Poncho Sanchez Provides the Percussive Punctuation

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Poncho Sanchez’s new album, Trane’s Delight, offers a distinctly West Coast blend of Latin soul, r&b, post-bop and cool-jazz.

(Photo: Paul Wellman)

The first jazz record Poncho Sanchez bought with his own money, when he was about 12 years old, was Coltrane—saxophonist John Coltrane’s 1962 studio album for Impulse.

The youngster took the album home to his garage, where he had a turntable set up next to his congas. In the area where Sanchez grew up—Norwalk, a working-class suburb of Los Angeles—no one he knew listened to jazz. So, he practiced the congas alone, playing along to his favorite records.

The tumbling rhythms of Coltrane’s drummer, Elvin Jones, were more than the young percussionist could handle. “As a kid, you’re not going to get that,” said Sanchez, who’s now 67.

But he was hooked, determined to crack the code of Coltrane’s probing sound. “When I heard ‘Out Of This World’ [the first track on Coltrane], I thought, ‘Wait, what is this all about? It hit me like ... ” He finished the sentence with an explosive gesture: “Boom!” In conversation, as in music, Sanchez’s hands often provide the punctuation.

In a way, Sanchez’s new album, Trane’s Delight (Concord Picante), is a return to those summer afternoons in his garage, trying to teach himself a new musical language. It’s a tribute to Coltrane, but it’s also a tribute to that period in Sanchez’s life. He was branching out from the rock and soul music his friends listened to, discovering not just Coltrane, but other artists represented on his new recording—Duke Ellington, the Jazz Crusaders, Joe Cuba. Trane’s Delight is an album about the beginning of the journey that led Sanchez to become the most celebrated conguero of his generation.

“It’s something he was thinking about even, God, I don’t know—10 years ago?” said Concord Records President John Burk of Trane’s Delight, Sanchez’s 27th album for the label. “It was a very important record for him to make.”

Throughout his career, Sanchez often has paid tribute to his forebears. Past albums have honored Mongo Santamaría (1917–2003), Dizzy Gillespie (1917–’93), Chano Pozo (1915–’48) and Sanchez’s first mentor, Cal Tjader (1925–’82). Compared to that list, a Coltrane tribute might seem like a left turn. While Sanchez always has been proud to carry the torch for Latin jazz, it never has defined the entirety of who he is. He didn’t cut his teeth in the salsa clubs of New York City. He’s a Mexican-American cat from California, raised on a distinctly West Coast blend of Latin soul, r&b, post-bop and cool-jazz that still informs his own music today.

“When I perform, it’s my life story,” he said. “Slow ballads, John Coltrane, doo-wop, mambo, cha-cha-cha, Tito Puente—it’s all like this.” He knitted his fingers together, speaking once again with his hands.

Trane’s Delight knits many of those sounds together, too. In addition to Coltrane compositions, the album features several other covers, including a bolero, “Si Te Dicen,” first popularized by Cuban singer Vicentico Valdés, and “Soul Bourgeoisie,” a slinky cha-cha-cha written by Hubert Laws for the 1965 Jazz Crusaders album Chili Con Soul, one of Sanchez’s earliest Latin jazz discoveries. Sanchez’s four original compositions here occasionally nod to Coltrane—most notably, the title track, which trombonist and arranger Francisco Torres seasoned with some Trane-like minor vamps and modal progressions. Sanchez also mines his own catalog for the lively “Poncho Sanchez Medley #2,” which reworks three of his best-known tunes (“Baila Mi Gente,” “El Sabrosón” and “El Shing-A-Ling”).

But it’s the Coltrane numbers “Liberia,” “Blue Train” and “Giant Steps,” plus the Ellington-penned “The Feeling Of Jazz” (from his 1963 album with Trane) that anchor the album. Together with Torres, who wrote the arrangements, Sanchez has found a way to honor Coltrane’s music while also using Latin rhythms to give the saxophonist’s familiar musical motifs fresh life. The complex changes of “Giant Steps,” in particular, are a revelation when rendered over a lively, heavily syncopated tempo Sanchez described as a “fast mambo, almost a rumba.”

Despite being a longtime passion project, Trane’s Delight almost didn’t happen at all. Following Sanchez’s last Concord release, 2012’s Live In Hollywood, the bandleader and the label couldn’t agree to terms for his next album. Though both sides claimed the split was amicable, they parted ways. It was the first time Sanchez hadn’t been signed to Concord since 1982.

For a time, Sanchez thought the recording side of his career might be over. He was content to tour; he had a young band, his best in years, and they were reinvigorating old favorites, setting audiences on fire with Sanchez originals like “El Shing-a-Ling” and one of his staples, a cha-cha-cha cover of Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man.”

When Sanchez’s manager, Ivory Daniel, floated the idea of going back into the studio, he was reluctant at first. “I started to get tired now,” he said at the time. “I’ve been doing this a long time.” But when he told his manager about his idea for a Coltrane tribute, Daniel said, “I’m gonna find a way to do it.”

With financing from Daniel, the album finally came together last November in the Ostin Music Center at UCLA, in a brand-new recording studio large enough to house Sanchez’s entire octet. “We baffle everybody off. Everybody can see each other,” he said, miming the way he and his bandmates would crane their necks to see over their acoustic partitions. “We do it like the old school.”

As they recorded, Southern California burned. The 96,000-acre Woolsey Fire raged through the hills of Malibu, about 25 miles from the studio. Saxophonist Robert Hardt described seeing plumes of smoke on the horizon each day as he arrived for the sessions. “That [fire] was in the back of everybody’s mind during the recording session,” he said.

When the sessions were over, Daniel and Sanchez shopped the finished record around. Several labels expressed interest, but in the end, Trane’s Delight became Sanchez’s ticket to a happy homecoming with Concord. “I heard it,” said Burk, “and thought, ‘We gotta put this out.’”

Many of the tracks on Trane’s Delight came together not in the studio, but on the road. Torres, who has been with Sanchez since 1998, played a pivotal role, helping the conguero sift through his massive collection of Coltrane records to find the tracks best suited to a Latin jazz arrangement. One of the first was “Blue Train,” which features an arrangement Torres came up with on the fly—literally. They were on a plane en route to the annual John Coltrane International Jazz and Blues Festival in High Point, North Carolina, when Sanchez proposed adding a Coltrane standard to the set list. “I thought, ‘What’s the easiest melody I can [arrange], without having a piano?’” Torres explained.

On Trane’s Delight, the highlight of “Blue Train” is a scorching soprano saxophone solo by Hardt that, originally, wasn’t supposed to be on the record. “For a while, we thought we might have a guest artist come in and overdub that solo,” Hardt said. “So, in some ways, it was a throwaway.” But after he nailed the solo in a single take, Sanchez declared, “I ain’t taking that off for nobody.”

Sanchez is fiercely protective of all his band members: His insistence on paying everyone union scale, at a time when the music industry’s economy was collapsing, played a role in his temporary separation from Concord. “Poncho’s a very loyal guy; he likes to take care of his guys,” Burk noted. “We came up against some difficult economics for a minute. And we all just took a breather and then came back to it and worked it out.”

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