The Godfather of Latin Soul: Poncho Sanchez

Sanchez? new album fuses R&B and Latin jazz like in the old days

By Petra Davidson
Published on LatinoLA: August 29, 2003

The Godfather of Latin Soul: Poncho Sanchez

?Poncho can give you 15 minutes about an hour before he goes onstage,? the e-mail read. The show was the 2003 Long Beach Jazz Festival held at Rainbow Lagoon Park, a three-day event held August 8 through 10 on what had to be one of the hottest days this year.

Fifteen minutes may not seem like much, but the fact that the only media that day to get a one-on-one interview with one of today?s most successful Latin jazz artists was LatinoLA had even the folks in charge at the festival stumped. What I ended up with was a lot more than fifteen minutes of what seemed less like an interview than a friendly chat with a man who has great stories to tell, and Sanchez certainly did - about Latin jazz, about working with the late Celia Cruz, and what everyone waited to be introduced to that day: the music from his upcoming CD "Out of Sight!"

Finally Sanchez arrived backstage and I was taken to his trailer. Once inside, I was directed to a couch from where I studied the surprisingly unglamorous surroundings until Sanchez took a seat on a nearby chair. From outside, the bass of another band thumped through the thin walls and occasionally people came scurrying in and, noticing Poncho was busy, quickly out again as the world-famous conguero readied himself for his show.

Of course the first thing we talked about was "Out of Sight!"

Sanchez teamed up with, among others, Ray Charles to produce the type of boogaloo and shing-a-ling that was so popular during the ?60s in East Los Angeles. But it wouldn?t be a Poncho Sanchez album if he hadn?t added that special twist to it: the ?Poncho Sanchez style,? as he simply calls it.

?I?ve always wanted to put the two fusions together, the soul music with the Latin music, which I?ve been doing for years already,? Sanchez said as he explained the making of his new CD. ?But on this particular album I went all the way. I got Ray Charles as a guest and we did one of his old tunes he recorded in the ?50s called "Mary Ann."

?Then I did another very famous one, "One Mint Julep", and I invited the great Billy Preston on organ for that. And then I did "Hitch it to the Horse", and Sam Moore from Sam & Dave sings with me on that.?

Other artists Sanchez invited to work with him on "Out of Sight!" are Fred Wesley and Peewee Ellis, members of James Brown?s old band, and Cuban percussionist Francisco Aguabella who plays Batas on a tribute to the late Mongo Santamaria, a song called "El Tambor del Mongo".

It was a good thing I taped this conversation rather than taking notes because frankly, I was mesmerized just watching Sanchez preparing for the show. He seemed to concentrate on nothing else but the act of wrapping the tips of his fingers for when he would coax those incredible Sanchez sounds from his congas later on - a constant tearing and taping. His hands virtually flew through the motions while at the same time he was completely focused on our conversation. Only now and then he interrupted the activity and looked off into the distance as he pondered one thing or another, like his teaming up with Ray Charles: ?As far as I know, I?m the only real Latin jazz musician who has recorded with Ray Charles before.?

After the interview I joined my friends in our box seats and enjoyed some samples of that upcoming Latin jazz/R&B fusion Sanchez had described to me. The picture outside the trailer was suddenly a whole different world from when I had gone in: now the rows of chairs were jam-packed when up until then they had been occupied more sporadically. Servers carried food to the crowd in the filled-up VIP section where previously only a few photographers had made use of the empty chairs. Instead, those photographers now scrambled before the stage, pushing for the best spot to take a picture of Sanchez and his band.

And Sanchez? performance was every bit as exciting to us as it was to the thousands of visitors to the Jazz Festival who jumped out of their box seats or lawn chairs to turn the entire festival grounds into one big dance floor. Even the folks in the VIP section ignored their dinners and left their reserved seats to do some less reserved jamming to Sanchez? voice putting the funk into his rendition of "Out of Sight".

The rest of the one-hour performance that day Sanchez spent at his usual place behind his congas, performing some of his older songs as well as other highlights from his new CD like the Ray Charles classic "One Mint Julep" and the original composition "JB?s Strut", a tribute to James Brown.

Back to the trailer, though: I realized about 14 minutes into our conversation that Poncho Sanchez is not about to be constrained ? neither by some of the critics who don?t agree with the experiments he conducts with his music, nor by time limits. He still had a lot to tell. By then he was done taping his fingertips and just sat smiling, laughing and gesturing as if he was simply passing a little time before the show with a curious guest. And he not only answered questions with the patience of a saint but also confirmed himself as an incredibly friendly, charming and down-to-earth man. Of course, having been around the world with his band, one thing he had plenty to say about was his favorite subject -- Latin jazz -- and how its popularity is beginning to grow all across the world.

