It’s a concert! It’s a screening! It’s Antonio Sanchez playing ‘Birdman’ live at NJPAC

Sanchez Birdman review

Drummer Antonio Sanchez played the score to “Birdman,” live, at NJPAC in Newark, Nov. 8.

As the Academy Award-winning 2014 movie “Birdman” begins, a voice is heard speaking, briefly, in Spanish. “That’s my voice!” exclaimed Antonio Sánchez after the sentence or two was heard at a screening of the movie at the Victoria Theater at NJPAC in Newark, Nov. 8.

The show, which was part of the TJ James Moody Jazz Festival (which ran at NJPAC and other Newark venues through most of November), combined the movie with a live performance of its acclaimed solo drum soundtrack by Sánchez.


It was a daring move for director Alejandro G. Iñárritu to rely so much on drums, and only drums, but it paid off, with Sánchez’s urgent, frequently off-kilter beats echoing the teetering mental stability of the film’s main character, Riggan Thomson (played by Michael Keaton). And as good as the drums sound on the recorded soundtrack, nothing can match the power of a master musician such as Sánchez playing in a live setting — in a theater that happens to have great acoustics — and so this ended up being not just a unique presentation, but a very memorable one. (Even if, admittedly, it was easy for me to forget that the drums were live, at times, particularly when I was totally engrossed in the movie.)

Sanchez’s drums aren’t heard in the entire movie, but they are in a large portion of it. During a few long segments in which no drums are heard, he left the stage.

The evening started with a warm introduction by bassist Christian McBride, NJPAC’s jazz advisor and a bandmate of Sanchez’s, for many years, in the Pat Metheny Trio. Sanchez then spoke for a few minutes, telling the story of how he and Iñárritu met, and how the concept for the soundtrack developed. He’s done “Birdman Live” before, but every show is different, he says, because he improvises.

After the music ended, Sanchez continued to solo for about 20 minutes, coaxing unconventional sounds from his drums and cymbals, building tension and then releasing it, and creating more different rhythms than you might have thought it was possible for a single musician to produce in such a short period of time. This portion of the show constituted a mini drum symphony in its own right: A sort of encore if you considered the event a concert, and a nice bonus, even if you were mainly interested in the movie.

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