(THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF A JAZZ DRUMMER)
A Conversation with Jazz Drummer ANTONIO SANCHEZ, Composer of the Score for the Film BIRDMAN
By Tyler Malone
As with any year”s release of the list of Academy Award nominees, there has been controversy over who was and who wasn”t given recognition. Much of the focus has been on the Best Picture nominee Selma, which many felt was snubbed because it was only nominated in one other category (for Best Original Song). Director Ava DuVernay and actor David Oyewolo were both potential frontrunners in their respective categories, but their names weren”t among those read by actor Chris Pine and directors J. J. Abrams and Alfonso Cuarón on Thursday morning, January 15th, when the votes were tallied and the nominees were announced. There have been lesser rumblings about other perceived slights as well: Why isn”t The Lego Movie among the nominees for Best Animated Feature? Where is Jake Gyllenhaal”s Best Actor nomination for Nightcrawler or Timothy Spall”s for Mr. Turner? How did Lorde and Lana del Rey miss out on nominations for Best Original Song (for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I and Big Eyes, respectively)?
One of the more annoying oversights by the Academy flew under the radar though, mostly because it wasn”t really an oversight, but a purposeful exclusion. Jazz drummer Antonio Sanchez, whose pulsating percussion is the beating heart of director Alejandro González Iñárritu”s Birdman, was disqualified from potential nomination in the Best Original Score category. They claimed the score was “diluted” by the use of other classical music in the movie, but the truth is that anyone who has actually seen the film can vouch for the fact that not only is the drum score not diluted by other classical music, but the other classical musical is barely remembered (if at all), while the drum score is as integral to the film”s success as any of the main characters (and the actors who portrayed them). According to Sanchez, “Iñarritu himself wrote an appeal letter to the Academy saying that the classical music is mostly used as part of the theatrical play portrayed in the film and that he could have chosen a number of pieces, but that the drums were an irreplaceable piece of the film.”
Of course, even though the Academy, with their strange adherence to arbitrary and outdated rules, refuses to acknowledge the brilliant work of Antonio Sanchez, there”s been no shortage of accolades thrown in the drummer”s direction. I spoke with the brilliant musician on making music for film, working with Iñarritu, and being excluded by the Academy.
Tyler Malone: When did you gravitate towards the drums? Did you always know you wanted to be a drummer?
Antonio Sanchez: When I was 5. As soon as I saw and heard the first live drum set in my early existence, I was hooked for life.
TM: Who are some of the drummers who have influenced you?
AS: In more-or-less order of appearance: Ringo Starr, Charlie Watts, Ginger Baker, John Bonham, Neil Peart, Stewart Copeland, Steve Gadd, Dave Weckl, Clyde Stubblefield, Vinnie Colaiuta, Buddy Rich, Art Blakey, Max Roach, Tony Williams, Roy Haynes, and Elvin Jones.
TM: You”ve been a fan of Birdman director Alejandro González Iñárritu for quite a while, but I know you became a fan of him initially for something other than his films. Could you tell me about that?
AS: Alejandro, along with Martin Hernandez (who does sound design for his movies nowadays), were two of the hippest DJs in Mexico City when I was growing up there as a teenager. I used to listen to their morning and late night shows, and they always played some of the most cutting edge music you could find on the radio back then. Amazingly, the first time I heard the Pat Metheny Group (which I started playing with in the early 2000s) was through them.
TM: How did you end up meeting Iñárritu?
AS: I met him in LA after a Pat Metheny Group show at the Universal Amphitheater. He’s a big fan of Metheny, and when we met we hit it off right away. I knew his work already, and plus, he’s such a cool guy. Whenever I played in LA he would come to my shows, and he invited me to a screening whenever he was in NY.
TM: So then how did that friendship segue into your getting involved with Birdman?
AS: He called me in January of 2013 and told me he was working on his new film. He said that, because it’s a dark comedy, he thought drums would suit the movie really well. He asked me: “Do you want to do it?” I answered: “YES!!!”
TM: Originally, I heard you read the script and came up with some demos and he responded “That’s exactly the opposite of what I’m looking for.” I imagine that must have been some tough early criticism to take considering you had never worked on a film score before, no?
