Jackson Heights apartment, two weeks after my initial Zoom conversation with Sánchez from his mother’s Mexico City home. Then, on the subway home, my digital voice recorder fell from my bag—the journalist’s worst fear. After receiving my mortified text, Sánchez immediately offered a do-over. “Things happen,” he said during the Zoom makeup, with a de nada shrug.

They’d been in Detroit with Sánchez’s Bad Hombre quartet, playing repertoire from his second release under that name, SHIFT (Warner Music), a 16-track drums-and-voice extravaganza on which he reimagines and remixes songs contributed by the likes of Lila Downs, Dave Matthews, Meshell Ndegeocello, and Trent Reznor, to name a shortlist of high Q-score participants. Sánchez recounted that Alexa sang everything, modifying her powerful, nuanced contralto with pedal-triggered harmonic-layering doublers and, when tackling parts written by the men, pitch-altering octavers; Big Yuki sound-explored on keyboards and synths; Lex Sadler fulfilled the groove function on electric bass and keyboard bass, and maneuvered on Ableton Live to manipulate backing tracks from the album for the band to play with, as well as opening up sections for interaction and soloing.

The 51-year-old drummer/composer assembled SHIFT during the COVID lockdown, using the compact basement studio he’d organized to execute film score commissions after creating the Grammy-winning solo drum soundtrack for Alejandro Iñárritu’s Birdman in 2014. The new project gestated in 2018, when Sánchez, newly signed with Warner after the first Bad Hombre release, was looking for a fresh concept. While in Mexico City, he heard Silvana Estrada, a friend, perform “El Agua y la Miel” solo, accompanying herself on cuatro. He’d played it with her years before at New York’s now-departed 55 Bar.

“It’s a haunting, hypnotic, linear theme,” Sánchez says. “As Silvana did it, I was hearing drums and synths, different basses, different harmonies, all these peaks and valleys. I decided to ask her to let me see what I could do. She recorded the voice and cuatro separately with a metronome, and sent it to me. I removed the cuatro in some places and changed the harmony. A bunch of instruments I’d bought for a film score were lying around, and I started layering guitars and mandolin—and also a lot of drums. After a month or two, I sent it to her. She told me, ‘I never thought my tune could do this; I never imagined it being so epic.’”

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He decided to extrapolate this m.o. into an album, and started thinking of artists to whom he might reach out. Ultimately, Sánchez harvested songs from the aforementioned individuals as well as a pan-lingual cohort including Kimbra, MARO, Ana Tijoux, Sonica (a three-woman group with Alexa, singer Nicole Zuraitis and bassist Julia Adamy), Alexa herself, and the guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela. He bookends the program with vignettes on which the eminent actor Ignacio López Tarso, Sánchez’ grandfather, emcees, backgrounded by a street soundscape of voices and organilla from an imaginary town plaza, “inviting everybody to come in and sit down, fasten your seatbelts, and please pay attention to the bad hombre, because he’s got a lot of secrets for you.”

“My pitch to the artists was: ‘I would like you to give me a song,’” Sánchez recounted. “‘It could be old. It could be new. It could be a sketch. Anything you want to give me, I can work with.’ I wanted them to work as little as possible, so they wouldn’t feel overwhelmed and not want to do it. I said drums and voice would be the main ingredients. I asked their permission to reimagine the song completely.

“I didn’t want jazz people. I wanted people who write songs that aren’t what I’d normally do, conceptually, aesthetically, technically or compositionally. I grew up listening to rock, and one fun thing about this project has been to revisit my love for really big, well-produced music that is sonically satisfying, where you discover layers of keyboards, strings, synths, guitars, voices. Usually, even on these incredibly well-produced records, one drum part anchors the whole thing. I decided to use the drums as a production tool—to layer them like keyboards or guitars, and have different-sounding drum sets coming from different areas of the sonic spectrum.”

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As an example, Sánchez referenced his treatment of “I Think We’re Past That Now” by Reznor, whom he’d met at the post-Birdman Golden Globe Award ceremonies. “Trent said he’d do something new for me,” Sánchez said. “He went into the studio with [Nine Inch Nails bandmate] Atticus Ross; a few weeks later, I had a Pro Tools session with a bunch of his voices and a few of Atticus’ synths. I started hearing this kind of industrial rock anthem. As I edited and layered his voices, I thought it would be great to have background vocals, which I did myself. And I recorded all the instruments—basses, guitars and, of course, a bunch of drums. Trent was surprised when he heard the track; I think he expected something Birdman-like, atmospheric drums on top of what he sent me. He said: ‘This is an actual tune. I haven’t stopped listening to it. I want to get you involved with my mixing engineer so we can extract maybe 15% more out of your mix.’”

