Musical acrobats

Antonio Sanchez's ambidextrous mind, and Cirkestra's big top
By JON GARELICK  |  February 9, 2009

TELL THE STORY: The demands of narrative and portraiture in circus music draw Cirkestra’s Peter Bufano (left, with Käthe Hostetter) away from his more theoretical tendencies as a composer.

Having Antonio Sanchez explain the difference between "straight 8's" and "swing 8's" is a bit like having Einstein explain long division — total waste of the dude's time. But the 37-year-old drum star — who comes to Scullers next Thursday with his quartet — is game.

Over the phone from his home in New York, Sanchez explains that "straight" eighth notes — from which rock, funk, and Latin come — are binary, whereas "swing" eighth notes are based on three. "I don't know how to say it in English — tertiary?" Close enough. Thus, to over-generalize, the signature dotted-eighth-note sound of the jazz ride cymbal or hi-hat (Jo Jones) and the big square four of rock (John Bonham).

"It's really not that complicated," Sanchez assures me, after singing and slapping beats over the phone.

Maybe not, but it's the combination of those two styles — and his complete mastery in both idioms — that's made Sanchez such a celebrated player. Pat Metheny — with whom he's been playing since 2001 — has said of Sanchez, "He changed my life." Not an especially surprising statement coming from jazz's ultimate fusionist. Metheny's music covers a vast array of idioms: swing jazz to folk to rock to Brazilian. So he's tended to compartmentalize: jazz-guitar trio, fusionist Pat Metheny Group. Here, finally, was someone who could do it all. Simultaneously.

Born in Mexico City, Sanchez had been playing drums since the age of five, and he knew Latin, funk, and jazz-rock fusion styles inside out by the time he came to Berklee in 1993 so he could go deep into jazz swing. It was working in the bands of Danilo Pérez, David Sánchez (no relation), and Paquito D'Rivera that he learned to combine the two. "I knew all the Latin rhythms and could play them authentically, but they didn't want me to play authentically — they wanted me to play them with all the rules that pertain to those styles but in a very open, jazzy way. Which was hard. It took me years to develop."

It doesn't sound hard, the way Sanchez does it. Listen to the rhythmic shifts — both in meter and in style — over the course of Metheny's album-length The Way Up (2005), or his work in the Metheny trio on Day Trip (2008). Checking Sanchez's 2007 debut as a leader, Migration (Cam Jazz), you can hear the layering of Latin and swing on the 10/8 groove of "Challenge Within" and Sanchez's stunningly detailed swing-cymbal work on the super-fast blues "Did You Get It?" There's also the wealth of cross-rhythms and accents, and a variety of color — something he's able to sustain without cluttering the soundscape. The music is always transparent, flowing.

"I think nowadays my thing is to be able to play intense, at a soft volume if I need to, with a lot of information going all the time, but grabbing from all these elements — Afro-Cuban, Brazilian, swing." And then there's those beautiful colors and textures. "Some people stick to the drum heads and the cymbals. I like to use the rims, especially the rim and the head at the same time. I like to exploit those woody sounds that you hear a lot in Latin music, even if I'm playing swing."

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