AS: Yeah, my original idea was to compose rhythmic themes for the main characters, but then Alejandro told me he wanted something more spontaneous, jazzy, and visceral. I was kind of lost when he didn’t like my original approach, but then I realized I just needed to be myself and play the way I would always play on stage. It worked like a charm.
TM: Tell me about how the process evolved from those original ideas to what we hear in the film?
AS: At the same time that the film was being shot, Alejandro and I got together in a studio in NY. I recorded a lot of demos while he would describe the scenes to me in detail. We would talk about the purpose, function, and intensity of a specific sequence, and I would play and compose on the spot imagining the whole thing. We must have done 60 or 70 different takes for the whole movie.
TM: They supposedly edited the film to your demos, right? I love that, because it allows the film and its editing to feel improvisational and jazzy as well. What was it like when you finally got to see the rough cut of the film set to your demos?
AS: Yes, they edited my demos and spliced them on the rough cut of the film. They placed my drums on the specific scenes that we worked on when we did the NY session.
TM: When you were able to re-record the whole score with that actual cut of the movie, how did the music change or expand?
AS: We recorded the NY demos in March, and then I went back to LA to record the final takes in September. When we were looking at the actual film, it was much easier to hone in on timing, visual cues, dialogue, and other factors that made that session the one we all knew worked the best for the movie. It was a really fun and interesting process.
TM: There is a drummer who appears in the film a few times who is not you. Was he actually playing or is he miming your score?
AS: I was on tour when they shot those scenes so I couldn’t be there for that. I recommended Nate Smith, a great drummer and good friend of mine, to do it. The movie was shot before I recorded the final sessions so he actually was playing whatever he felt like (with Alejandro’s guidance), and then I actually had to learn his movements and play exactly what he played for the few seconds that he appears on the film. The hard thing was that my playing is featured before and after he appears on both occasions so the challenge was to play my stuff and then imitate his playing for those very short moments and then keep playing my thing. It was a challenge to make it fit visually and musically.
TM: There”s so much chaos in your score. It”s musical, sure, so it”s not purely cacophonous, but it certainly has chaotic elements. And it also has a sort of dirty, grimy, imperfect, and spontaneous quality to it that just complimented the film so effortlessly. How did you go about achieving that chaotic and grimy sound?
AS: I’ve learned to play in a very free, aggressive, and open way throughout my career, and I thought something like that would really fit certain scenes. Kind of organized chaos if you will. Another resource we used was overdubbing a few drum tracks to make it sound even wilder. It was like hearing a 16-limbed drummer. Loved it.
TM: This is your first time working on a film. Were you able to try out things here that you hadn”t ever done before?
AS: Yes, the overdubbing of drums is something that is rarely done in jazz so I really got a kick out of doing that. I actually did some of that on my new solo album that I just recorded a few weeks ago.
TM: You”ve been nominated for a Golden Globe and multiple other awards for your score . How does it feel for a score this unique to receive such acclaim? (Especially seeing as it is your first film score.)
AS: It’s humbling and overwhelming. I really didn’t expect any of this when I took on this project. I just wanted the chance to work with Iñarritu and be a part of one of his amazing films. Everything that has happened since, and the attention the score has received, has been really amazing, but it’s all icing on the cake. The real prize for me is to hear my drums imbedded in that incredible piece of cinema.
TM: Unfortunately, the Academy has ruled the score ineligible for the Oscar. It seems to me a travesty that the best and most unique score of the year is disqualified from receiving a nomination, but this isn”t the first time this has happened to an innovative score. Can you talk a little about the Oscar ruling? What are your thoughts on their rigid stance on these outdated rules?
AS: I think the decision is very subjective. The Academy has their rules, but they seem to bend them whenever they like, and they enforce them in overly strict ways in other instances. This time around it looks like they went the extra mile to make sure I wasn’t a part of their show.
They claim that my score is “diluted” by the use of classical music. If my score is so “diluted” that it gets disqualified from competition, then how come it’s one of the most talked about and nominated original pieces of music of the year? I invite anyone to watch Birdman to decide what really leaves a footprint in the film: the classical music or the original drum score? The answer has been obvious since day one, and with every nomination and award the score gets, the Academy”s disqualification looks more and more bizarre. Even Iñarritu himself wrote an appeal letter to the Academy saying that the classical music is mostly used as part of the theatrical play portrayed in the film and that he could have chosen a number of pieces, but that the drums were an irreplaceable piece of the film.
