Poncho Sanchez: Straight Up

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Poncho Sanchez
By Alan Nahigian
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Poncho Sanchez
By Brad Fierce
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Poncho Sanchez
By Brad Fierce
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Poncho Sanchez
By Brad Fierce

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It’s a semi-cool Northern California evening in late July on opening night of the Fujitsu-Concord Jazz Festival, a musical celebration under the stars at Chronicle Pavilion, the mega-amphitheatre at the foot of Mt. Diablo in the San Francisco suburb of Concord, Calif.

With Karrin Allyson, Curtis Stigers, Chick Corea Trio and Poncho Sanchez Latin Jazz Band, the place is filled with a roster of stars for this unproclaimed salute to the resiliency of Concord Records, the resident independent label that a few years ago found itself in Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings. Now owned by ACT III Communications, headed by Hal Gibbons and Norman Lear, the label started by former car dealer Carl Jefferson has taken its lumps but now thrives as one of independent jazz’s strongest record companies.

Through the label’s thick and thin times, Sanchez has hung in there and been one of Concord’s longest-lasting and best-selling artists. Tonight Sanchez and his guys are celebrating 21 years as a band and the release of their 21st album, Latin Spirits, on Concord Picante. With a longshoreman’s broad shoulders, a bushy salt and pepper beard, his trademark black salsero Kangol cap and huge callused hands, the one-time aluminum foundry worker turns 50 this year and he’s aging gracefully into one of the premier conga drummers in jazz.

“Poncho’s not only a great percussionist but also making his mark as a great bandleader,” says Chick Corea before sitting in with Sanchez. (The pianist also appears on two cuts on Latin Spirits.) “That goes beyond playing the drums. It goes into making music, keeping a group together and bringing people together and really making them happy with it. It’s a bigger task and a more rewarding and artistic one, and Poncho is great at it.”

After Sanchez and his crew take the stage, Poncho’s drums out in front of the band, the band establishes an upbeat tone quickly with “Sambia,” the old Machito mambo-jazz piece. During Sanchez’s solo his hands glide across the skins with slaps, thuds and a determined attack; the crowd applauds and whoops it up like he’s the lead guitarist for a rock band.

Agile on stage singing, dancing and hitting the skins with bruising strength, Sanchez is no longer confined to sitting behind the drums and letting Jose “Papo” Rodriguez, his bongo man, do conga duties. Sanchez steps up to the microphone to sing and improvise verses with a gritty R&B-inflected voice. His sound is a mix of Jazz Crusaders-style harmonies, soulful melodic lines and hip Afro-Cuban beats.

Sanchez brings up vocalist and harmonica player Dale Spaulding and Ledesi, a gifted San Francisco-area singer, to do Joe Liggin’s “Back to New Orleans.” The song’s cool, syncopated, Meters-style funk gets some folks dancing in the aisles like its Mardi Gras. Call it crawfish salsa, as the Afro-Cuban beats simmered well with Crescent City spice. While purists balk at Sanchez’s R&B antics and showboating you have to admire his searching for new ways to touch people and expand his fan base.

“I’m just playing the music I feel in my heart and the conga drum I love to play,” says Sanchez after the show, kicking back on a black-leather couch. Looking sharp in a dark-gray shirt with neatly ironed slacks, Sanchez is jovial in his dressing room, which is filled with friends, bandmates and his brother Sal. Plates of tamales and baskets of pan dulce (Mexican sweet bread) give the room a down-home aroma even as Sanchez balances autographs, a photo shoot and this interview.

“I’m proud to play Latin jazz and salsa authentically and acoustically. We don’t go for synthesizers and all that. Straight up. Know what I mean? That’s the way Mongo [Santamaria] and Cal [Tjader] played and I intend to keep it that way. I learned from the best.”

Poncho Sanchez was born Oct. 30, 1951 in Larado, Texas. At age three, he and his family moved from Laredo to Norwalk in Southern California. Sanchez’s parents arrived in Laredo at a time when people were fleeing the violence of the Mexican Revolution of 1910. It was the early 1950s and post-WWII prosperity had renewed the spirit of the Latino community.

