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Drummer Antonio Sanchez is the Bad Hombre

Antonio Sanchez & Bad Hombre: Thana Alexa, Lex Sadler, BIGYUKI, Antonio Sanchez
Jacob Blickenstaff
Antonio Sanchez & Bad Hombre: Thana Alexa, Lex Sadler, BIGYUKI, Antonio Sanchez

When drummer Antonio Sanchez released his album Bad Hombre back in 2017, he was responding to a few events that took place in his world at the same time.

On a political level, the music was a response to the racism of the Trump campaign against Mexicans. In fact, the title of the record Bad Hombre seemed to be an answer to Trump’s assertion that a wall needed to be built at the US Mexican border in order to get the “bad hombres” out of the US.

An immigrant from Mexico himself, Sanchez reappropriated the phrase. It seemed, in fact, to be a perfect fit for him because not only did it work as a form of resistance - by using the term he made his feelings clear without having to say too much about it - but it also borrowed from the jazz vernacular. You know, when musicians really respect someone, they will often refer to them as “bad”.

And in that context, Antonio Sanchez is definitely a bad hombre.

Sanchez moved to the US in his early 20s from his native Mexico to go to music school. One of his first teachers, the Panamanian born Danilo Perez, was a supporter, and their work together was one of the early launchpads for Antonio. While he was playing with Danilo, the guitarist Pat Metheny heard him, and that led to a musical relationship that has been at the center of his life for 20 years.

Sanchez went on to become one of the most sought-after drummers on the international jazz scene. Has won four Grammy awards, and has been named Modern Drummer’s "Jazz Drummer of the Year” three times, and appeared on the covers of all the big jazz magazines.

From early on he thought about drumming, and particularly soloing, as a form of storytelling. He says “I’m a sucker for a good story.” So it was only a matter of time before some great storyteller would find a way to use Antonio Sanchez’s drums to help tell a story. And that was exactly what happened when the Mexican film director Alejandro González Iñárritu asked Antonio to do an all drum score for his film Birdman in 2014.

The film went on to win three academy awards and the score earned Antonio awards (including a Grammy for Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media) and nominations at the Golden Globe and BAFTA Awards.

As significant as the awards and accolades were, maybe more significant was that the sound of Antonio’s drumming truly entered the zeitgeist after Birdman. And though he hadn’t planned for it to turn out that way, he realized that the level of expectation, curiosity, and even pressure on him to follow up that success with something equally resonant had risen.

So when in 2017 Antonio went into his newly built home studio to record Bad Hombre, he had a lot of psychic energy stored up and ready to use. He made an entirely instrumental solo record, he played all the instruments and did what has become his trademark production work of mixing drones, samples, programming and live drumming. In fact the only collaborator on the record was his nonagenarian grandfather, the Mexican actor Ignacio López Tarso, who appears on the first track.

Five years, one pandemic, a few political cycles, and a handful of other projects later, he’s back this year with Shift: Bad Hombre Vol. II. This time the list of collaborators is a bit longer.

Somewhere in the dense fog of the pandemic, Sanchez decided to ask some of his favorite singers and songwriters — for material he could deconstruct and reimagine. The result sees Dave Matthews & Pat Metheny, Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross, Meshell Ndegeocello, Lila Downs, Rodrigo y Gabriela, Kimbra, Ana Tijoux, Becca Stevens, Silvana Estrada, MARO, Thana Alexa (who is his wife) & SONICA sitting in on their own tunes — or ideas co-written by Sánchez.

The idea of “shifting” might not only apply to the songs on Bad Hombre Vol. II, but also to a change in Antonio’s approach. In the first Bad Hombre release, he was extremely political. Over the years, his outrage and fury with Trump and the turmoil at the US–Mexican border muted—and Sánchez himself “shifted” how he thinks about what he does, and where he wants to go next.

We talked recently about that search, the same one that started back in Mexico when he was a competitive gymnast, classical pianist and aspiring rock drummer and brought him all the way to where he is today, the Bad Hombre.

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Leo Sidran is a Grammy winning multi-instrumentalist musician, producer, arranger, composer, recording artist and podcast host based in Brooklyn, New York.