2014 proved to be a landmark year for drummer, composer and bandleader Antonio Sánchez. Long one of the most acclaimed and in-demand drummers of his generation, Sánchez's ever-expanding musical vision was discovered by new audiences through his Golden Globe & BAFTA-nominated score for Alejandro González Iñárritu's Academy Award-winning film Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), and a globe-spanning 150-city tour with the Pat Metheny Unity Group, the latest iteration of a fifteen-year collaboration between the guitarist and drummer - in addition to appearing as a featured musician in Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle's forthcoming biopic on Miles Davis as well as composing and recording his next album as a leader.
Now, Sánchez follows that well-deserved success with two remarkably diverse new releases that spotlight the continued evolution of his compositional and bandleading talents. Three Times Three (available April 28 on CamJazz - distributed by Sunnyside Records in the U.S.) showcases Sánchez at his improvisatory best with three different but equally iconic all-star trios; while the breathtaking, sweeping The Meridian Suite (available June 9) features the composer's most ambitious work to date, an hour-long electro-acoustic suite penned for Migration, his working ensemble.
That range only adds to the multi-faceted dimensions that Sánchez has shown to audiences over the years, culminating in his exhilarating score for Birdman. Despite being disqualified from Oscar contention - for arcane reasons having to do with the use of pre-existing classical music on the soundtrack - Sánchez's innovative drums-only score won top honors at other important award shows and contributed immensely to the film's success at this year's Academy Awards ceremony, where it won four awards including Best Picture. While Sánchez was understandably disappointed by the Oscar snub, the outcry against the decision has been reassuring and the composer is well aware of his achievement, saying, "The work speaks for itself."
On Three Times Three, Sánchez assembled three different trios, a format which allows for incredible intimacy and interplay and in which he's enjoyed considerable success as drummer for three-man groups led by the likes of Metheny and pianist Danilo Pérez. The trio configurations on Three Times Three are undoubtedly impressive: pianist Brad Mehldau and bassist Matt Brewer; guitarist John Scofield and bassist Christian McBride; and saxophonist Joe Lovano and bassist John Patitucci. But even more impressive is the way these three groups work together, creating electrifying dynamics and deeply empathetic communication despite their one-time-only existences.
While Sánchez has played with many of jazz's most acclaimed and influential bandleaders since his arrival in the States in 1993 - a staggering list that includes Metheny, Chick Corea, Michael Brecker, Charlie Haden, Gary Burton, Joshua Redman, Toots Thielmans and countless others -Sánchez was wary of pursuing an "all-star project," knowing that such recordings are often more impressive for the names on the cover than the music contained within. "The chemistry can be completely off," Sánchez explains. "The players can come from all different walks of life and not really relate to each other, and the ego factor can also play a big part. So I wanted to achieve an all star project that would still feel intimate and allow the musicians to stretch as much as possible."
Part one of Three Times Three is entirely made up of three tracks by the Mehldau/Brewer trio. The pianist is the sole artist on the album with whom Sánchez had never worked, despite a longtime mutual admiration between the two. Considering the busy schedules of everyone involved, Sánchez promised Mehldau an easy session. "I wanted to write something that would exploit his strengths," Sánchez says, "and it started sounding so good to me that suddenly I had 16 pages of music." Despite its complexity, "Constellations" came together beautifully, with some of Mehldau's most striking playing; the disc also features haunting Sánchez ballad, "Big Dream," and an arrangement of Miles Davis' "Nardis."
Sánchez managed to stick closer to his goal of relatively simple, improvisation-fueling pieces for the other two trios. He shows off his funky, groove-oriented side with Scofield and McBride (his sparring partner in the Pat Metheny Trio). Wayne Shorter's "Fall," a longtime favorite, leads off part two, followed by the hard-driving funk of "Nooks and Crannies" and the slinky groove of "Rooney and Vinski" (named for McBride and Sánchez's nicknames for one another, though the drummer refuses to elaborate further).
Finally, the sax trio with Lovano and Patitucci features the album's loosest compositions: the intense "Leviathan," which opens with a deceptive ballad feel; the romantic "Firenze," dedicated to Lovano's and Patitucci's Italian heritage and spotlighting the sax player's burly tenor sound; and a raw, freeform deconstruction of Monk's "I Mean You."
