Photograph: Devin Dehaven
Poncho Sanchez turned pro in 1975, when Cal Tjader asked him to sit in with his band for one tune. Tjader hired Sanchez full time a week later, launching one of the most impressive careers in Latin jazz. Thirty-six years on, Sanchez is still living up to his nickname: El Conguero.
“That’s what they call me, and that’s what I do,” he says from his home in Los Angeles. “A lot of my heroes are gone — Ray Barretto, Mongo, Patato Valdes, Tata Güines. The only ones left are Candido and Armando Peraza. There are other younger guys as good as me, like Giovanni Hildago, who is incredible. He can play faster than I can think, but I don’t mind being El Conguero.”
On his latest album, Poncho Sanchez And Terence Blanchard — Chano Y Dizzy!, Sanchez pays tribute to the conguero that may be his biggest influence, the Afro Cuban pioneer Chano Pozo. By merging the rhythms of Cuba and the ethos of bebop, Pozo and Dizzy Gillespie invented the music known as Latin jazz.
“I’ve played the music of Chano and Dizzy all my life, with Cal [Tjader] and my own bands. With the exception of ‘Con Alma,’ ‘Groovin’ High,’ and ‘Ariñañara,’ I’ve played all the tunes on the record for over 30 years. My manager, Ivory Daniel, asked me why I’d never done a tribute album to Chano before, and I thought it was a great idea. I have a library of every arrangement I’ve ever played, along with CDs, LPs, cassettes, and videos of my performances. I went through them and made some new arrangements for the tunes. My trumpet player, Francisco Torres, the band’s musical director, came up with some excellent arrangements. He suggested the medley of ‘Tin Tin Deo,’ ‘Guachi Guaro,’ and ‘Manteca’ that we use to open the record. We started playing it at our live shows, to see how it would go over, and got a phenomenal response.”
Early in his career, Sanchez played a few dates with Gillespie, nights that still resonate with him. “He was the best, man,” Sanchez recalls. “A generous cat. I met him in 1978 or so, when I was with Tjader. He asked me if he could borrow my conga. ‘Dizzy wants to borrow my conga? Sure, man, no problem.’ He said he needed it for one song and asked me to tune it real high for him. He used it to do a demonstration of Cuban rhythms with this rhythm stick he had, with beads and chimes all over it and a little tambourine and shekere attached to it. In the middle of his set, he did a little conga-and-rhythm-stick interlude. He wasn’t a conga player, but he knew his rhythms.
“On my first solo tour with my own band, we played a festival in Sardinia, Italy. Dizzy and Arturo Sandoval played with us. Cal had just passed and I was having a rough time with that, as well as being the main guy in the band, making the payroll and all that stuff. I was nervous, and just before I went on stage, Dizzy pulled me aside and said, ‘You’re in the jazz family. You belong on this stage.’ I found out later that my manager had asked him to encourage me, but Dizzy giving me the okay meant a lot to me.”
As the preparation for the album began, Sanchez considered a few trumpet players, but Blanchard was his first choice. “I met [Blanchard] at the New Orleans Heritage and Jazz Festival years ago. He was on my Latin Spirits and Soul Of The Conga albums, so I asked him if he’d like to do another project and some shows with us. Last month, we did a press conference for the North Sea Jazz Festival and a reporter asked him how he felt about the Chano Y Dizzy project. He said: “Poncho is a serious musician. If he does something, it’s going to be gooood. If he asked me to do a Sonny and Cher record, I’d do it cause I know he’d do it right.” Sanchez laughs. “I’m never doing a Sonny and Cher record, by the way, but it’s like a big party when we do shows with Terence.”
With Blanchard on board, Sanchez and his crew set about choosing tunes for the project, not an easy task considering the many standards Pozo and Gillespie composed. “I asked Terence if he wanted to write something, but he said, ‘No, I know you’re gonna pick the s__t!’ [The band] works by rehearsing the arrangements in the studio, playing them in concert, then changing what doesn’t work. We recorded the rehearsals and gigs and sent them to Terence on mp3s so he could keep up with what we were doing. By the time he came to the studio, we were ready to go. He brought along a bolero arrangement of ‘Nocturna,’ an Ivan Lins tune. Ron [Blake, the band’s trumpet player] suggested ‘Siboney.’ I don’t think Dizzy ever did it, but it fit the overall vibe of the record and Ron did a great arrangement. He trades solos with Terence on the track that made me say, ‘Damn!’”
The band rehearsed the charts once a week for about six weeks. If Sanchez wanted to change a section, he’d critique the charts or maybe decide to change a few parts after they’d played it through. There was a lot of trial and error getting to the finished product. In between, they played the arrangements live, some of them faster or slower, to see the crowd’s reaction. “That’s the process I’ve followed on all my records,” Sanchez says.