Drum giant Antonio Sánchez on 'Birdman' tour after album with Trent Reznor, Dave Matthews and Pat Metheny

George Varga, The San Diego Union-Tribune on

Published in Entertainment News

SAN DIEGO — How big an impact can a film that wins four Oscars have on someone who doesn't appear on screen in a single frame of that film? In the case of Antonio Sánchez, life-changing.

The Mexico City native and 20-year veteran of the Pat Metheny Group was already one of the most celebrated drummers in the world when director Alejandro G. Iñárritu approached him in 2013. Iñárritu, also from Mexico City, asked Sánchez to compose and perform the groundbreaking solo drum-set score for the 2014 film "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)," whose cast includes Michael Keaton and Emma Stone.

It went on to win Oscars in 2015 for Best Film, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Cinematography. In 2016, "Birdman" earned Sánchez a Grammy Award for Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media.

The film's Oscar and Grammy wins led to more film and TV scoring gigs for the veteran drummer, composer and leader of the genre-blurring band Bad Hombre. It also opened the door for the collaborations on Sánchez's 10th solo album, 2022's "Shift (Bad Hombre, Vol. 2)," which teams him with such varied musicians as Metheny, Dave Matthews, Meshell Ndegeocello, Lila Downs, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of Nine Inch Nails, Ana Tijoux, Kimbra and more.

"That all these great artists, who I admire so much, would even give me the time of day is just incredible — and I think it's largely because of 'Birdman,' because that's the reference point for most people," Sánchez said.

He will perform his striking drum score live when the film screens Thursday at UC San Diego's Epstein Family Amphitheater as part of his national "Birdman Live 10th Anniversary Tour."

"I got to meet Trent Reznor at the Golden Globe Awards, the same year I was nominated for one, and he loved 'Birdman'," Sánchez continued. "If people don't know my solo work — or my work with Pat (Metheny), Chick Corea, Michael Brecker or Gary Burton — they usually know 'Birdman.' That has opened different kinds of doors because it's a very powerful thing when you are the composer of an Oscar-winning film."

'I felt like a tourist'

As "Birdman" racked up one prize after another around the world, including a Best Score award for Sánchez at Italy's Venice Film Festival, he entered an entirely new world.

"I felt like a tourist in that (film) industry, because the nature of jazz is so different and very low-key," Sánchez said, speaking from the Barcelona home he shares with his wife, Macedonian-born singer Thana Alexa.

"When you are nominated for a Grammy as a jazz musician, you pay for your own ticket to fly to the Grammys, you book and pay for your own hotel room, and you even have to pay for a ticket for your wife for the after-party," he elaborated.

"All of a sudden, with all these film awards shows, they were flying me and my wife, first class, putting us in five-star hotels and providing a car and driver," he said. "It was very exciting while it lasted and led to my doing the music for the 'Get Shorty' TV series and more movies and even some commercials. Film awards are a lot of fun. But they have absolutely nothing to do with our day-to-day lives as jazz musicians, which seems like a much smaller world."

Sánchez's post-"Birdman" scoring credits include the British film "The Hippopotamus," written by Stephen Fry, and the Spanish documentary "Politica, Manual De Instrucciones." He is now working on the score for an upcoming British TV series, "Stags," which will air on Paramount+ in the U.S.

On April 26, Sánchez will make his Carnegie Hall headlining debut with a one-time-only quintet that features saxophonists Joe Lovano and Chris Potter, pianist Joey Calderazzo and bassist Larry Grenadier. In August, he will be in Mexico City to do the third edition of his Residencia Antonio Sánchez, which he created as a musical and intellectual exchange for advanced-level students and jazz professionals from Mexico and Latin America.

Then, after completing the music for the first six episodes of "Stags," Sánchez will perform some fall concerts in a new trio he co-leads with American banjo innovator Bela Fleck and Colombian harpist Edmar Castaneda. That will be followed by an album with Ellipsis, a trio that teams Sánchez with Cuban percussionist Pedrito Martinez and Snarky Puppy band founder Michael League. Also coming this year is a new album featuring Sánchez by former Miles Davis guitarist Mike Stern, plus concert dates with the European-based quartet the drummer leads.

"I always have a few irons in the fire," said Sánchez. "But it's very difficult now, since the pandemic, for creative musicians. Because things are dominated by very bad commercial music and there is less and less opportunity for those of us who are not (in the mainstream)."

In addition to his Grammy for "Birdman," Sánchez has won three other Grammys for his work with Metheny. The guitar legend and composer happily sang Sánchez's praises last fall in a Union-Tribune interview.

'The ultimate drummer'

"One of the real highlights of my life was to spend 20 years — and, hopefully, more years to come — with Antonio, who is the ultimate drummer," Metheny said. "He is the drummer I thought would never be born. He is everything I ever desired in a drummer, and more."

Metheny, it transpires, played a key role — behind the scenes — in bringing together Sánchez and multiple-Oscar-winner Iñárritu on "Birdman."

"One of my major heroes in these past years is Iñárritu," Metheny said. "Starting with his (2000) film, 'Amores Perros,' he revolutionized the idea of linear time in a way that inspires me, as well as his particular narrative and sonic use and visions of what a film might be. We became friends years ago. I recommended that he use Antonio for 'Birdman,' with a solo drum score. ... It worked great for both of them!"

