During a recent Sunday night session at Imagine Nation Brewing called Jazzination, Antonio Al folds his long frame behind a small sparkly red drum kit and starts snapping out a beat. Bushy salt-and-pepper hair bouncing, he stirs and pops the snare with a brush as his eyes track between the other four musicians, communicating wordlessly about where the song is going. The connection is palpable. The other players respond to the signals he relays with subtle off-beat hits or pauses. Beer drinkers and rhythm junkies bob their heads as the ad hoc band locks into a groove.
You can't have a great band without a great drummer. It's been said that the drums are the horse on which the rest of the band rides, but if that horse is a sway-backed oat junkie with one hoof in the glue factory, no amount of guitar fireworks or acrobatic saxophone runs will get that beast to win, place or show. And what's the hallmark of a thoroughbred drummer? A rock-solid grip on the snare, the center of the drummer's universe. Antonio Al knows the snare.
"The snare is the oldest drum in the set," says Al (his last name is a truncated version of Alvarez), sipping Mexican cocoa in a southside coffee shop a few days after the gig. The lanky, bespectacled stickman has been popping up everywhere since moving to Missoula from Madrid, Spain, two years ago. He agrees that when it comes to drumming, it's all about that snare. Holding an imaginary pair of sticks, he demonstrates. "The snare has all the rudiments," he says. "Paradiddle, the flam, the paradiddle diddle. This is coming from the '20s, especially in jazz."
If you dig live music in Missoula, there's a good chance you've caught Al driving the beat with a local band, be it rock, pop, kids' music—pretty much anywhere a competent journeyman is needed to anchor the rhythm. He's been busy since the moment he unpacked his suitcase.
"When there's a new drummer in town, everyone wants to be aware," he says with a smile.
He floats between bands, filling in here, recording tracks there, sometimes playing three or four gigs a week. In addition to Jazzination jam on Sunday evenings, which is hosted by bassist Carla Green, Al plays every Thursday night at Plonk with a jazz trio featuring Owen Ross on guitar and Finn Carroll on bass. He also plays occasionally with GoGo Motion, an upbeat funk outfit with Moneypenny's John West and Christopher Gray on Hammond organ and guitar, respectively. Gypsy jazz swingers Night Blooming Jasmine also use Al from time to time. "I also played with my favorite band in town, Cash for Junkers," he adds. "They are a lot of fun." He laughs at the memory of sitting in with the honky-tonkers. "I was robbing my '50s R&B skills and putting them into this band."
While touring around the west with the John Adam Smith Band, Al became smitten with Missoula and decided to make it his home. It's a familiar story. "I always liked this place," he says. "Everybody is so nice. 'Hey, how you doing? How's your day going?' Every week I'm discovering new musicians and every week I'm discovering a new awesome person."
The feeling, Green says, is mutual. "He is creating quite a lovely jazz community with the jams on Sunday night," she says. "He is bringing in lots of different players."
In his charming Spanish accent, Al describes the culture shock of coming to the U.S. "The American culture is very known," he says. "It has a good side and bad side, like everything else. It's shocking when people in Spain ask me how it is. It's a big country. So much space. A standard-sized apartment here is [the size of] a big house in Spain."
And the transition hasn't all been smooth. One of his first Missoula projects ended in a bizarre meltdown at Imagine Nation about a year ago, when a mercurial newcomer fired Al and bassist John West mid-set. The bandleader, Elvis Cantu, had formed the rockabilly trio Shuggie B. Goode after coming to Missoula from Portland. In front of a packed house, Al recalls, the guitarist abruptly pulled the plug over some perceived infraction of his band code, and made a show of firing his rhythm section on the spot, leaving a shocked crowd with no music for the rest of the night. "It was really unprofessional," Al says. Cantu has since left town, while Al remains hip-deep in gigs.
Al has traveled the world, soaking up various cultures and joining other musicians in sharing the universal language. "I've played a lot of weird places—Ethiopia, Kathmandu. But with music, the connection is instant." Growing up in Madrid, there was always a steady source of income for a working musician, he says, although it's not as lucrative now. "When I was 16 or 17, I started to play blues. Blues was huge in Spain. I played seven nights a week since I was 19. Fifteen years ago we made good money. The music business is not what it used to be, but there are still places where you can jump seven nights a week and get paid."
When our conversation turns back to Missoula, Al becomes animated as he extols the virtues of his adopted hometown. "The music scene is decent for a small town," he says. "First thing that caught my eye when I moved here was the dancing activity. Even the terrible dancers, they are wonderful. Dancing equals fun."
Lately he's been playing rock and roll in Andrea Harsell's new band, Luna Roja. "She's a stage monster," he says of the veteran Missoula songstress. The band is putting the finishing touches on a debut album recorded at Missoula's Club Shmed studio. That album should arrive on the heels of an impending release from juvie-rockers the Salamanders, the first band Al hooked up with after making the move to Missoula in 2015. He'll add those projects to the 35 other albums he's played on, "from rock to reggae, blues to jazz, funk to folk and everything else."
For all his breadth of style, he declines to identify a favorite genre. "I love songs," he says, flicking a drop of cocoa off the dark soul patch under his lower lip. "Not music for musicians, but songs. I like playing music for dancers. That's why I'm a terrible dancer. I like to shake my booty but I'm always up on the stage!"