"I can't tell you how honored and happy I am that all these guys agreed to play with me," Sánchez says of Three Times Three. "To have them play my music and my arrangements is a dream come true for any jazz musician."
Sánchez's experience composing the Birdman score was heavily influential on the cinematic scope of The Meridian Suite, his second release this year with Migration. "The movie is basically one long continuous shot," he explains, referring to the film's illusion of being shot in a single take as it follows Michael Keaton through his Broadway breakdown. "That's also what I wanted to do with this suite; to the listener it should be seamless."
The suite takes full advantage of the versatility and wide-ranging palette of Migration, the quartet that Sánchez has led since 2011. Tenor saxophonist Seamus Blake doubles on Electric Wind Instrument (EWI), John Escreet on piano and Fender Rhodes, and Matt Brewer on both acoustic and electric bass. Sánchez also layered keyboard atmospherics onto the album in post-production along with a wide array of guitars from Adam Rogers, while singer Thana Alexa contributes soaring lyrics to the second movement, "Imaginary Lines," and coloristic wordless vocals elsewhere.
The seed of the suite was planted while Sánchez was on tour with Metheny in Meridian, Mississippi in 2012. The title was originally a makeshift file name, but took on greater meaning as Sánchez began to research the idea of meridians, imaginary lines that circle the globe, the celestial sphere, or, in some new age conceptions, the body's energy field. "You have meridians that cross the earth, that cross the sky, that cross our bodies and our minds, and I started getting fascinated by the way meridians interact in all those different shapes and forms," Sánchez says. "So I thought it was a very good analogy for the way the rhythmic, melodic and harmonic aspects of this composition intertwine, interact and meet over the course of the whole piece."
The scale of the suite derived from Sánchez's determination not to place limits on his compositional imagination. "One of the things that turns me off the most as a composer is that as soon as you start developing, you have to start thinking of ways of how to wrap it up because you don't want a tune to be longer than six or seven minutes. I hate to feel that I'm limited by time instead of just following my instincts."
With motifs, phrases and concepts that recur and transform throughout the piece's five movements, The Meridian Suite is a thrillingly adventurous achievement that absorbs influences from modern rock, free form improvisation and electronic music into a forward-looking jazz masterwork. "I took a lot of liberties and let a lot of my musical influences come through in a very unapologetic way,"the composer says.
The simultaneous release of Three Times Three and The Meridian Suite mark the high point thus far for a career that continues to climb. With unprecedented attention focused on him following his lauded Birdman score, these expansive new albums serve to reinforce Antonio Sánchez's place at the forefront of modern jazz-breaking boundaries as a virtuoso drummer, a visionary composer, and a truly inspired musical thinker.
Upcoming ANTONIO SÁNCHEZ Performances:
All performances to feature Antonio Sánchez & Migration unless otherwise noted.
**Notates Birdman Film Screening w/ Live Drum Score Performance
**April 4 / New York Society for Ethical Culture / New York, NY
April 10 / Esplanada del Centro de Coyoacán / Mexico City, Mexico
April 13 / Blue Note Tokyo / Tokyo, Japan
April 14-17 / Cotton Club / Tokyo, Japan
April 20-21 / A-Trane / Berlin, Germany
April 22 / Jazz Club Hannover / Hannover, Germany
April 23 / Bix / Stuttgart, Germany
April 24 / Jazz Festival / Espoo, Finland
April 25 / Unterfahrt / Munich, Germany
April 26 / Blue Note / Milan, Italy
April 27 / MA / Catania, Italy
April 28 / Centro Culturale Officina / Messina, Italy
April 29 / Auditorium Comunale / San Vito al Taglimento, Italy
April 30 / Teatro Della Fortuna / Fano, Italy
May 1 / Odeon Leicester Square / London, United Kingdom
June 11 / Falcon Arts / Marlboro, NY
**June 13 / Bonaroo / Manchester, TN
June 19 / Subculture - Official Album Release Party / New York, NY
**August 22 / SFJAZZ Center - Miner Auditorium / San Francisco, CA
August 23 / SFJAZZ Center - Joe Henderson Lab / San Francisco, CA
Antonio Sánchez · Three Times Three
Release Date: April 28, 2015
Antonio Sánchez & Migration · The Meridian Suite
Release Date: June 9, 2015