The soundtrack for "Birdman" also includes periodic segments from 19th-century symphonies by Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff and Mahler. But what makes the film snap, crackle and pop — literally and figuratively — is Sánchez's remarkably creative drumming.


His playing musically mirrors and enhances "Birdman's" characters and their actions with stunning imagination, pinpoint whisper-to-thunder dynamic control and expansive rhythmic and tonal textures. His lightness of touch is unusual for a drummer who plays with such intensity. He has an astounding command of his instrument and is a master of metric modulation.

"Iñárritu told me: 'I want you to improvise; I really want jazz.' He didn't want anything too premeditated," Sánchez recalled.

"He would explain scenes to me in great detail and have me improvise. So, that's what I basically did, just reacting to what he told me and trying to follow the vibe of the story he was telling. That's what I do when I play with a band or for myself. It's all about storytelling."

Had all gone according to plan, Iñárritu would have filmed Sánchez for the scenes in "Birdman" in which a drummer performs solo in the corridors of the New York theater in which much of the film is set.

But Sánchez had a concert tour that conflicted with the shooting dates. He handpicked highly regarded jazz drummer Nate Smith to drum in those scenes.

"It was really interesting," said Sánchez, whose grandfather, Ignacio López Tarso, was one of Mexico's most famous actors. "Nate played some stuff when they were shooting and when I was finishing the scoring, after the movie was already shot, I had to adapt some of the things in the score for it to look like he played it.

"Because what you hear in the movie is not him. You see him but hear me. So, I had to learn some of his moves to play accurately in the score at the same time when he was doing it in the film, so that it would look like he was the one doing the drumming that you see and hear. That was a really weird exercise!"

Sánchez's onstage performances of "Birdman" are doubly intriguing since his drumming has been removed from the soundtrack.

"What you will hear," he said, "is my live drumming, the dialogue and some of the incidental (orchestral) music."

Sánchez's drums will be set up to the immediate right of the screen on which the film is shown. He will view the film on a monitor screen, the better to ensure his drumming is perfectly timed to the movie. But he won't perform exactly the same improvised drum parts as he did in the original film.

"I'm a little tucked away because I don't want to be the center of attention," he noted. "But I'm facing toward the center of the stage and you can definitely see me. In the beginning of doing these concerts, I tried to stay as close as possible to the original score because it was fresh in people's minds. Now, 10 years later, I don't think anybody remembers what the hell I did!

"It's a lot more fun now that I don't have to stick to anything in particular. Of course, I want to achieve the frantic intensity of drumming as when we did the film. But nobody cares if I play note for note what I did in the original score, so now I get to improvise a lot more.

"I've probably seen the film more than Iñárritu because I've been performing it live for 10 years. I have gotten to know it so intimately that there are a lot of spots I can contribute to that originally didn't have drums. I'm sort of ad-libbing in a lot more scenes. Because I know the story and dialogue so well, I can create more on the drums. For me, it's a lot more fun to do live than 10 years ago."

Born in 1971, Sánchez began drumming when he was 5 and grew up immersed in both rock and classical music. He enrolled in Mexico's National Conservatory of Music as a classical pianist but soon gravitated to jazz. His first epiphany came when a friend at the conservatory gave him a tape of a mid-1980s album by the Chick Corea Elektric Band, featuring Dave Weckl on drums.

"I was blown away," recalled Sánchez, whose 2007 album, "Migration," features Corea. "I'd listened to a little jazz, but I'd never heard music like this before. It was very hard hitting, complex, powerful and intricate.

"I had been into (Rush drummer) Neil Peart, who could play complex rhythms, but he didn't improvise. This album by Chick and his band was on a completely different level. And it really inspired me to keep studying and try to learn more about jazz, and to figure out what these people were doing!"

In 1993, Sánchez enrolled at Boston's Berklee College of Music, where he graduated magna cum laude in jazz studies. He soon was drumming for such notable jazz artists as Panamanian pianist Danilo Pérez and Cuban-born saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera. He became a member of Metheny's group in 2001. It was a dream gig that would tie together Sánchez's journey from his teen years in Mexico City to his work on "Birdman" and beyond.

"I did not know Iñárritu in Mexico City. But I knew of him because he was a DJ on a very popular radio station, 96.9, when I was growing up," Sánchez explained. "One night, he played this song that really intrigued me. It had a very lush harmony and wordless vocals, which was something I was not used to in rock 'n' roll. It was 'Last Train Home' by the Pat Metheny Group.

"I said: 'Oh, wow. I have to check this band out!' Fast forward and, years later, I ended up playing in the Pat Metheny Group and we played that song. In 2005, Iñárritu came to see our concert in Los Angeles, because he's a big fan of Pat's music. There was an after-party and Iñárritu started talking to me. I didn't know it was him.

"I said: 'What do you do?' He said: 'I direct films and commercials.' I asked if he'd done anything I'd seen. When he answered, I freaked out and apologized profusely. We became friends and stayed in touch. In 2013, he called me, out of nowhere, and asked me do the score for 'Birdman.' It was full circle."


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