He’s the best Latin jazz musician you may never have heard of. But while Poncho Sánchez might not have the household-name recognition of some of his colleagues, he sure does have the chops.
Born in Laredo, TX in 1951, Sánchez wanted to be a guitarist and singer while he was growing up in California. He had a penchant for R&B, and served as lead singer for a band called The Halos. But he loved the sounds of Latin jazz drumming pioneer Tito Puente, so he tried his hand at drums and timbales while still a teen. That was also when he fell in love with the conga drums, which have been his signature instrument ever since.
Among his other favorite musicians were trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and vibraphonist Cal Tjader. He was thrilled when Tjader invited him to sit in with his band in 1975, and astounded when Tjader hired him as his full-time conguero (conga player)!
One thing Sánchez is known for by both fans and critics is his consistency. For decades he’s been churning out albums on the Concord Picante label, and they’re all top quality. If you need to get those hips and feet moving, scroll down and click “play.” And enjoy these eight great tracks by Poncho Sánchez.
In this recording from just before the launch of Sánchez’s solo career, he’s playing as part of Clare Fischer’s Latin Sound. In fact, Sánchez is billed on the album with his real first name, Ildefonso. He’s covering congas, bongos, and other percussion.
Fischer was a bandleader who played electric keyboard and organ, so there’s a heavy leaning toward keyboard sounds on this track, with the soprano line often doubled on flute by David Acuña. Sánchez’s percussive sounds are tight and light, showing off the precision and energy that have come to define his style. (The fun guitar solo is by Rick Zunigar.)
Charlie Otwell’s Latin touch at the keyboard style was a better match for Sánchez than what Clare Fischer had to offer. Fortunately, pianist and percussionist found each other early on, and Otwell appeared on many of Sánchez’s recordings. For one thing, Otwell seems to have been happy in an equal role, so the balance of instruments is better. He was also a skilled composer, as you can hear on this track.
“Ahora” (“Now”) has an easy-going syncopation. You’ll hear some fine trumpet playing by Steve Huffsteter, but the main draw is the percussion section: Sánchez is now focused exclusively on congas, David Romero plays bongos, and Ramon Banda (who died earlier this year) is on timbales.
- “Papa Gato”
Yes, this column is about music, but I can’t talk about this album without acknowledging the world-class cover painted by Tom Burgess. Great jazz-album art is its own breathtaking genre.
Besides conga, Sánchez is also playing the higher-pitched bata drums on this album. The rest of the percussion team is the same as that for Bien Sabroso!, but the brass personnel is different, most notably Justo Almario on alto and tenor sax as well as flute.
This is another Charlie Otwell tune. Sánchez was lucky to have him providing ideal material. That “Papa Gato” is one cool cat.
- “It Could Happen to You”
Over the decades, Sánchez has laid down many tunes written by or for him, but that doesn’t mean he’s avoided standards. “It Could Happen to You” is a song by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke, first sung by Dorothy Lamour onscreen in 1944, in the musical And the Angels Sing. It became an instant favorite, and it’s been recorded by countless singers.
For the instrumental arrangement on this album, the Sánchez ensemble gives it a light salsa touch. The brass chorus is smooth, with that wonderful percussion trio of Sánchez/Romero/Banda providing an almost silky texture.
- “Watermelon Man”
If you live in Germany, you may have heard this one on a TV commercial. Sánchez has reported that he and Herbie Hancock, who wrote this song for his Blue Note LP Takin’ Off, enjoyed “fat royalty checks” for a while.
But for those of us who didn’t get bombarded with it during ad breaks, this is “Watermelon Man.” It’s definitely a case where the arrangement is so convincing that you can hardly believe it was ever played in another style. And stick around for the bongo/conga duet starting at 3:05. (And don’t be alarmed by the YouTube commenter lamenting the loss of the great Poncho Sánchez, who is alive and well at this writing!)
- “Listen Here/Cold Duck Time”
At long last, Sánchez won a Grammy Award in 2000, and it was for this album. He didn’t do anything he hadn’t done before, but somehow this one finally got the attention the ensemble was due.
The medley “Listen Here/Cold Duck Time” are tunes by sax player Eddie Harris (who does not appear on the album. Of special note is the bass-playing of Tony Banda, brother of timbales player Ramon. Another appealing aspect, true of the whole album, is the energy from the live performance – resonating both onstage and from the audience.
- “Willie Bobo Medley”
Despite the name of this album, Psychedelic Blues is the usual mambo/salsa with a bop edge that Sánchez has always played. Of course Sánchez plays conga on this record, but he also sings.
The songs in this medley are by Willie Bobo, a Harlem-born percussionist specializing in Afro-Cuban music. Bobo died in 1983. Sánchez is a great Bobo admirer, and has recorded a number of his tunes over the years. The vividly named tunes are “I Don’t Know,” “Fried Neck Bones and Some Home Fries,” and “Spanish Grease.”
The ensemble is almost twice the size that Sánchez normally works with, giving the arrangement endless layers of texture. But somehow it still doesn’t sound frenetic. Everyone’s sitting in the same groove.
- “Blue Train”
After all this time, Sánchez is still making records, if less frequently now. And he’s still with Concord Picante. That length of association is rare in the recording industry. Concord obviously knows a solid investment; Sánchez hopefully feels their appreciation in his contract.
The newest Sánchez album is a tribute to John Coltrane, a musician he learned to admire when he was just a kid, hearing jazz on the radio. In the liner notes, he describes being 11 years old and admiring the album Coltrane in a record store for months while he saved up enough money to buy it.
Some of the tracks are composed by Sánchez, but he also brings a Latin feel to Coltrane classics, including “Blue Train.”