Antonio Sanchez Marches To His Own Drum

Pollstar recently got a chance to sit down with jazz drummer extraordinaire Antonio Sanchez, who has been taking center stage after arranging the Grammy-winning score for the film “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” and releasing a number of solo albums.

Sanchez is no stranger to the music business, as he tours the globe with Pat Metheny Group and has been associated with numerous other acts, including Dizzy Gillespie’s United Nations Orchestra. He has played with the likes of Chick CoreaGary BurtonJoshua Redman and Zakir Hussain over his career and has built a reputation as an undisputable force on the drums.

In 2015 he released two albums – The Meridian Suite, which he performs with his band Migration, and Three Times Three, a number of arrangements and original compositions with three different trios.

Originally from Mexico City, Sanchez has devoted his life to studying music and attended the renowned Berklee College of Music in Boston. He has been featured on the cover of numerous drum magazines and offers a number of clinics and masterclasses every year.

Sanchez has spent most of his career supporting more well-known musicians, but the unexpected success of 2014’s ““Birdman”” suddenly thrust him into the spotlight, allowing him to perform alone for crowds of up to 15,000. 

We talked to Sanchez about the new directions his career is heading now that so many people are paying attention to his music.

Antonio Sanchez provides a demonstration at a drum clinic

“Birdman” has sort of catapulted you into people’s consciousness. Have you gotten more offers to do film scores?

Yes, but I’m not sure how much I want to go into [film scoring] because it takes so much time from my other projects. [I’ve taken a few, but] I’m kind of on defense from it and am kind of going with the flow for now.

It’s not like [a movie score] is not going to be a part of my body of work. It’s just that it’s not for myself, it’s for someone else. Composers that are very devoted to film scoring can’t travel, they can’t be devoted to gigs. It takes time. You have to be at your desk, [working on the film score]. I love to perform and to be in front of people; that is my thing.

What kinds of requests are you getting from people?

Well, the “Birdman” [project] was such an anomaly. It’s such a specific thing to use just drums for a soundtrack. The people that are coming to me are people that want [that] specific thing. I haven’t really shown my composition skills in the movie context.

Why do you think people like using only drums as a soundtrack?

Well, people like that [it’s simple], but it’s also neutral. One thing I don’t like is when [composers] spoon-feed you what you are supposed to feel. “I am supposed to feel sad so let me play some minor chords on strings” I can see why people dig the drums.

The great thing about “Birdman” is I just played my drums, I did what I always do. The thing that was out of the ordinary was the medium, that it was a major Hollywood film. In terms of how many movies have just drums and win an Oscar, that was probably it [for awhile].

You are known internationally for your drumming and have played with the likes of Chick Corea and Pat Metheny. In terms of jazz music, most people would say you have made it. What are your career goals from here?

Well in show business, I think the trick is to sustain [success]. I am aware that to sustain the popularity that “Birdman” brought is going to be difficult, and with every break that I have [from working] with Pat Metheny I am doing everything I can to stay out there. I cannot let this opportunity go by. I have to keep writing; I have to keep performing; I have to keep getting better.

That is my goal, to keep getting better at the drums, better at composition, better at bandleading, better at film scoring, and to have fun with it. It is easy to get stressed out when you have so much going on, but I am also trying to enjoy it as I keep going.

At this point in my career, I feel like I need to work my butt off. The iron is hot, so I need to keep at it.

In terms of composition and performance, what are your plans moving forward?

So after playing Europe with Migration I will be doing a solo drum record while I am back in the U.S. Then, while I am touring with Metheny I will be writing the music for the next Migration album in December. I have a drum camp in August; South America with Migration; more touring with Metheny; a “Birdman” fall tour; Migration concerts in Mexico; then in December I record with Metheny and with Migration. And there is a big band record of some of my music being arranged by Vince Mendoza.

You are going to do a big band arrangement?

One of my dreams is to hear my tunes in a big band situation, but I don’t have a lot of experience in how to do that. So when [the opportunity came up and] you are talking about, “Should I try my hand at the arrangements or have Vince Mendoza do it?” there is no question that Vince Mendoza is the right call.

You sound very busy. It seems like your life really has changed since you have gotten such exposure with the “Birdman” project.

It has. The main change is [that] I am coming into my own as an artist. I have been a “side artist” since I started playing with Paquito D’Rivera [to my work] with Metheny. Of course, I was the happiest guy in the planet playing with these guys, but the more I did it, I recognized that I wanted to say something as well, as a bandleader and as a composer.

My life has changed a lot because I am not just the side man anymore, I am more of my own musician. Or I am trying to be. I am basically not doing anything with any [other projects] except Metheny and my own band.

Antonio Sanchez performing with Pat Metheny Group.

It was a great coincidence that I had two records in the oven when this movie came out. … What I want to do is exploit [this opportunity] to bring my music to a wider audience.

I didn’t plan it. I didn’t know it was going to become what it is. … Recently I went down to Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo with Migration. We did a Migration show in a 2,000-seat venue, which was great. Then I did a live performance of the “Birdman” music for more than 15,000 people. To be completely exposed [onstage], with my name by itself on the marquee, that kind of exposure you cannot pay for.

Now, because I’ve been saying no to offers to be peoples’ “side man” for awhile, I am not getting that many calls to be a side man anymore. Which is kind of scary, but also exciting.

Are the “Birdman” performances just you onstage performing while the movie plays?

Yes, and the movie is over two hours and I’m only playing for about 30 minutes. It is the weirdest thing when I’m not playing… I tend to feel very self-conscious sitting there on stage.

