The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences may have overlooked jazz percussionist Antonio Sánchez by giving his original score to Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) the cold shoulder, but he isn’t about to let that slow him down any. He’s already moved on in the manner of releasing two albums for the CAM jazz label in one year, with one of them being a double album.
The two releases are very different just in nature. Three Times Three is a thought experiment where Sánchez was looking to form three different trios play three different songs — three different bass players, three different instruments to take the lead the spot. Meridian Suite is something different altogether. Sánchez had only one band in mind for this album, and that was his Migration ensemble with Seamus Blake on tenor sax, John Escreet on the keys, and Matt Brewer on bass with guest appearances from guitarist Adam Rogers and singer Thana Alexa. The compositions on Meridian Suite are also meant to exist as a continuous flow from start to finish. The nine tracks on the double album Three Times Three are both Sánchez originals as well as jazz standards, hence a closer relation to a hard bop in sound. Meridian Suite, on the other hand, is more fusion/progressively minded. But when listening to the two back to back, they don’t feel like polar opposites. They just feel like two albums from the same musician looking to branch out a bit.
For Three Times Three, Antonio Sánchez puts together a few small dream teams. The first trio, which gets a CD unto itself, is made up of Sánchez, Migration bassist Brewer, and pianist Brad Mehldau. The other two trios give relatively shorter performances, sharing space on the second disc. Guitarist John Scofield and bassist Christian McBride join Sánchez for the second trio and saxophonist Joe Lovano and bassist John Patitucci make up the third trio. Sánchez is well aware of the pitfalls of asking legends to play on your album. “I didn’t want to make an ‘all-star’ record that looked more impressive than it sounded,” he writes in the liner notes. There are ways he side-steps this problem. First is the very fact that Sanchez is a very unique drummer. He doesn’t sit behind the kit to keep time, he sits behind the kit to make things move, to keep things happening. Secondly, he wrote the originals on Three Times Three with Mehldau, Scofield, and Lovano in mind. And lastly, with the exception of Mehldau, Sánchez has played with all of these musicians before. He knows what to expect from five of these musicians and hence knows how to give the sessions an interesting twist. If a gun were held to my head today, I’d have to say that I enjoy the Mehldau/Brewer trio the most. Although, for some reason, a cover of Miles Davis’s “Nardis” is titled “Nar-this”.
Meridian Suite apparent came to life while Antonio Sánchez was on the road in 2012. While in Meridian, Mississippi with Pat Metheny, Sánchez filed his fledgling idea under the name “Meridian” for convenience. As the idea grew, the drummer began to ponder the real and imaginary boundaries we that intersect everyone’s daily lives. Hence, there are movements titled “Grids and Patterns”, “Imaginary Lines”, and “Magnetic Currents”. Being more interested in composition than performances, Sánchez doesn’t use the Meridian Suite to show off much fancy stickwork. The real meat and power of Migration’s sound comes from Blake playing overtop Escreet’s Fender Rhodes electric piano. Everyone involved is pulling their weight, yes, but there’s something about the teamwork of Blake and Escreet that helps place Meridian Suite on the top of the heap of modern fusion. Alexa’s vocal appearances, be they with lyrics or not, are an ornament on the tree, no more or less important than the lead instruments that guide her.
Oscar snub be damned, Antonio Sánchez has long since arrived. Whether it’s continuing to take detours with legends or focus on more large-scale compositional works, the man’s future is set. All we have to do is watch it unfold.