About Poncho Sanchez
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 Cat."
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 nominations.
"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.