It was these second- and third-generation U.S.-born Mexican Americans that began to create a new bilingual-bicultural heritage that fused elements of their traditional Mexican roots with American popular culture. Musicians like bassist Don Tosti and pianist Eddie Cano helped assimilate the influences of jazz and the emerging mambo and cha cha cha craze into the musical soundscape of L.A. Big-band leaders like Rene Touzet, Phil Carreon and Manny Lopez also added to this mambo madness.

As the youngest of 11 children (six sisters and four brothers), Sanchez was exposed to a lot of different kinds of music growing up, teaching himself flute, guitar and percussion before focusing on the conga at 18. His brothers were hard-core jazz fans and his sisters were deep into the mambo and cha cha. His siblings’ music coupled with the black R&B that Sanchez heard on the radio all helped mold his musical personality.

“We used to watch the Johnny Otis show on TV—Big Joe Houston, Three Tons of Joy, Mel Williams, people like that. My brothers listened to the jazz stations and we’d hear Count Basie, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Art Blakey. My sisters were in the first wave of mambo and cha cha cha that came to California from New York City by the way of Machito, Tito Rodriguez and Tito Puente records. Then the charanga craze began with Orquesta Aragon.”

Sanchez lived near the cruising mecca known as Whittier Blvd. in the late 1960s, where low-riding (driving custom cars lowered to inches from the ground) and the Eastside Sound (Latino garage-rock bands from East L.A.) all the rage. It was a cultural renaissance and the beginning of a social awakening for young Mexican Americans.

“Me and my brother Sal used to borrow my sisters ’57 Chevy, or my brothers ’56, and go down to Whittier Boulevard and cruise. We went to all the dances. The East L.A. guys knew we were from Norwalk so they would get tough. I’d always do something to break it up like dancing the James Brown with four spins without stopping. Do the splits and come up and all that. I was skinny as my little finger back then!” laughs Sanchez.

Poncho and his partners already had a band and they liked to check out local happening groups like Thee Midniters, and they really dug Willie Bobo, Joe Cuba and Cal Tjader. Then, with a couple of his neighborhood buddies, timbalist Ramon and bassist Tony Banda, high-schooler Sanchez joined Little Jimmy y los Vagabundos, doing a mixed bag of barrio oldies, Tex Mex, trad-Mex, cumbias and tropical. But in the 1970s East L.A. exploded with an unprecedented civil-rights movement fueled by the disproportionate deaths of Mexican American soldiers in the Vietnam War. The sounds of Santana served as a backdrop and inspired a Latin-rock movement that was propagated by the Hammond B3 sounds of El Chicano who scored a hit with a rendition of Gerald Wilson’s “Viva Tirado.”

Sanchez joined the Latin-rock movement and helped co-lead the band Sabor when he was just out of high school. They did horn-oriented covers by Tower of Power, Chicago, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Mongo Santamaria and Ray Barretto.

Young, recently married and working at an aluminum foundry by day and playing in local clubs and weddings at night and weekends, Sanchez paid his dues with Sabor for about five years. It was at one of these club gigs that he met an old Navy buddy of Cal Tjader’s named Ernie. He dug Sanchez’s sound and Ernie promised Poncho that he would tell the legendary vibraphonist about him. Sanchez said, “Sure,” but he didn’t really believe the guy.

“A week later Cal was at Redondo Beach at Concerts by the Sea, Howard Rumsey’s old club. So, me, my wife and some friends went and, as I walked in, here’s this guy Ernie talking to Cal, telling him about me. Then he sees me and points me out. So this guy introduces us and Cal asks me to sit in and tells me he’s heard a lot about me. At that point I was embarrassed and didn’t know how to act!”

Sanchez sat in on a tune with Tjader that night. He impressed Cal so much the vibist took his information and told Poncho perhaps he could use him when he played in Southern California. Sanchez had just gotten laid off from the aluminum foundry and was sitting around collecting unemployment and needed a gig. A couple of weeks later Tjader called and offered him a job on New Year’s Eve 1975 at the Coconut Grove in the Ambassador Hotel opposite Carmen McRae.

After the first set of that New Year’s Eve gig, Tjader took Sanchez to the back room and told him, “You sound like a young Mongo Santamaria; the gig’s yours if you want it.” Sanchez accepted and worked with Tjader until the jazz-Latin fusionist died in 1982. Touring together for over seven years, Sanchez soaked up the musical charisma Tjader generated. This was a bandleader who never rehearsed but demanded quality from his musicians by the level of ability and soul they brought to the gig.

