On the road with the Pat Metheny Unity Band in 2012, drummer Antonio Sanchez had a small keyboard and a laptop with him that he used for writing music. While in Meridian, Mississippi, Sanchez wrote a piece that he titled “Meridian.” Last year, while touring with Metheny again, Sanchez used the piece he’d written two years earlier as the genesis for The Meridian Suite, which he says is his most ambitious album to date.
While on tour, Sanchez worked on his little keyboard for a few hours a day, and as the album started progressing, he started thinking about how he’d studied meridians in school and about how they interacted and intertwined. “And I started seeing the relationship between what the piece was doing and the actual meridians,” Sanchez recalls. “The motifs, the ideas, the rhythms, the melodies of the piece throughout the composition — they meet, they intertwine, and it’s really like hundreds of meridians that are coming together at different points through the composition. And once I made that connection, everything started falling into place.”
Prior to writing The Meridian Suite, Sanchez had scored and played drums on the soundtrack for the Oscar-winning film Birdman, and he liked the film's seamless transitions from one section to another. Sanchez wanted to give The Meridian Suite, which is a continuous composition in five parts, a similar kind of seamless quality, and he wanted the album to be more like a novel than a collection of short stories.
When Sanchez and his group Migration (which includes saxophonist Seamus Blake, pianist John Escreet, bassist Matt Brewer and his wife, vocalist Thana Alexa) play at Dazzle on Saturday, October 31, and Sunday, November 1, they’ll be playing the complete Meridian Suite.
“It’s like a book or a movie,” Sanchez says of the album. “You cannot just play half of the movie or read half of the book. So we play it in its entirety, and we add on it because for the record it was cool the way we did it: 56 minutes. But when we do it live, we stretch a few sections, and I think it’s really cool when we do it live. We’ve gotten amazing responses from audiences all over the place because, to begin with, they’re not used to something like that. They’re not used to sitting through an hour and twenty minutes of straight music. And it’s different for us as well, and everybody on stage switches between acoustic and electric instruments seamlessly. And, you know, it’s kind of a show. I don’t have to figure out a set list, because it is what it is. It’s quite an experience for us, and the audience as well.”
When writing The Meridian Suite, Sanchez didn’t want to be constricted by time or style, which he says was very liberating.
“A lot of times you’ll do an acoustic record or an electric record, but it’s sort of rare to mix both,” Sanchez says. “So conceptually, there is already a constriction right there. And then, in terms of time, I also didn’t want to have time constraints, because whenever you start writing, you start developing something, and if I already wrote four minutes of melody or a theme, I have to start thinking, ‘How am I going to wrap it up after solos and maybe an interlude?’ And it’s always bothered me a little bit that because you’re thinking of radio play, you have to keep turning things down in terms of time; it just starts affecting the product, I feel.”
In addition to The Meridian Suite, earlier this year Sanchez released the excellent Three Times Three. The album includes three trios: Sanchez teaming up with pianist Brad Mehldau and bassist Matt Brewer, guitarist John Scofield and bassist Christian McBride, and saxophonist Joe Lovano and bassist John Patitucci. Aside from working with those legendary players on Three Times Three, Sanchez has worked with Chick Corea, Gary Burton and Michael Brecker, as well as touring and recording over the last fifteen years with Metheny, who first saw Sanchez performing in Italy with pianist Danilo Perez. Sanchez and Metheny then got together in New York and would jam as a duo for hours at a time, sometimes bringing in other players afterward.
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“So he started sensing if I would be somebody who would be a candidate for his music,” Sanchez says of Metheny. “And since I grew up playing straight eight music rather than swing music, and his music is very straight eight-based, especially with the Pat Metheny Group, he thought I was a good fit.”
Sanchez, who grew up in Mexico City, received a degree in classical piano at the National Conservatory there in 1993 before moving to Boston to attend the Berklee College of Music. While he learned a lot at Berklee, he says being around people like Metheny has been his real school.
“I went to Berklee, and that was amazing,” he adds. “I’ll be forever thankful for everything that I learned, but that was all theory, really. And then a little bit of practice when you play with other kids and stuff. But most of the time, everybody’s sort of at the same level. And when you start playing with these people who have been around for many years that have a lot of mileage and a lot of history, then you start experimenting what it is on,stage with somebody of that caliber, and that brings your level up immediately. You either sink or swim. There’s no in-between there.”
Hear Antonio Sanchez and Migration this weekend at Dazzle. Find ticket information here.