|Poncho Sanchez has long qualified as one of the
hardest-working men in Latin jazz. Born in Laredo, Texas as the
youngest of 11 children, he grew up in Norwalk, California (where he
still lives) and remembers hearing Afro-Cuban music while growing up.
"As a kid in third or fourth grade, I would hear my sisters dancing
while listening to Machito, Tito Puente, Cal Tjader and various bands
from Cuba while my brothers listened to doo-wop music and early rhythm
and blues." While in sixth grade, Sanchez bought a fifty- cent guitar
in hopes of joining an r&b band that rehearsed across the street
from his home. Although he practiced quite a bit, when he showed up for
an audition, he knew immediately that he did not stand a chance. "But
it turned out that they needed a singer and, although I had never sung,
I gave it a try and became the lead vocalist in that band for five
years. Then when I was in high school, the first chance I had to get
behind a set of conga drums, I hit them and it felt quite natural."
Soon Sanchez had saved up money from his singing jobs and was
practicing congas as much as possible in his garage, playing to
Machito, Tito Puente and Cal Tjader records.
Sanchez's big break occurred in 1975 when, after a period of struggle,
he had an opportunity to play with his idol, vibraphonist Cal Tjader.
"I found out later that Cal's conga player was planning on leaving soon
and he was letting a lot of people sit in with him. I played one number
with Cal, he asked if I could play the rest of the set with him and a
week later he asked if I could join him for a week, starting New Year's
Eve at the Coconut Grove opposite Carmen McRae!" Sanchez would be a
major part of Tjader's band for the next seven years, an association
that lasted until the vibraphonist's death.
Poncho Sanchez first formed his own group in 1980, leading his ensemble
during Tjader's vacation periods and recording two albums for
Discovery. Shortly before his death, Tjader recommended to Concord
founder Carl Jefferson that he sign Sanchez to his Concord Picante
label (a subsidiary originally started to document Tjader's music). 18
recordings, a Grammy Award (for 1999's Latin Soul) and a countless
number of performances around the world (at venues ranging from concert
halls and nightclubs to free festivals) have resulted in the years
since. "My band and I really do love Latin jazz. We played this music
before it was popular and I think we've played a part in helping it to
become popular again. Our main goal is always to keep Latin jazz alive,
growing and moving, while being authentic to the music that we love.
I'm proud to say that we have stuck to the basic fundamentals and the
roots which are very important to us. And, as I always say in clinics,
this music is not just for Latino people. It was born in the United
States and it is American music. It is for everybody!" Soul of the
Conga Poncho's latest release on Concord Records features Sanchez's
three-horn three-percussion octet who have been joined on past
recordings by such guests as Tito Puente, Freddie Hubbard, Eddie
Harris, Dianne Reeves, the Jazz Crusaders and Mongo Santamaria.Soul Of
The Conga features the great organist Joey DeFrancesco as part of
Sanchez's band on seven numbers.
The first time that Sanchez worked with an organist since he started
leading his band was a few months before this recording took place.
"Joey DeFrancesco was our special guest for a full week at Yoshi's"
remembers Sanchez. "He adjusted himself quickly to our Latin groove and
he is such a fine musician that it was easy to play with him."
DeFrancesco, whose rise to fame in the 1990s helped the Hammond B-3
organ to make a major comeback, clearly inspires Sanchez and his
sidemen with his enthusiasm and remarkable technique. The organist is
not the only guest on Soul Of The Conga. "Stella By Starlight" features
Terence Blanchard, one of the top trumpeters in jazz. "We appeared at
the same festivals a few times and always liked each other's music but
had never played together before." In addition, Sanchez has a rare
opportunity to explore the early roots of Cuban music during the four
numbers in which he interacts with the Five Ortiz Brothers.
The well-rounded and continually intriguing program begins with
DeFranco in the spotlight during the funky blues "Joseito."
Tenor-saxophonist Scott Martin also has a strong spot while trumpeter
Sal Cracchiolo (who has been with the band since near the beginning)
and trombonist Francisco Torres (who at two years, is the newest member
of the Sanchez family) have brief tradeoffs with the percussion
section. "Oye Lo" features some happy group singing and a groove worthy
of Sanchez's late boss Cal Tjader; Cracchiolo takes solo honors.
Next is Poncho Sanchez's first meeting on this release with the five
Ortiz Brothers. The siblings had befriended Sanchez years ago when they
were kids who were anxious to see his band play. Since then they have
become professional musicians and formed Son Mayor, a 14-piece salsa
band that has become popular in Los Angeles. "Not many people know
about the changui style of music from Oriente, Cuba that they play
which uses bongos rather than congas and features the tres (a
six-string acoustic guitar)." The traditional changui sound, which can
be heard on recordings of the 1920s and 30s, is revived creatively by
the Ortiz Brothers. Sanchez and Sal Cracchiolo (whose trumpet playing
on this selection is in the style of veteran Chocolate Armenteros)
sound quite at home with the Ortiz Brothers on "Venga A Bailar
"Moon Pie" with DeFrancesco is in the style of classic soul jazz of the
1960s. The catchy "Haitian Lady" finds the solos of DeFrancesco and
Cracchiolo being pushed by the exciting rhythmic patterns of pianist
David Torrez. Sanchez, a superior singer, has a vocal feature on the
romantic "Cosas Del Alma," a number that is perfect for dancing
couples. "Nengon" features the vintage and spirited group singing and
acoustic instruments of the Ortiz Brothers along with Sanchez and
pianist Torres. Alphonse Mouzon's "Virtue" (which has a groove a bit
similar to that of "Afro Blue") and a wonderfully Latinized rendition
of Henry Mancini's "Days Of Wine And Roses" gives Sanchez's regular
band opportunities to stretch out with DeFrancesco.
The Ortiz Brothers return for "Fania Fungue" which has some
particularly infectious group singing. Terence Blanchard's ballad
feature on "Stella By Starlight" is quite heartfelt and beautiful,
making one look forward to future collaborations by the trumpeter with
the perfectly complementary Sanchez band. "Bodacious Q" finds Sanchez
(and particularly pianist David Torres) playing in a Ramsey Lewis
groove which, with its handclapping, is reminiscent of a Lewis live
date from the 1960s. Tito Rodriguez's "Asi Asi" looks back to the
classic Cuban dance bands of the 1950s; among the group singers are
Joey DeFrancesco himself. The consistently appealing Soul Of The Conga
concludes with the chanting and percussion of the Ortiz Brothers and
Sanchez on "Rumba De Po-Tiz," which in its "Po-Tiz" title was
spontaneously named after them.
Soul of the Conga is Latin and Soul and it truly is music for everybody.