“Cal Tjader was like my musical father. I still haven’t gotten completely over his death. It seems like it was yesterday when he passed away. I was in the same room with him when he died. We were in Manila, in the Philippine islands, in a hotel when he died of a heart attack. Cinco de Mayo, almost 20 years ago.

“Cal was a great vibraphonist who was made to play that instrument. He played it like no one else. He could flow, not fast and busy, just beautifully. He could say everything in one note. Just one note, man, ’cause he knew just where to put it, lay it, the tone, the feel. Cal was made for the instrument. I miss him.”

Tjader’s La Onda Va Bien album launched the Concord Picante label in 1980, and it won that year’s Grammy Award for Best Latin Album. The album’s success gave Sanchez confidence and his playing visibility. But a year before his 1982 passing, Tjader suffered his first heart attack and laid the band off, briefly derailing Sanchez’s ascension.

Sanchez started getting antsy. Timbalist Ramon Banda, trumpeter Sal Cracchiolo and reedist/flutist Dick Mitchell had a bebop band they rehearsed in the garage and Sanchez started dropping in and playing along on congas. They put together some Latin jazz tunes and old Tito Rodriguez charts and called themselves Montuno, with Sanchez the featured performer, and began to gig around town. It took off and soon Sanchez was getting all the calls, putting him in a leader role. Realizing the recognition he had attained being with Tjader, Sanchez proposed that they call themselves the Poncho Sanchez Latin Jazz Band; they accepted.

Albert Marx produced poncho’s first recordings in 1979 and ’80 as co-leader, with pianist Clare Fischer, for Discovery Records: Poncho, Straight Ahead and Gauiota. Sanchez also performed on Fischer’s excellent Latin-jazz albums Salsa Picante (1978) and Machaca (1979), both on Discovery. The mixture of Latin fire and West Coast cool on these discs show Sanchez in his youthful prime.

From his first Concord Picante record, Sonando (1983), Sanchez has defined a sound for himself that drew from the soul-jazz textures of the Jazz Crusaders, Eddie Harris, Horace Silver and others and fused those sounds with Latin rhythms as defined by Mongo Santamaria. Afro-Cuban guarachas, son-montunos, mambos, cha-cha, guajiras and Afro 6/8 were all part of the menu. Some have criticized Sanchez, saying that he was just imitating the Tjader formula by putting American-jazz standards in these Latin-beat frameworks.

Now, Sanchez is called the keeper of the Latin-jazz flame.

As midnight arrives at the Fujitsu-Concord Jazz Festival, Sanchez still has the crowd grooving. His band has played just about everything off Latin Spirits, ranging from the Tito Rodriguez classic “Batiri Cha Cha” to the two selections that feature Chick Corea: the title track and Wayne Shorter’s “Ju Ju.” The band adapts perfectly to the variety of musical settings tossed at them thanks to the incredible telepathy of original members and Sanchez’s old-school friends Sal Cracchiolo and the Banda Brothers, Ramon and Tony.

The addition of David Torres a few years back as pianist and musical director brought to Sanchez his Billy Strayhorn: someone who could help articulate and refine his compositional ideas like Strayhorn did for Duke Ellington. Torres is a masterful player who shares Sanchez’s experience having grown up in East L.A. and being part of the pivotal band Califas, with Cui Cui Rangel, but who is a dedicated student of jazz, with an affection for Thelonious Monk, and a fine arranger.

“Poncho and I grew up in the same environment,” says Torres. “My father was a bebop musician back in the 1950s and had pictures of Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie on the wall. We’re talking 1954, ’55 in a Chicano neighborhood. He was a bebopper plus he had all the Tito Rodriguez and Joe Cuba records, and Eddie Cano stuff too. I grew up with all that plus the music of the street: Motown, Otis Redding. We had the same upbringing so it clicked when we met.

“Our sound is an extension of all the history, of the lineage of Latin jazz and Salsa music and trying to extend the music to the next step,” says Torres. “Poncho gives us complete freedom but he suggests things. I’ve known him since 1970 so we know what direction we’re going in.”

