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)

In addition to being Concord’s president, Burk counts himself as one of Sanchez’s oldest friends in the business: He’s produced more than a dozen of Sanchez’s albums. Before a recent show at the Catalina Bar and Grill in Hollywood, the two men greeted each other warmly in the green room. “Everything’s cool,” Sanchez said, offering the label boss a beer.

At Catalina, Sanchez’s fingers were wrapped in white athletic tape, like a prizefighter’s—a trick he borrowed from another mentor, Mongo Santamaría. Early in his career, Sanchez learned the hard way that the skin on a conguero’s fingertips, left untaped, has a tendency to split open at inopportune moments. “At one point when I was young, [a finger cut] went all the way to my nail,” he remembered. “It split open, and blood is flying in the middle of a solo, so now you got a problem. I learned never to do that again.”

Sanchez still strikes his congas with a force that puts many younger players to shame. At Catalina, during the salsa standard “Coco May May,” he raised both hands above his head and brought them down hard, making the drum skins clap like gunshots. He likes people in the front row to feel the rush of air from his flying hands. “I’m a heavyweight,” he said. “That’s the way I learned to play congas.”

Such flourishes aren’t just for the sake of showmanship, though Sanchez admits that’s part of it. They’re also to cue his band, which in addition to Torres and Hardt currently consists of Ron Blake on trumpet and flugelhorn, Andy Langham on piano, Joey DeLeon and Giancarlo Anderson on percussion and Rene Camacho on bass. Reading Sanchez’s body language, they can play both propulsive and uptempo, or loose and slightly behind the beat. Sanchez’s music, like all Latin jazz, is rooted in the clave—an endlessly flexible five-note pattern that is the foundation of everything from bossa nova to cha-cha-cha. When Sanchez plays it, it takes on an almost funky quality. It’s no wonder that he loves to drop James Brown’s “Out Of Sight” into his live sets.

“Poncho is one of those guys who will pick up a cowbell,” Burk said. “And the way he plays it, it has a little bit deeper pocket than anyone else in the room. It just suddenly locks [in] the whole thing more. There’s something about his touch, his feel, that’s particularly special.”

Sanchez likely owes his unique sense of rhythm not just to his years with Tjader and long hours spent woodshedding in his parents’ garage, but to his more youthful musical interests. The youngest of 11 children, Sanchez grew up playing guitar and listening to r&b and early rock ’n’ roll records with his neighborhood friends. In his first band, he sang James Brown and Rolling Stones songs. Though he still possesses a warm, confident tenor (which, on Trane’s Delight, can be heard on “Si Te Dicen”), he said it was his moves, not his voice, that got him that gig.

“My sisters taught me how to dance,” he said. “I had six sisters and they all knew all the latest dances. So, I was light on my feet, baby. I was cool. I could spin, Jackie Wilson style.”

For the most part, he hid his growing interest in jazz from his friends and bandmates. “My friends didn’t know nothing about jazz. They didn’t understand it.” In the 1960s, Norwalk was a rough place, 20 miles southeast of Hollywood, but a world away culturally. When Sanchez’s family first moved there in 1954, from the Texas border town of Laredo, the streets were still unpaved. The neighborhood they lived in came to be called “The One-Ways”; after the streets were finally paved and given sidewalks, Norwalk’s planners deemed them too narrow for two-way traffic.

“Nowadays the tough kids from that neighborhood, they tell me, ‘Poncho, I understand you’re from The One-Ways,’” Sanchez said, imitating the thrust-out chin of a posturing youth. “And I go, ‘You know, I’m from The One-Ways before they were The One-Ways.’”

He still lives southeast of Los Angeles, in a more affluent, sun-bleached subdivision not far from where he grew up. Upstairs, guarded by two small dogs named Mambo and Tjader, is a large room that doubles as his home studio. The walls are covered with framed album covers, concert posters and numerous awards, including his 2000 Grammy for Best Latin Jazz Album, from which he accidentally stripped the polish in a failed attempt to clean it. (“It’s $700 to fix it!”) Every corner of the room not occupied by a glass-topped coffee table and two butterscotch-colored leather couches is filled with percussion instruments: congas, bongos, timbales, batá drums, the beaded gourds called shekeres, and Sanchez’s latest obsession, African instruments. The Trane’s Delight track “Sube,” written by pianist Langham, features several such instruments, including a kalimba (played by an old friend in Denver named Cornelius Duncan) and a talking drum played by Sanchez himself.

“I went to a place called Motherland [in nearby Inglewood, California],” Sanchez said while giving a tour of the space. “I know Dan [Rice], the guy who owns the place. It has all kinds of traditional African instruments. I always liked the way [talking drums] sound. So, I started learning to play them a little bit, messing around the house here.” He pointed out his talking drums, next to his growing collection of kalimbas, many of which sat perched atop an electric keyboard that he mostly, by his own admission, just uses to tune his congas.

Also atop the keyboard, pulled from the vast collection of CDs and LPs that lines the room’s back wall, sat Coltrane, the album that started it all, its familiar blue cover faded almost beyond recognition. Despite its weathered condition, Sanchez was pretty sure that it was not the same copy he bought as a boy all those years ago. He played that one so much that he wore it out entirely. “This is my favorite John Coltrane,” he said, picking up the LP gently. “Still, to this day, it’s my favorite one.”

Behind Coltrane was another sacred relic from Sanchez’s youth: an equally worn copy of Cal Tjader’s LP At Grace Cathedral, a 1976 concert recording made when Sanchez was a brand-new member of the vibraphonist’s band. To get the gig, he auditioned by playing Mongo Santamaría’s conga parts from earlier Tjader albums perfectly; he’d been playing along to them in his garage for years.

In a photo of Tjader’s band on the back cover, Sanchez is immediately recognizable, thanks to the bushy black beard that would become his visual trademark. These days, Sanchez’s beard is mostly gray, and neatly trimmed. When he recounts playing those early shows with Tjader, his idol, Sanchez beams with enthusiasm. “I’m getting the chills just thinking about it,” he said.

It was through Tjader that Sanchez first signed with Concord’s Latin jazz imprint, Concord Picante, in 1982. According to legend, and confirmed by Burk, Tjader told Concord founder Carl Jefferson, “You know who the next great bandleader in this genre is going to be? My conga player.”

Tjader’s sudden death that same year, of a heart attack at age 56, affected Sanchez profoundly. “I was with Cal when he passed away in Manila [on May 5, 1982]. I actually saw him pass away,” Sanchez recalled, his voice softening. His hands spoke again, in the form of two clenched fists cracking open and fluttering to his lap. “I was like this after he passed. You’re losing your musical father.”

It’s clear that after that tragedy, Sanchez felt some responsibility to carry on his mentor’s legacy. His 1984 album, Bien Sabroso!, includes a Tjader-esque song titled “Keeper Of The Flame,” written by his then-trombonist and fellow Tjader sideman Mark Levine.

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