To surprise the guest artists, “not mak[ing] the song do the obvious thing that it seems the song wants to do” was a core intention. “I saw it as someone allowing me to perform plastic surgery on their baby,” Sánchez said. “A song is very personal; it touched me that they let me do my thing. Probably they thought I’d jazz it up a bit more. But that’s what I didn’t want to do—although my years as a jazz drummer and composer definitely influence and inform the album. I think SHIFT has a certain sensitivity and nuance that other rock or hip-hop albums don’t. I wanted to imprint that in this music, while staying truthful and loyal to the songs.”

Antonio Sánchez
Antonio Sánchez (photo: Fernando Aceves)

“Just as I wanted to get rid of my accent when speaking English, I wanted to lose my accent—rock-fusion, or whatever that accent was—when I was playing jazz or Latin or anything else.” 

Midway through our second conversation, perhaps to make me more comfortable after I’d lost my recorder, Sánchez related an experience that could serve as a textbook anxiety dream. He prefaced it with an account of his rocky first year at Berklee, where he matriculated in 1993. His mother (Ignacio López Tarso’s daughter), a highly educated, poorly paid film historian, critic, and public intellectual who raised Sánchez herself, maxed out her credit card for his tuition, then fell exponentially further into debt after a peso devaluation. Compounding matters, her car had been stolen and she’d broken up with her romantic partner.

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Up north in Boston, Sánchez—broke, lonesome, overwhelmed with coursework—was concerned for his mother. During the first semester, as he played an arsenal of fancy licks on a “humongous” kit (22″ bass drum, seven cymbals and double bass pedal, to be precise) for a bebop ensemble on “Pent-Up House,” the instructor stripped his set in real time, leaving him with a hi-hat, bass drum, snare drum and ride cymbal. Then he admonished him to “solo in the form and trade choruses.” “Nobody wanted to play with me,” Sánchez recalled. On break in Mexico City, he told his mother he wanted to skip the next semester. She replied, “If you stay, I don’t think I’ll be able to help you go back a semester from now.”

Sánchez “reluctantly” returned to Boston. Immediately thereafter, he was “amazed” to receive Berklee’s biannual Buddy Rich Memorial Scholarship, with a mandate to open the scholarship concert at New York’s Manhattan Center with a drum solo, witnessed by his idol, Rush’s Neil Peart, and a host of other “heroes,” who later “congratulated me and high-fived me and hugged me”—a dream come true. Other scholarships followed, and Sánchez “started to get little opportunities to play here and there.”

His first such opportunity (the story’s denouement) was a gig with a Polish singer “at a Polish convention center.” After setting up, Sánchez entered the bathroom to change into his rented, well-pressed tuxedo. “I start putting my shirt on, and the suit—and then all of a sudden, I’m like: ‘Where are the pants?’ It was the middle of summer and I was in shorts. I could not believe this was happening.” The singer told him to move the drum set to the corner, cover his legs, and not stand up for the whole gig, even to go to the bathroom. “I was like, ‘Yes, of course; whatever needs to be done, I’ll do it.’”

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Perhaps Sánchez’s ups and downs during these formative years account for his kind, empathetic response to my calamity. But the anecdote also hints at the prodigious work ethic, keen intellect, deep focus, and raw talent that catapulted him to the pinnacle of jazz drumming over the ensuing decade.

Early on, Sánchez learned the drums playing along to his mother’s comprehensive collection of rock albums with “big, big sounds,” spanning Sgt. Pepper to Led Zeppelin, U2, Pink Floyd, and Peter Gabriel. “I also grew up listening to lots of Colombian and Cuban music—boleros, dancehalls that just play danzon and cha-chas and salsa, which I wouldn’t have heard in the States,” he says. “It was in the background. My grandfather listened to classical music at lunch when I was living with him. That was in my subconscious too.”

Jazz came into view after Sánchez saw Milos Forman’s Mozart biopic Amadeus. “I got obsessed with the idea of a genius child prodigy,” he says. “I thought, ‘I want to be like that; I want to feel I can do something special.’ I wanted to learn piano. I wanted to learn to write classical music.” In 1988, he enrolled in Mexico’s National Conservatory, where a friend gave him a cassette of the Chick Corea Elektric Band album Light Years, with Dave Weckl on drums.

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“I’d never heard anything like it, so heavy and deep compared to rock & roll,” he says.  “Immediately I felt something going on that I wanted to learn. I always liked improvising; even as a child I’d play for hours. Now I started naturally going more in the jazz direction without really knowing that’s what it was. I played Debussy, Satie, and Mozart, and analyzed scores—how Mozart wrote a symphony by developing just one motif. I didn’t realize until later that I could apply all the elements of motivic development—form, the use of space, repetition, extreme dynamics—to what I wanted to do. One of my favorite things is to do solos that can last from 10 minutes to one hour, using all these techniques to dig deep into the instrument’s storytelling aspect to keep the audience, and myself, engaged.”

