Technicalities have a way of looking rather silly in retrospect. The disqualification of the background score of Birdman, which eventually walked away with four Oscars including Best Movie, on technical grounds (it had a less than the arbitrarily set limit of 70% of original music), is a perfectly hilarious example of this. The brilliant idea of presenting the turmoil and delusions of the protagonist Riggan Thomson as a seamless single take would not have worked as well if it wasn’t for the unquiet drumming of Antonio Sanchez that thrums in the background in the edgier moments of the movie. The funky, six-minute long Anxious Battle for Sanity, in particular, crackles with elegant energy.

For those who like their music to be tranquilizing and reassuring, it’s best to stay away from this remarkable young drummer who once said in an interview on music website All About Jazz: “But do you know the thing I don’t like about some drummers? They’re always so delicate that it’s boring. I mean, for me, there’s got to be forward motion, dynamically, as a drummer you have to keep it really interesting. You have to keep proposing ideas."

Sanchez, who for the past decade has been the first drummer of choice for guitar maestro Pat Metheny, certainly does not lack for ideas, which is quite evident in the few albums he has released as bandleader. Born in Mexico in 1971, he started playing drums at an early age and, inspired by his mother who was a rock music fan, performed in various teen bands. Although he studied classical piano and composition at the National Conservatory of Music in Mexico City, Sanchez realized that his métier was the drum kit. He won a scholarship in 1993 to pursue jazz studies at Berklee College of Music in Boston. After graduating with distinction, Sanchez did his masters in jazz improvisation at New England Conservatory, again on a scholarship, and studied under the likes of George Garzone and Danilo Perez.

Perez invited Sanchez to his acoustic trio that toured for a couple of years and recorded Motherland (2000), which was nominated for the 2001 Grammy awards. He attracted the attention of Metheny while playing in the trio and the master guitarist offered Sanchez the drums chair in his group, which he still retains. He has also played for many other well-known performers such as saxophonist Michael Brecker and pianist Chick Corea. With Brecker he recorded Wide Angles (2003), which won a Grammy in 2004. He has also been featured in many of Metheny’s albums, of which Speaking of Now (2002) won the Grammy in 2003.

When Sanchez debuted as bandleader in 2007 with Migration, it was small wonder that veteran artistes like Metheny and Corea graced the album, along with younger firebrands such as saxophonists Chris Potter and David Sanchez, and bassist Scott Colley. Despite his avowed shyness about composing, the original numbers such as Greedy Silence, Challenge Within and Ballade do him credit. Corea’s wizardry is evident in One for Antonio and Metheny is at his melodic best in Arena (Sand). Potter’s inimitable style also melds beautifully with Sanchez’s playing.

Although Migration raised expectations by being a thoroughly enjoyable album, Sanchez kept his growing band of fans interested with his more recent releases that include Live in New York at Jazz Standard (2010), New Life (2013) and Three by Three (2014). New Life, his third studio album, was a particularly bold statement that featured intricate playing between saxophonist David Binney and Donny McCaslin, interspaced with the eruptive power of Sanchez’s drumming. The long title track is especially mesmerizing in its soft and melodic opening that is transformed by wordless vocals by Thana Alexa and brilliant playing by young pianist John Escreet.

Sanchez has continued to push boundaries with his latest album, Three by Three. The double CD is actually a triptych featuring three different trios with three distinct flavors, a concept Sanchez pulls off quite successfully. The first three numbers feature Brad Mehldau on acoustic piano and Matt Brewer on double bass and, of course, Sanchez on drums. Two originals from Sanchez and a reworking of Miles Davies’ Nardis allow him to push the veteran Mehldau and Brewer to show their best chops.

The second set of three numbers has John Scofield on electric guitar and Christian McBride on double and electric basses. This set too has two originals and a flattering take on Wayne Shorter’s Fall. Scofield is captivating as usual and McBride’s full sound stands up well to the dancing drums of Sanchez. The third trio of the album showcases tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano and double bassist John Patitucci. The shades of John Coltrane in Lovano’s blowing stirs up a musical frenzy in Patitucci and Sanchez and Three by Three ends gloriously with Thelonious Monk’s I Mean You, a stonking classic that gets a memorable treatment.

“Just to lift your spirit, that is the sole purpose of music, I think," Sanchez told the interviewer at All About Jazz. Never did a man more truly speak.

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Jazz Oil is a fortnightly column on stories from the world of jazz. For the music that it features, visit here.

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