TM: If you think their ruling is subjective, why do you think they chose to be strict about the rules with you?
AS: I think the fact that I did the whole score by myself with a drum set (which many composers probably don’t consider a melodic instrument capable of portraying emotion the way an orchestra does), the fact that it is so out of the norm and original and has no traces or what scores usually sound like, didn”t sit well with them. I’ve heard many scores that are eligible for nomination that are very easy to ignore and forget. I think my score has the opposite effect. The score won the HMMA awards, it’s nominated for the Golden Globe award, the Critic’s Choice award, and the BAFTA award, so I’m happy and honored that everybody else realizes the strength of my work even if they don’t. The Academy’s motto is apparently “we champion the power of human imagination.” Not so sure about that this time around.
TM: Was composing a score a one-off thing for you or is it something you would like to do again, given the opportunity?
AS: I’d like to do it again if it’s something that will allow me to do what I do best. That is what has been so great about Birdman. I’m just doing what I do everyday and it worked great. One of my goals has always been to make the drum set an instrument that is in the forefront, and I’ve been very busy writing music that showcases it in that particular way. I have a very fulfilling career as a contemporary jazz composer/drummer/bandleader, and it’s a very time-consuming thing to do because it never stops. I’m either touring or composing for my next project, so if I’m going to take time away from that, it has to be for something that will really showcase my writing, my playing, and will not be just background music for a moving image. Conceptually it has to really be right.
TM: It may be overstating it to call this “The Year of the Jazz Drummer,” but obviously in addition to your amazing score for Birdman, there was a critically-acclaimed film about a jazz drummer. Did you see Whiplash? And, if so, what were your thoughts on the film? There were some great performances in the film, and I liked a lot of it, but it also seemed a bit exaggerated and over-the-top to me, so I”m curious how someone closer to that world would react to it.
AS: I agree. It’s a good movie, but unfortunately they got a lot of things wrong about our actual “thing.” To me, it is more like a sports movie, where the coach is really tough with the athlete and the athlete over-trains until he bleeds to prove to the coach that he can do it. Yes, it’s competitive out there for musicians and drummers, but literal blood, sweat, and tears have never gotten any musician anywhere positive that I know of. Also, J.K. Simmons’s character would get fired and sued in a heartbeat with all the political correctness imposed in colleges nowadays. That would never fly.
TM: You mentioned a new album earlier. What are you working on now? What”s next for you?
AS: I just finished an amazing year-long tour with the Pat Metheny Unity Group, in support of KIN, our latest album. We did over 150 shows in around 130 cities. I’m releasing my 4th and 5th solo records next year. The first one is called Three Times Three, and it’s an All-Star effort where I wanted to write specifically for some of my favorite musicians out there today and have them play my tunes. It’s three trios–hence the name–that represent very different aspects of my playing and writing. The first one is a piano trio with Brad Mehldau and Matt Brewer, the second is a guitar trio with John Scofield and Christian McBride, and the third one is a saxophone trio with Joe Lovano and John Patitucci. The album was a total delight to make. Very much looking forward people hearing it. While I was on the road with Metheny, I wrote a 1-hour-plus for Suite for Migration, my flagship band that features Seamus Blake on saxophone, John Escreet on piano, Matt Brewer on bass, and special guests Thana Alexa on vocals and Adam Rogers on guitar. It’s called The Meridian Suite, and it relates to the imaginary lines that divide time, space, and our bodies and minds. I really wanted to write something where I didn’t have to be constantly thinking about the length of each tune. I just wanted to keep writing and see where it would take me. I think it would be the equivalent of writing a novel versus writing short stories. We just recorded it a few weeks ago, and I’m very proud of it. It will come out in the summer, and we will be touring for a good part of the year in support of that project. I’m also doing a few Birdman shows in selected cities where I will be playing live to the film. I’m really looking forward to that.
Antonio Sanchez is a jazz drummer and composer of the unique score for director Alejandro González Iñárritu”s Birdman.
Written by Tyler Malone
Photography by Justin Bettman & Courtesy of Antonio Sanchez
Design by Mina Darius
Photography by Justin Bettman & Courtesy of Antonio Sanchez