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Poncho Sanchez: Latin jazz con soul

Master conguero Poncho Sanchez
Courtesy of the Ordway
Master conguero Poncho Sanchez

What is it about Latin jazz that makes you want to tap your feet, nod your head, shake your behind and dance?

“The rhythm itself,” says Poncho Sanchez. “We base a lot of our music around the mambo, cha-cha-cha, and merengue. The rhythm makes you feel good. People tell me, ‘Poncho, I play your music to clean the house.’ “

If anyone knows the secrets of Latin jazz — an infectious blend of traditional Afro-Cuban and/or Latin American rhythms with jazz, most often bebop — it’s Sanchez. Arguably the most popular Latin jazz artist in the world, the Grammy winner brings his Latin Jazz Band to the Ordway on Wednesday, Nov. 12, at 8 p.m. See a video of Sanchez in action here.

According to the Ordway’s website, “for this performance, the area in front of the stage will be open for those who wish to dance.”

In Minnesota?

“We’re going to make it happen,” Sanchez promises, speaking by phone from his home in Los Angeles.

Mentored by a master
The bearded, Kangol-sporting Chicano conguero (conga player), bandleader, and singer has done much to popularize a genre pioneered by such legendary musicians as Dizzy Gillespie, Machito, Tito Puente, and the man Sanchez calls his “musical father,” vibraphonist Cal Tjader.

It was Tjader who gave Sanchez his big break. One night in 1975, when Sanchez was 24 and had gone to a club in Redondo Beach to see his idol play, Tjader asked him to sit in.

“In the middle of the set, he called me up, I played a number, and the crowd exploded. Two weeks later, he called and asked me to play a week with him at the Coconut Grove starting on New Year’s Eve, opposite Carmen McRae’s band.

“I went, I was nervous and green, I got up there and played the first set. After, Cal hugged me and said, ‘The gig is yours.’ ‘The gig this week?’ ‘No, the gig is yours.’ He meant I was in the band.”

Sanchez stayed with Tjader for almost eight years, performing, recording, winning Grammys and touring the world. He was with his mentor in the Philippines when Tjader died of a heart attack on Cinco de Mayo, 1982. “That was a horrible day,” Sanchez recalls. “A horrible experience.”

His latest on Concord Picante
Shortly before his death, Tjader had seen to it that Sanchez was signed to the Concord Picante label, a subsidiary of Concord Records founded in 1982 as a home for Tjader’s music. Sanchez has been with Concord Picante ever since, a miracle in a time when the music business is in crisis and few labels have any interest in jazz.

Sanchez’s latest CD, “Raise Your Hand” (2007), is his 22nd on Concord Picante. “I’ve been with them a long time. It’s very, very good. I’m comfortable there, and thank God, they are with me.”

“Raise Your Hand” has been described as “a strange but seriously fun jumble of soul, salsa, son and jazz.” When I first slid it into my car’s CD player, I was expecting mambo or rumba or cha-cha-cha. I was surprised to hear the Stax soul classic “Raise Your Hand.” It’s one of three soul tunes on the album. The others are “Shotgun” (made famous by Junior Walker & The All Stars) and Eddie Floyd’s “Knock on Wood.”

Sanchez explains that including them was Concord VP John Burk’s idea. “He told me, ‘You know, Poncho, we own Stax records now. You have a lot of the old records, and you must have a lot of artists you like. Who would you like to work with?'”

Sanchez invited Booker T. Jones and his MGs guitar player, Steve Cropper, who helped define the Stax sound; Maceo Parker, former saxophonist with James Brown and channeler of Ray Charles; and Floyd, who sings on “Raise Your Hand” and “Knock on Wood,” both of which he co-wrote with Cropper back in the day.

It could have been a musical head-on collision, but it’s not. Sanchez told his guests to do their thing and leave the rest to him. “They were a little bit nervous about the Latin jazz,” he says. “I told them, ‘Think of the grooves you play, lock into a groove, and we’ll play around it with a Latin groove. It fell together very easily.” Each song is still itself, except it’s been Ponchified.

Standards and more
At the Ordway, Sanchez and his eight-piece band will play a program he won’t finalize until that night. “I like to mix it up. Some of the older stuff, old favorites like ‘Watermelon Man,’ ‘Co Co May May,’ salsa numbers, stuff from ‘Raise Your Hand,’ tunes we’re getting ready to record.”

Expect a new live Poncho Sanchez CD sometime in 2009. After then? “You know the guys from the band Green Day? They come to see us play a lot. I’m thinking maybe we could do something.

“This is my newest, freshest idea. But I always guarantee my people, my fans: As long as Poncho Sanchez is alive and healthy, you will get your fix of authentic Latin jazz, salsa, and Latin soul. That’s what made me. That’s what I’m about.”

What: Poncho Sanchez Latin Jazz Band
Where: Ordway Center
When: Wednesday, Nov. 12, 8 p.m. ($20/$25); order online or call 651-224-4222.

Upcoming picks

Bryan Nichols Quartet: Jazz Into the Present: If you’re reading this on Friday morning, Nov. 6, and you don’t have plans for lunch, make your way to the shiny new MacPhail Center for a free concert by the Bryan Nichols Quartet. Nichols on piano, saxophonist Chris Thomson, bassist Kurt Schweitz and drummer Andre Beasley will “push the boundaries of the music with a sense of whimsy and adventure.” I’m not quite sure what that means, but I trust Nichols implicitly. MacPhail Center for Music, Friday, Nov. 7, 12:15 p.m. to 1 p.m. Free.

Patty Peterson Birthday Celebration: She’s one of the Twin Cities’ most popular entertainers and a terrific jazz/R&B vocalist. Patty and her band (Phil Aaron on piano, Mark Weisberg on bass, Michael Pilhofer on drums) will make merry at her birthday and perform selections from her soon-to-be-released CD. Artists’ Quarter, Saturday, Nov. 8, 9 p.m. ($10).

Improvised Music at Homewood Studios: Curated by musician/composer Milo Fine, founded in 2003, Improvised Music is a monthly series of ear-opening conversations. Read more about it here. Fine considers this “perhaps the most inviting concert” in the series, which is tantalizing enough for me. Improvised music is best experienced live. Whether you’re curious, experienced, or simply looking for something brand-new and surprising to do, check it out. Fine on drum set, Davu Ceru on cello and violin, Charles Gillett on guitar, Stefan Kac on tuba. Homewood Studios, Monday, Nov. 10, 7 p.m. ($5).

Find jazz calendars online at Jazz Police. Click on Twin Cities, MN in the black menu bar at the top.

Quick tip: Wondering about jazz singer and Twin Cities native Jose James, who used to perform at Fireside Pizza and made local headlines when he entered the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition in 2004? Check out NPR’s Song of the Day for Wednesday, Nov. 5.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Don Berryman on 11/07/2008 - 08:25 pm.

    Man, you interviewed another one of heroes! See you at the show 🙂

  2. Submitted by Pamela Espeland on 11/08/2008 - 09:53 am.

    The whole interview wouldn’t fit in this post. There’s more at if you want to take a look. A story of how Sanchez met Booker T and the MGs, and of how he was discovered by Cal Tjader.

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