Grammy-winning drum great Antonio Sanchez leaps — and blurs — borders with potent music


Composing and performing the percussion-driven score for “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” 2015’s Best Picture Oscar winner, was transformational for internationally celebrated drummer and band leader Antonio Sanchez.

Directed by five-time Oscar winner Alejandro González Iñárritu, the film earned a Best Score Soundtrack Grammy Award for Sanchez and a Golden Globe nomination. It also fueled controversy when the arcane rules of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences rendered the soundtrack ineligible for an Oscar nomination.

“The biggest influence I got from ‘Birdman’ was the storytelling aspect of it,” said longtime Pat Metheny Group drummer Sanchez. He performs an Athenaeum Jazz at TSRI Auditorium concert Saturday with his genre-leaping band, Migration. They are on tour to promote “Lines in the Sand,” his ninth album as a leader.

“ ‘Birdman’ was shot in a way that makes it look like a single shot and that has informed the purpose of my music,” Sanchez, 47, continued. “I really want to focus on storytelling itself, which is why the first piece on our new album is 20 minutes and the last piece is over 25 minutes. I love story development and motivic development. I love having something I like and then grabbing it and seeing where it takes me — and ‘Birdman’ definitely impacted that approach.”

Like his 2017 album, “Bad Hombre,” the musical story Sanchez tells on his absorbing and provocative new album, “Lines in the Sand,” is inspired by the controversy surrounding President Trump and his administration’s immigration policies.

A native of Mexico City and a longtime New York resident, Sanchez obtained his U.S. citizenship in 2016, just in time to vote in this country for the first time. The cover photo of “Lines in the Sand” shows a child, gazing out to the ocean, while standing on the beach on the Tijuana side of the U.S./Mexico border wall adjoining Friendship Park.

Sanchez shot the photo while on a walk last May during his first visit to Tijuana, where he performed a free outdoor concert with Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra. It was recorded and released as “Fandango at the Wall.”

“Borders are understandably necessary,” Sanchez said. “It’s just the rhetoric and the focus that has been put on the border and the way Trump has been utilizing immigrants as the main reason for his existence, basically, and his base.

“What really angers me is all these people who are just not as lucky as a lot of us are, which is what ‘Lines in the Sand’ is about. I just want us to stop, for a second, and think: How would we want to be treated if we were running away from violence, hunger and persecution? It (angers) me that these people are being so politicized in the name of populism and nationalism, which is quickly eroding our ability to feel empathy for others.”

Does he believe musicians have an artistic imperative to speak out?

“For me, being a Mexican citizen first and then becoming an American citizen later, I feel it’s my duty to talk about these issues,” Sanchez said. “I know what it is like to move to a new country. I’m an immigrant and am very lucky; I have very little to complain about. My family supported me, and I wasn’t running away from anything. I just wanted better opportunities, and I’m incredibly thankful.

“But I feel I have to help a little, in any way, shape or form I can. So I speak up through the platform of music and when I’m on stage. We have to promote the idea that we are all the same and we are all together in this, especially Mexico and the U.S.”

An alum of Boston’s Berklee College of Music, Sanchez missed his 1997 graduation ceremony because he was on tour in Europe with expatriate Cuban jazz sax star Paquito D’Rivera.

Sanchez joined Metheny’s band a few years later. “I never thought a drummer like Antonio would be born,” Metheny marveled in a 2002 interview. “He’s a dream, not only for his drumming, but for his musical intelligence and his maturity.”

Those attributes were on full display when Sanchez performed with Metheny last fall at San Diego’s Copley Symphony Hall. His masterful drumming was a marvel of creativity, skill, power and sensitivity, as he simultaneously pushed, anchored and enhanced the music.

“Drummers are the leaders of every band, no matter whose name is on the marquee,” Metheny said in his November keynote address at the Society for Neuroscience convention, also in San Diego.

“I agree!” Sanchez said, speaking from his Brooklyn home. “Leading the band from the drums is great, because you have so much power on the overall vibe, energy, tempo and dynamics of the band. So you can spur the band any way you want.

“You can muscle them if you want, which is not my intention, but I love leading the way. It’s interesting, because — as a drummer — if the horn player is not playing the melody right, there’s nothing I can do. So they have that power. But I have the power to keep things moving, or completely open things up, or shape them any way I find appropriate in the moment.”

Sanchez’s Migration band features singer Thana Alexa (who is also his wife), keyboardist John Escreet, bassist Matt Brewer and saxophonist and EWI (Electronic Wind Instrument) player Chase Baird.

“In concert, we play ‘Lines in the Sand’ from beginning to end,” Sanchez said. “We recorded it like a movie, in scenes or sections. Obviously, in concert we don’t do that and we’ve been learning what we can do with this music. To me, that’s the most fun part. We learn it, internalize it and find different avenues to interpret it and play it.”

The album demonstrates Sanchez’s continuing evolution as a skilled and versatile composer who deftly draws from an array of styles to craft powerful musical statements.

“I’ve evolved way more as a composer than a drummer,” he said. “Because I’ve been playing drums for a long time and have gone through many stages, I feel very comfortable with where I’m at as a drummer, although there’s always room for growth.

“But where I’ve grown the most is in composing. I’m not sure what happened. It’s like I studied or practiced a lot more, but something happened in my head and ears, and — all of a sudden — I was writing music that was way more mature... Musical narrative is very important to me and playing with Pat Metheny all these years and studying his music inspired me to write music that has a lot of variety and that is complex but accessible. Those were some of the things I really wanted to achieve and I feel my last 2 or 3 records have been a real coming of age.”

Some of Sanchez’s fierce drumming and the instrumental textures featured on “Lines in the Sand” suggests the pioneering English progressive rock band King Crimson, circa 1972.

“Its been a long road on the drum set for me,” he said. “I started playing rock. Then I got into fusion and Latin jazz, then straight-ahead. I feel like, lately, I’ve come back to my fusion and rock roots, where I like to tune the drums a little lower, have a little more punch on my bass drum and go back to that really aggressive vocabulary I used to play so much as a teen.

“But now I play with so much more knowledge of improvisation, the history of jazz and the subtlety of acoustic playing. So if you hear a recording of me when I was 23, 24 or 25, I had tons of chops but I had no confidence. Now, I probably have less chops but way more confidence and way more ability to tell a story when I tell it.”

Antonio Sanchez & Migration

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Athenaeum Jazz at TSRI Auditorium, 10620 John Jay Hopkins Drive, La Jolla

Tickets: $32 (members), $37 (non-members)

Phone: (858) 454-5872


Twitter @georgevarga