More than anything else, Poncho Sanchez is a storyteller. And, as leader of the
most popular Latin jazz group in the world today, it's his congas and seasoned
ensemble that do the talking. Live in concert or on recordings, they spin vivacious
tales that pay homage to the glories of a half-century tradition that was born
when Afro-Cuban rhythms merged with bebop. One-on-one, the Chicano conguero is
equally expressive, recounting in vivid detail the encounters, friendships, and
passions that have contributed to his remarkable career as a bandleader and recording
artist. Behind the choice of every song, album title and guest artist, there's
a story Poncho Sanchez delights in telling.
Do It!, the latest in a long series of releases that began in 1982 for Concord
Picante, is no exception. "Its name is taken from the tune by our trombone
player Francisco Torres that was originally called 'Duet,'" Sanchez explains.
"It features a duet between the trombone and tenor sax. For a while, we
even called it 'Brothers Duet,' and then Francisco suggested we just call it
'Do It.' When we announce it at gigs, the audience starts yelling, 'Do it, do
it!' So, I said, 'Well, there it is. That has to be the title for the new CD!'"
Do It! is distinct, even by Sanchez's high standards. The album features on
two tracks the entire nine member Tower of Power, an iconic group that has become
a high-octane symbol of the funk era of the 1970s. Another two tracks boast
the presence of an equally legendary musician, South African Hugh Masekela.
Over the years, Sanchez has hand-picked guest artists who have had a special
role in shaping his growth as a musician, from trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and
saxophonist Eddie Harris, to Latin jazz patriarch Tito Puente, conga titan Mongo
Santamaria and the late Ray Charles. The guests invited to participate on Do
It! have been among Sanchez's favorites for decades. "I'm just doing the
things I grew up with and that I respect and really love," he adds. "It's
part of my life."
He was in high school, Sanchez recalls, when Hugh Masekela's "Grazing
in the Grass" became a hit. "But I was hip to him before that, through
his album The Emancipation of Hugh Masekela. On 'Grazing,' there was a sound
that my friends liked. They hadn't really understood why I dug him so much until
then, but when they heard this recording, they said, 'Wow, he is pretty cool.'
It was a way for me to get my friends to listen to his Emancipation album, which
was a little deeper." Sanchez first encountered Masekela at a festival
on the East Coast half a dozen years ago. Four years later the trumpeter was
featured as a guest with Sanchez's group at the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival
in Washington, D.C. That laid the groundwork for his participation on Do It!
A fan of Tower of Power since day one, Sanchez first met members of the group
when they shared the stage as part of an all-star band assembled for the eighth
anniversary of "The David Letterman Show." "That's when I actually
got to meet those guys, and I told Emilio Castillo, the tenor sax player and
leader, that we should do something together. About six years ago, they invited
me to play on one of their albums," he details, launching into another
story. "Then one day recently I got a call from Hal Gaba, the owner of
Concord Records, who said, 'Hey Poncho, you have to hear this track I'm listening
to on satellite radio.' He said he thought we should record it. So, he sent
me a recording of the song by a Japanese big band playing 'Squib Cakes.' I called
him and said, 'Yeah, that's good, but you know, that's a Tower of Power song,
so why don't we get their horn section to do it with us?'" When he told
Castillo that just the group's highly touted horn section would be needed, the
sax man responded, 'Hey man, what are the other members of the band going to
say when they find out the horns get to record with Poncho Sanchez and we don't?"
The story had a happy ending when the whole band was booked, making it the
largest assemblage of guest artists ever to participate on a Sanchez recording
date. Hanging out with Castillo also led to another bonus for the album. "Emilio
is hip to all of the old funk stuff," Sanchez states, "and he started
talking about Dyke and the Blazers, a funk band. Dyke was killed really young.
It was Emilio's idea to do one of those old tunes, so I had Francisco Torres
arrange 'Shotgun Slim' for the session."
The album includes a variety of styles that illustrate the leader's fondness
for traditional tropical Latin fare, jazz standards, R&B, and funk. On "Yo
Quisiera," co-composed by Sanchez and trombonist Torres, Poncho croons
in the best tradition of Tito Rodriguez and other storied vocalists. On Chano
Pozo's "Tin Tin Deo," a standard made famous by the late Dizzy Gillespie,
Sanchez revisits through a new arrangement a classic sound that had once been
prominent in the band's performances but had not been used in years. "We
always like to do a 6/8 tune," he explains, "so Duke Ellington's 'African
Flower' was a nice fit for this album. 'Together,' written by flautist Hubert
Laws, was introduced on an old Mongo Santamaria album from the 1960s, El Pussy
Today, Sanchez's life's story has become a well-known part of Latin jazz lore.
He was born in Texas on October 30, 1951 into a large Mexican-American family
(rumor has it that his 13-year old mother fled to the U.S. after hiding under
the bed as revolutionary Pancho Villa stormed her village), but grew up in the
Los Angeles area, where he was weaned on a broad range of Latin and non-Latin
popular music. Inspired by the conga playing of Cuban great Mongo Santamaria,
he honed his skills as a percussionist and broke into the limelight at the age
of 23 when he joined vibraphonist Cal Tjader's famed Latin jazz ensemble in
1975. Poncho performed with him until Tjader's untimely death in 1982. A year
later, he began his unprecedented 23-year relationship with Concord Records,
which has produced two dozen recordings, a GRAMMY® Award and several GRAMMY
"It's always worked for me and Concord," Sanchez says, describing
his unique, long-lasting relationship with the label that stands in contrast
to the experience of virtually all of his peers. Picante, in fact, celebrates
its 25-year anniversary in 2005, and the conguero has been part of the family
for much of that time. "In the beginning, owner Carl Jefferson would keep
an eye on us in the studio like a hawk, because he didn't want us wasting any
time and money," he laughs. Jeff, as the Concord founder was known, actually
introduced Poncho to Jim Cassell at the Berkeley Agency, who would become his
long-time manager, as well as John Burk. "I hung out with John, and he
was a nice guy," Sanchez recounts. "He played guitar and knew a lot
about music. Today, he's vice president of Concord Records, and I consider him
one of my best friends. The label never pushes me¯never tells me, 'Hey
Poncho, you need to do this or do that.' That's way I can just keep doing the
stuff I grew up listening to, like we've done on Do It! As far as I'm concerned,
it's still the best stuff there is!" Fans of Latin jazz and Poncho Sanchez
are likely to agree.