Once at Berklee, Sánchez developed “impostor syndrome,” an affliction that kindled his desire to accurately render the various dialects he’d encounter as a working musician in the States. Toward the aim of “finding out why swing sounds the way it sounds,” he took lessons with and listened to iconic drummers recommended by the instructor who’d stripped his set. Via Berklee’s polyglot student body, Sánchez assimilated, with painstaking thoroughness, Afro-diasporic rhythms of Cuba, Brazil, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, and Panama. “In Mexico, I’d played Latin music, but it was peripheral to me,” he says. “At Berklee, I met people who’d been doing this as kids. I studied congas, a little batá drums, timbales, bongos, different cowbells, to see where all those parts that Cuban drummers like Horacio Hernandez and Ignacio Berroa were playing come from.”

As Sánchez absorbed the various beats, he evolved his own musical poetics. “I developed what I used to call ‘extreme independence,’ where one limb did the clave, while at the top I played different claves at different time signatures and different tempos,” he recalls. “It was fun. I did it because I wanted to play that music really well. Same thing with Brazilian music. I felt I had a thick accent playing all these different musics and, just as I wanted to get rid of my accent when speaking English, I wanted to lose my accent—rock-fusion, or whatever that accent was—when I was playing jazz or Latin or anything else.”

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Michael League, who is producing a forthcoming album on which Sánchez and conguero/singer Pedrito Martínez improvise and dialogue on various Afro-Cuban-Yoruban themes, opines that Sánchez transcended that aspiration. “When I’m teaching or engaging with music students outside the United States, Antonio, Joe Zawinul and John McLaughlin are the first examples that I give of people who did not grow up in the culture that birthed the music they’re known for playing, and yet have been able to completely embed themselves in that musical culture, and not only contribute to it with authenticity and fluidity, but actually create space for their own voice,” League says. “That’s why people call them. To me, Antonio is the textbook of the way to do it.”

Antonio Sánchez 2010
Antonio Sánchez at the Jazz Standard, New York, September 2010 (photo: Alan Nahigian)

“To me, jazz today is not really about the sound of jazz. It’s freedom. It’s given me a harmonic and rhythmic prowess that I can now apply to anything.”

The morning after our second conversation, Sánchez would join bassist Linda May Han Oh and pianist Gwilym Simcock—his bandmates on Pat Metheny’s 2020 CD From This Place (Nonesuch)—at a Manhattan rehearsal studio to prepare for a three-week Southern Hemisphere tour to cover COVID-canceled bookings (originally scheduled for March 2020) in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Lima, Santiago, Montevideo, Buenos Aires, and Mexico City. From This Place is Sánchez’s ninth album with Metheny since 2002; among the others are two Grammy-winners with the Pat Metheny Group, another two in Metheny’s trio with Christian McBride, and another two with Metheny’s Unity Band.

Each album showcases Sánchez’s propensity, as League puts it, “for interacting without in any way compromising the groove.” “First, you have to learn Pat’s language, which is completely informed by jazz and bebop,” Sánchez said. “But you’re not playing jazz and bebop. The interaction is totally based on jazz, but the delivery is different. A lot of it, especially the Pat Metheny Group, is very straight eighth-note-based. I think he felt comfortable with me because I came more from straight eighth-note playing than from swing. Once we’d played a staggering number of gigs for years and years, he decided I was ready to make my own decisions within his framework.”

Sánchez credits Metheny’s 68-minute epic The Way Up (2005), on which he played, as a strong influence on the “long-form storytelling” compositions for his own Meridian Suite (CAM Jazz, 2016)—in the program notes Sánchez compared it to a “musical novel,” with compositions developing “the way a novelist develops a story and its characters”—and Lines in the Sand (CAM Jazz, 2018). Rather than mirror the particulars of Metheny’s vocabulary, Sánchez borrows from his aesthetic, creating strong melodies from complex ideas and contextualizing them within an epic narrative frame.

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Because of his mother’s profession, Sánchez became a moviegoer as a young child. His grandfather, now 97, appeared in 50 films, more than 100 theatrical productions, and several dozen telenovelas and TV series. So it’s no surprise that Sánchez imparts to the aforementioned albums—and his pieces on Trio Grande (Whirlwind, 2020), a lovely collaborative date with Will Vinson and Gilad Hekselman—the sensibility of an imaginary soundtrack. His background also informs Sánchez’s uncanny signifying on the passages in Birdman that depict the mental breakdown of Michael Keaton’s sometimes pantsless Birdman character.

