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The Beat-Man Behind 'Birdman'

Antonio Sanchez is well known to jazz fans, but the drummer and bandleader got a boost when director Alejandro González Iñárritu chose him to compose a percussion-only score for the film <em>Birdman</em>.
Antonio Sanchez is well known to jazz fans, but the drummer and bandleader got a boost when director Alejandro González Iñárritu chose him to compose a percussion-only score for the film <em>Birdman</em>.

Antonio Sanchez is one of the most accomplished and in-demand drummers around, and right now he's experiencing a breakthrough. Jazz heads have known him for years, but he reached a much wider audience last year with his score for the film Birdman.

Sanchez comes from a cinematic family — his grandfather is the veteran Mexican actor Ignacio López Tarso, while his mother worked for years as a film critic — but Birdman is his first film score. He says that when he first got the call from director Alejandro González Iñárritu, his elation was short-lived.

"And then, reality sunk in: 'OK, how am I gonna do this?' There's not that many points of reference for me to check out," Sanchez recalls. "My first instinct was to send him rhythmic motifs, or themes, for each one of the main characters — so every time you saw Michael Keaton onscreen, then you would hear a certain beat. He got back to me in a couple of days and he said, "Man, these demos are great; thank you so much. But they're exactly the opposite of what I'm looking for."

Iñárritu explained he wanted something loose and improvised — and Sanchez breathed a sigh of relief. "I thought, well, this is perfect," he says, "because that's the area of my expertise."

Sanchez continues to walk the line between composition and improvisation on two new releases, Three Times Three and The Meridian Suite, on which he respectively leads a group of jazz all-stars and his own crack ensemble. He spoke with NPR's Arun Rath about adopting a novelistic style in his recent work, and why he sent a friend to play Birdman's onscreen drummer rather than performing the role himself. Hear their conversation at the audio link.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.