It seems like a lot of new people have discovered your work recently. Are you noticing a shift in your audience?

One of the curses of [jazz] musicians is that only musicians go to check them out. That is a very small market. Now, it’s completely different.

When I do the “Birdman” concert, I’m all alone on stage. It’s sort of like a solo drum concert. After the movie I thank them [for coming], I sit down and I play another ten minutes by myself. It’s a completely free drum solo.

Now, a lot of these people are not musicians and have not been exposed to a 10 minute drum solo from anybody, in any context. And that is so valuable. When graphic designers, painters and business people, none of whom are musicians, all are talking afterwards about how they appreciated the show, I enjoy that a lot.

When you tour with Migration will you be doing stuff from the Three Times Three album you did with three different trios?

I sometimes throw in some Three Times Three stuff with Migration. The best tunes for my band [from that album] are the ones written for Brad Mehldau. …We will mostly play music from the Meridian Suite and New Life, with a little bit of Three Times Three

You were a professor for a number of years at New York University. Did you enjoy teaching? Will you go back?

I won’t be going back for now. I like teaching, but a limited amount. …I do a lot of masterclasses and clinics, and I like that more, to be honest. A lot of musicians teach because they need the income, and socially it is a great thing to do… But [I] would rather compose and perform than teach right now.

Antonio Sanchez

While you were still in college you got to tour with Dizzy Gillespies United Nations Orchestra. How important was that experience?

It was a dream come true. My first European tour was with that band, and it kind of solidified that this is what I want to do. It was that kind of trip where I was in Europe for a month and I probably slept three hours the whole time. We were always out, performing, meeting new people. 

That completely changed my world. I came back home and I had to go back to school, but I didn’t want to. I wanted to get back out there. I wanted to get to know more people and I wanted more people to get to know me.

When you go on tour, what is the situation like in terms of equipment? Do you rent equipment or bring your gear?

So whatever we need, we send it in a rider, and [the venue] gets it for us. We pay our way to get there and they rent the gear we need. That includes instruments, mics and the PA.

Usually I can get a pretty decent sound out of any kit as long as they have the right size heads, and the sizes I ask for are pretty standard.

The only thing I travel with are my sticks and my cymbals. If you rent cymbals, even if you get the exact same model you use at home, they are going to sound different. That is one piece of gear that I always bring with me.

Have I missed anything that you want to touch on?

My upcoming projects include the Migration album, the big band record and a solo drum record as well as the new Pat Metheny project.

Wasnt the “Birdman” soundtrack kind of a solo drum album already though? How many can you do?

Well the “Birdman” CD is cool, and it’s kind of a solo drum record, but its not “my” thing conceptually speaking. Alejandro [González Iñárritu] is very hands on. …He would sit and work with me, and he had a very clear idea of what he wanted, which was great. ….With this project, I want to have complete freedom to produce it and to do anything that I want. And now that I have a home studio, I can do it.

Antonio Sanchez plays with Joshua Redman

Antonio Sanchez is involved in numerous musical projects and also holds clinics and masterclasses at various festivals every year. His scheduled performances with Migration and one of the Birdman score are listed below. He also will playing a number of shows with Pat Metheny Group. 

April 21 — Biasca, Switzerland, Salone Olimpia
April 22 — Athens Greece, Gazarte Cinema EPE
April 23 — Bonn, Germany, Gazarte Cinema EPE
April 24 — Krakow, Poland, Muzeum Sztuki I Techniki Japonskiej Manggha
April 26 — Kosice, Slovakia, Kasarne/ Kulturpark
April 28 — Hamburg, Germany, Nacthclub
April 29 — Hamburg, Germany, Nacthclub
April 30 — Turin,  Italy, Allegroitalia Golden Palace Turin  (Performing Birdman Live)
May 28 — Seoul, South Korea, Olympic Park (Seoul Jazz Festival)
June 1 — Hong Kong, China, Academic Community Hall (with Pat Metheny)
June 2 — Hong Kong, China, Academic Community Hall (with Pat Metheny)      
June 4 — Shanghai, China, Shanghai Concert Hall (with Pat Metheny)
June 20 — Salzburg, Austria, Jazzit (with Pat Metheny)
June 22 — Wroclaw, Poland, Hala Stulecia (with Pat Metheny)
June 26 — Krakow, Poland, Ice Krakow Congress Centre (with Pat Metheny)
June 27 — Vienna, Austria, Vienna Concert Hall (with Pat Metheny)
June 29 — London, United Kingdom, Ronnie Scott’s (with Pat Metheny)
June 30 — London, United Kingdom, Ronnie Scott’s (with Pat Metheny)
July 1 — London, United Kingdom, Ronnie Scott’s (with Pat Metheny)
July 2 — London, United Kingdom, Ronnie Scott’s (with Pat Metheny)
July 4 — Copenhagen, Denmark, Various Venues (Copenhagen Jazz Festival) [with Pat Metheny]
July 6 — Kongsberg, Norway, Various Venues (Kongsberg Jazz Festival) [with Pat Metheny]
July 8 — Rotterdam, Netherlands, Madeira Hall (North Sea Jazz Festival)
July 14 — Madeira, Portugal, Funchal Jazz Festival
July 19 — Istanbul, Turkey, Zorlu Center
July 27 — Augsburg, Germany, Botanischer Garten
July 28 — Kupferschmiede Lagnau – Langnau Jazz Nights
Aug. 18 — Queretaro, Mexico, Plaza de Armas  

More dates for the music from Birdman will be announced for late October and November. Information on Antonio Sanchez and his upcoming performances can be found at