“It’s a tribute to Iñárritu that Antonio’s voice and the color of the drums and where it sits in the soundscape of the movie is something that he wanted,” says Vince Mendoza, who arranged and orchestrated eight Sánchez pieces with the WDR Orchestra and the composer on drums on Channels of Energy (CAM Jazz, 2018). “It’s also a tribute to Iñárritu that he’s speaking a different language of music inside his narrative than most filmmakers ever thought about doing. I mean, what music do you hear when you hear heartbreak or struggle or humor or anger? This was a different language to express that narrative.” Mendoza added that for his recent Freedom Over Everything, a long suite for symphonic orchestra and rhythm section, he wanted Sánchez for his ability “to drive the bus, but with great poetry and a sense of color and emotion in a way we don’t really expect a big-band drummer to contribute.”

“I improvised the original demos for Birdman off the script according to what Iñárritu explained to me before they started shooting,” Sánchez says. “He brought the demos to the set to rehearse with. He told me the drums sounded too clean. I always pride myself, of course, on having my drums sound great and well-tuned, but he wanted me to dirty it up. ‘I want the drums to sound like they’ve been in storage for 50 years, because it happens in the bowels of an old Broadway theater,’ he said. ‘How can we make the drums sound that way?’ I started putting T-shirts on the drums and detuning them purposely, stacking cymbals on top of cymbals to make them sound trashy, like somebody throwing the drums down a set of stairs. It ended up an organic, flow-like way of playing.

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“The first Bad Hombre was a continuation of ‘What can I do with the drum set as the main instrument?’—but because the drums were overlapping with all the electronics and technology and click tracks, I had to tighten things up. With the evolution to SHIFT, where the songs are not mine, I tried to be free of preconceptions and stylistic boundaries, and play what I hear nowadays. It’s a very interesting progression for me in terms of the instrument itself.”

Directly after returning to New York from his September-October sojourn with Metheny, Sánchez—and Alexa—would embark on a lengthy tour with Bad Hombre behind SHIFT, which, as of this writing, has some 400,000 Spotify hits. I asked if he approaches this music with a different mindset than he brings to Metheny’s.

SHIFT is completely different from any gig I’ve done,” Sánchez says. “For one thing, I play to a click track. On Saturday in Detroit, I played with Donny McCaslin; it was a blast, so open—I could do whatever I wanted. Now, going out with Pat, I’ll have to switch my whole thing again, though I know it will come out naturally because I’ve done it so much with him. A good sideman drummer has to be able literally to switch hats, depending on the situation. And then, on my own gig, I have to switch hats radically from when I’m playing with other people. I feel my responsibility is to keep making things happen, which sometimes makes you force things, not relax and let the music flow where it needs to flow. The adrenalin is different, the anxiety is different. Everything changes. That’s a constant challenge that I struggle with.”

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Both Alexa and League—who booked Bad Hombre to play his GroundUp festival in Miami last May—feel that Sánchez’s SHIFT hat is a beautiful fit. “Antonio has kept the integrity of the original songs, but elevated them with the production,” Alexa said. “Then, in the live performance, he doesn’t want us to copy what’s on the record. Through the four of us, we’ve figured out ways to open the songs and expand them in the live setting. Everybody is featured. We’re each allowed to bring to the table what we do as artists.”

While acknowledging the individuality of the protagonists, League adds that, to his ears, the band projects “a feeling of anonymity that you also feel when you hear a rock band, where it’s like a wall of sound that’s created by, yes, individuals, but individuals who are not thinking about featuring themselves. They are committed 100% to the musical content within the songs. Everyone on that stage is an all-star, but none of them play like it. It’s like a dream team where no one plays hero ball, everyone’s passing all the time, and they’re working together.”

Which is precisely Sánchez’s intention. “At the end of the day, I want the show to be about the songs,” he said. “Solos should be in the service of the songs, not like a jazz gig where the melody is an excuse to explore all the possibilities. We’re not playing jazz, but at the same time it’s completely informed by jazz. To me, jazz today is not really about the sound of jazz. It’s freedom. It’s given me a harmonic and rhythmic prowess that I can now apply to anything.

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“I consider Bad Hombre an alter ego that allows me total freedom to do whatever I want, go wherever I feel. It’s genre-bending, exploring sonorities, exploring styles. I’m not thinking I want this record to be this or that. It just kind of happens—the alter ego allows things to flow. It’s informed by jazz, by rock, by fusion, by electronic music, by world music. Of course, I knew some jazz purists would be completely ticked off. But usually that means you’re moving forward. And I like moving forward.”

Ted Panken

Ted Panken writes extensively about jazz and creative music for various publications, and programmed jazz and creative music on WKCR-FM in New York City from 1985 through 2008. He won the 2007 ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for his article “Smalls Universe,” published by DownBeat, and earned the Jazz Journalists’ Association 2016 Lifetime Achievement in Jazz Journalism award. His blog, Today Is The Question, contains over 260 of his articles and verbatim interviews.