La Familia was the name of Sanchez’s seventh album for Concord Picante. It featured snapshots of himself as a little kid, the Sanchez’s ’57 Chevy low-rider, the band and Tjader. Sanchez’s loyal fans love and embrace the familial, neighborhood quality to the Poncho Sanchez Latin Jazz Band, which also includes tenor saxist Scott Martin and trombonist Francisco Torres along with the Banda Brothers, “Papo” Rodriguez, Torres and Cracchiolo.

“Our family vibe comes from a longtime being together,” says bassist Tony Banda. “With Poncho we do OK. I’ve bought a house, raising a family, making a living and even if I hit the lotto I’d still be playing! We’re not rock stars who make millions, but it’s gradually going up. We play for the people and they keep us going”

Sanchez closes out the Concord-Fujitsu Jazz Festival with a festive salsa-dance number, his extroverted music moving the audience to get happy and dance one last time that night.

Sanchez and his band appreciate this night’s milestone—21 years together and 21 albums—but they are far from settling down.

“My plan for the next 10 years is to continue hitting that road. I enjoy bringing great artists into our family like we did with Freddie Hubbard, Eddie Harris, Tito Puente, Mongo and now with Dale Spaulding, Chick Corea and Ledesi. I’m thinking of some new ideas that feature traditional black gospel like the Soul Stirrers, the original stuff from the ’50s, crossing the beats with batas and chekeres. But I tell my fans don’t worry: As long as Poncho Sanchez is well and alive you will get your authentic Latin jazz.

“Latin jazz is American music,” says Sanchez. “Latin jazz was born in the United States with Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo in the 1940s. If you were born in the U.S.A., that’s your music. I was born in the U.S.A., so Latin jazz is my music and I’m proud of that.”

Gearbox

Sanchez plays Remo Poncho Sanchez Signature Series drums, El Conguero and Tuff Enough congas, Regal Tip timbale sticks, Audix microphones and Remo Mondo/Nuskin and Fiber Skyn drum heads. Kangol makes the ever-present hat on Sanchez’s head.

Chano Pozo, The Conga Kings and Ray Barretto: Conga Loca

Anybody that’s ever walked through the aged cinder-block sections of Old Havana has felt the ancient aura that permeates these huge structures first built by Spanish colonizers in the 1500s. It’s here where a new world culture began to incubate fueled by atrocities and horrors that killed off the indigenous Siboney native population and began the importation of enslaved African labor.

It was a cruel chapter as Africans from the tribal nations of the Yoruba, Congo, Ghana, Dahomey were forcefully uprooted, packed in conditions worse than cattle and shipped to the Americas. Yet while you could take these humans out of their native environments, you could not take their indigenous ways out of them. Over time many began to play the beats essential to their spiritual and communal being on boxes, barrels and whatever else could resonate.

It was in the Afro-rich port cities of Cuba—Havana, Matanzas, Santiago—that the conga drum flourished. As years progressed, a cross-pollination of Spanish and African musical influences began to emerge fusing rumba flamenca, a music culled by the gypsies of Southern Spain, with West African rhythms. It gave rise to the popular song-and-dance complex known as rumba. The Yoruba religious practices of Ifa, and its sacred two-headed hour-glass shaped bata drums, forged with Catholicism to create the music of Santería. In the in the 1800s Rumberos Malanga and Mulenze, the Buddy Boldens of the congas, cast the mold for today’s rumba. In the 20th century the name that rings out as pivotal in taking the rumba from the streets to stage was an eccentric composer, singer, dancer, conguero named Luciano Pozo y Gonzales—aka Chano Pozo.

For Chano Pozo, who landed in Dizzy Gillespie’s pivotal 1947 big band and was the first conga player with a major jazz ensemble, it was a challenge to assimilate American swing beats into Afro-Cuban playing. The hot-tempered Pozo was shot and killed in a Harlem bar at age 33 after a drug deal gone sour on Dec. 2, 1948, and he never had chance to totally understand 4/4 swing rhythms. He was used to the 2/4 clave patterns and there were rhythmic clashes in Gillespie’s group: bassist Ray Brown quit because Pozo couldn’t find the groove. Still, Pozo’s skill as a rumbero street drummer, coupled with his understanding of the secular and nonsecular African-derived traditions of Cuba, introduced and helped define the role of the conga drum in Afro-Cuban jazz.