?We just got back from Japan,? he said. ?We just toured about eight cities in Japan. Two weeks before that we were in Europe, did three nights at the Blue Note in Milano, Italy, did a concert in Spain, and then we did a live DVD at the Montreal Jazz Festival in Switzerland.

?It?s been very good,? he said. ?Jazz has always been big in Japan. Ever since after the war Japanese people learned about jazz and they love jazz very much, but now they?re also learning about Latin jazz, and I?ve been going to Japan with my band for about the past 15 years. Before that, when it was Cal Tjader?s band, 25 years ago, Latin jazz wasn?t that popular. But now it?s starting to get popular little by little."

?In Europe, of course, they always loved jazz and now they?re also learning about Latin jazz. Europe is a little ahead of Japan in learning about Latin jazz. I?ve been a big fan of this music ever since I was a little boy and I remember when the British Invasion in the ?60s came to the US. It set jazz and Latin jazz behind ?cause everybody got into acid rock music, Jimi Hendrix, The Cream, and all that stuff, and nobody was paying attention to jazz anymore or Latin music.?

Sanchez? enthusiasm grew visibly as he talked about how Latino culture has become prevalent all over the world now, introducing Latin music to the people of other countries and picking up in recognition and appreciation here in the US. Of course having had the No. 1 Latin jazz CD in the country for two years in a row with record sales getting better all the time, Sanchez is doing his part to help Latin jazz become a hit.

?I?m glad to see Latin jazz has finally got its part in the world,? Sanchez went on. ?It?s great, ?cause Latino lifestyle and culture have so much "sabor", so many things to offer ? I?m proud to see that our culture crosses all barriers and goes all over the world now.?

I couldn?t have ended the interview without asking Sanchez to share some of his memories of the late Celia Cruz. Again, his expression changed ? it now reflected a soulful admiration as he searched through a treasure trove of memories about the queen of Latin music.

?I first played with Celia at Disneyland here in Anaheim,? he recalled. ?They hired the Disneyland Orchestra to back up Celia for several nights at Disneyland, and they needed a Latin rhythm section to complement the orchestra because the Disney Orchestra ? the piano player, drummer, bass player ? they didn?t know anything about Latin music.

?So they kept all the horn players but hired a Latin rhythm section, and they hired me to play congas, and that?s the first time I ever played with Celia and that must have been 25 years ago.

?When I met Celia ? man, she was beautiful! Just a beautiful person, old school, old tradition, and just a beautiful, warm person.?

It?s funny to think of Poncho Sanchez as a star-struck teenager, but Sanchez describes himself as just that during this first meeting with Celia: ?The very first time I played with her I took an old album, a classic Celia Cruz album, and it shows a picture of her with a big dress, real big, from a long time ago. And I showed it to her and asked her if she would sign it for me and she said ?Wow, Poncho ? where did you find this??

?She went: ?I think I was about 17 years old then.? And she showed it to her husband Pedro and he said ?Celia, that?s when I first met you.? And she signed it for me really nice. I treasure that.?

It?s what Sanchez recalled most fondly of Celia, that she was ?such a beautiful person, such a nice human being, as nice as her records. It?s nice to find out that an artist is just as nice as what you think of them, because there?s been artists ?? Sanchez laughed as he thought of some of the people he?s met throughout his career: ?I love their records and then I meet them and I go ?Man, they ain?t too cool?. It just puts a damper on everything.?

At that point, Sanchez got up to look for a sample CD to give to me and get the last of his things together before meeting up with his band. All the while he continued to answer questions and tell jokes because that?s just the way he is: Honest and real. He doesn?t need to concentrate on an interview ? he just does it. And despite being one of the greats in the business, he doesn?t need to be fussed over by an entourage before his performance. He shows up, gets ready and gives the crowd his all. And all the while, he?s nice. A really nice artist. And man, that IS cool.

The release party for "Out of Sight!" will be held September 9, 2003, at the Knitting Factory in Los Angeles. For ticket information call (323) 463-0204
For other local performances visit the official Poncho Sanchez site at http://www.ponchosanchez.com

For a review of the CD "Out of Sight!" go to: http://www.epinions.com/content_110014795396"

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