Now everything you ever wanted to know about Chano Pozo is available in a handsome three-CD box set, Chano Pozo: El Tambor de Cuba (Tumbao Cuban Classics TCD 305; 3CDs: 3 hrs, 40 mins). Producer Jordi Pujol divided the compilation into three discs that trace the conguero’s career (1939-1948), interspersing Chano’s music with interviews conducted by Dr. Billy Taylor for National Public Radio with historic figures like Mario Bauzá, Dizzy Gillespie and Machito about this Latin-jazz pioneer. The bilingual Spanish-English booklet is filled with intriguing photos and invaluable historical information.

Pozo’s skill as a songwriter is in full effect on the compilation’s first volume, Blen, Blen, Blen, with 23 Cuban hits as interpreted by Miguelito Valdés, Machito, Cascarita, Tito Rodríguez and others. The second volume, Timbero, la Timba Es Mía, presents 29 tracks of Pozo as a sideman and bandleader with the Havana-Casino Orchestra, Orchestra Hotel Nacional, Conjunto Azul and collaborations with Arsenio Rodriguez. The Cu-Bop Days, volume three, documents Pozo’s popular work with the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra, James Moody and the Milt Jackson Quintet.

Pozo’s playing on the compilation provides a roadmap to the next generation of conga drummers, who tweaked and adjusted the groove to fit with the jazz beats. Key figures like Candido Camero, Sabu Martinez (who replaced Pozo in Gillespie’s band), Mongo Santamaria, Armando Peraza, Ray Barretto and Carlos “Patato” Valdés brought a refined understanding of swing while maintaining the hard-hitting rumba edge instilled by Chano.

Last year Candido Camero, Carlos “Patato” Valdés and Giovanni Hidalgo—The Conga Kings—combined their considerable talents on an exciting self-titled CD for Chesky Records. The Conga Kings’ sophomore outing, Jazz Descargas, continues the meeting of some of the greatest minds—and hands—in Afro-Cuban music. Camero, who followed Sabu Martinez into Gillespie’s band, is the elder statesman at 80. His countless sessions with Billy Taylor, Erroll Garner, Tony Bennett and Randy Weston testify to Candido’s link to the past—and the future—and congafied jazz. Camero is joined by the 75-year-old Patato—who it seems has played with nearly every jazz and Latin musician of note—and the 38-year-old Hidalgo—often considered the finest conguero of his generation—for another historic Latin-jazz summit on Jazz Descargas.

Masterful orchestrations by arranger/musical director Ray Santos of standards—”Un Poco Loco” with Phil Woods, “Tin Tin Deo” with Alfredo “Chocolate” Armenteros, “Caravan” with Jimmy Bosch and others—allow the percussionists to demonstrate how they liberated the conga drum from the role of a timekeeper beating out patterns, to a conversational entity in the improvisational flow of a jazz ensemble. The absence of timbales and bongo, with minimal hand percussion, lets the deep conga tones resonate like a line of rumberos in front of lush smoky big band.

Another legend, the 72-year-old conga drummer and bandleader Ray Barretto, is the king of hard-bop tumbao. He began playing congas while stationed in the U.S. Army in Germany after hearing recordings of Chano Pozo with Dizzy Gillespie. When he returned home to NYC, he sat in on countless jam sessions around Harlem as well as playing with Tito Puente at the Palladium Ballroom. Session work for Prestige, Blue Note and several other small jazz labels set an incredible standard that soon propelled him to lead record dates.

On his latest, Trancedance (Circular Moves), Barretto is joined by James Moody and Los Papines, the first family of Cuban rumba, for an excursion that features interpretations of Randy Weston’s “Hi-Fly,” Thelonious Monk’s “’Round About Midnight” as well as the conguero’s original homage “I Remember Tito.” Barretto’s sense of melodicism and harmony resonate throughout the disc; his attack is lighter than some of his contemporaries, but it’s more sensitive, which allows for his contrapuntal intricacies to surface.

Thanks to drummers like Pozo, Candido, Patato, Barretto, Hidalgo and many others, the conga drum has been legitimized as an instrument integral to jazz—it’s not just a “tom-tom” anymore.

Originally published in November 2001

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