Latin Jazz Roundtable
Despite the fact that conguero Poncho Sanchez has won a Grammy award, two Billboard awards, and received more accolades and merits than he has walls to display them on, some things never change. Most notably, people just can’t seem to get his name right.
“It’s pronounced, ‘Pone-choh,’” the 55-year-old Sanchez says with a smile as wide as the conga drums a few feet away in his spacious home studio, a comfortable blend of personal memorabilia, a lifelong collection of compact discs and LPs (thousands, organized by genre, then artist, and separated by record store artist cards), and all the audio and video technology needed to put the room’s plush leather couches to good use. Make no mistake – he’s not bitter. In fact, if not for the insistence of jazz and classical composer and impresario Clare Fischer, Sanchez might be known as “Pancho” to this day.
“My name was actually spelled wrong on my first three Cal Tjader albums, and he even used to announce me as ‘Pancho Sanchez’ on stage. But I was so excited to even be playing with Cal, I didn’t want to correct him,” recalls Sanchez with a laugh. “Clare insisted I tell him that my name should be pronounced the proper way, and Cal got it right ever since. People spell it the right way now, but they still don’t always say it correctly: ‘Pancho’ is a guy’s name, it means ‘Frank.’ ‘Poncho’ is the raincoat, but it’s also the nickname my parents gave me as a child.”
Joined by timbalero George Ortiz and bongocero Joey De Leön, Sanchez launches into a boisterous round of stories about the colorful Clare Fischer. Any noticeable difference in age between the three bandmates quickly fades, revealing a mutual respect and musical bond, and a friendship that has clearly been nurtured by their seemingly nonstop touring schedule. Though De Leön’s only been in the fold for a year – Ortiz has been in the band for six, and even that is a mere blink of an eye alongside bassist Tony Banda, who’s been playing with Sanchez for nearly 30 years – his impact has been immediate, as DRUM! learned when we joined the trio at casa Sanchez to discuss the new release, Raise Your Hand. Sanchez’s 22nd album for the Concord Picante label is an ambitious amalgam of styles that features guest performances by the likes of R&B legends Eddie Floyd, Booker T. Jones, and Steve Cropper, funk and soul saxophonist Maceo Parker, and Salsa vocalists Andy Montañez and José “Perico” Hernández.DRUM!: Before we get into the new album, how did you guys start playing with Poncho?
ORTIZ: I started with Poncho six years ago, but I grew up knowing about him. I come from a musical family and am the youngest of seven brothers, all musicians. Poncho knew my brothers, liked our family band, Son Mayor, and he would come around to see us. I didn’t even start playing with my brothers’ band until I was 16, but when I was 10 or 11, living in West Long Beach, my brothers already had the band and they would hang around at Poncho’s soundchecks to try and meet him and get autographs and stuff. One of my brothers had subbed for Poncho a little, and from checking out our band and seeing me play bongos, he asked me to sub for a show, then asked me if I wanted the gig.
DE LEÖN: I’d gotten to know Poncho little by little over the years, and he had a change in the band in the summer of 2006 and asked me to come and do a few dates in Alaska, which was funny because it was the only state I hadn’t been to. So we went up to Alaska and it was cold, but it was warm because I felt the warmth of everybody. The fact that I knew all these guys already and we had a relationship was a plus. It was just a matter of getting to know who I am, hanging out, and sharing experiences.
SANCHEZ: This is one of the hardest working bands in the world. I’m not trying to pat myself on the back, but it’s known that this band works more than anybody in the world in Latin jazz. So if I’m going to get a guy in the band who’s going to travel all over the world, make records, and do all the stuff we do, he’s got to be one of the best guys there is in Los Angeles, which ends up being one of the best guys in the world. I’ve known George ever since he was a little boy. I’ve seen him grow as he’s played. He plays great bongos and he’s got a good concept of where everything’s at – the groove. I pay attention to where people are at on stage, how they play with other people, because some people are really great, but when you put them together they’re not really great because they want to show off. I’m not looking for that, I’m looking for a team player. I just knew Joey a couple of years before he got in the band, and we weren’t great friends, but I’d seen him all around town playing with different bands and he’d be really cordial and nice to me. All of that counts. If somebody has the big ego and tries to impress too much, or they act like the rest of us are nobody, that doesn’t work in a band. Joey was always very nice, really professional, then I’d see him on stage having a good time, smiling, talking to people, playing, and that counts too. Joey’s really taken it up a notch, he’s an asset to the band – as well as George; it’s the same for the two of them – but Joey sits there right next to me at the front of the stage, and he’s smiling, singing, doing his thing, and everyone reacts.
DE LEÖN: It’s great. We can communicate on stage without even saying a word, doing it through our hands, where every stroke is meaningful. We’re always looking out for each other.
SANCHEZ: Especially us three, we play off each other all the time.
ORTIZ: It’s like a party up there on stage.
DE LEÖN: It is. It’s a party. That’s our banner, I think. We have to take care of business, but we also have the business of making people laugh and making people have fun. That’s a two-way street, connecting with the audience and going back and forth.DRUM!: Does adding new blood to the band help the chemistry by shaking things up?
SANCHEZ: Yeah, a little bit. The old cats have been in the band for a while, and it’s a good thing, like family, it gets real comfortable. But when a new guy comes in, like Joey, it’s cool because he has a new style, a new way to do things, and it keeps our blood young because we find new ways to mix and match our spots. Also, just to hang, it’s cool because I’m still learning about the new guys. So it’s a great thing musically, and hanging.
DE LEÖN: I would hope that these guys enjoy playing with me as much as I enjoy playing with them, because we need to compliment each other. It’s a team thing; he’s the boss, but he also gives us enough leeway and has enough trust in us to say, “You guys know what I like, so just give it to me.”
ORTIZ: Plus, if someone you’re playing with has a negative vibe, it’s infectious.
DE LEÖN: It’s poison.
ORTIZ: They’re on stage vibing, and you can’t get into what you want to get into – they’re in your head. At the opposite end, we have to calm down sometimes we have so much fun. What you see us like on stage? We’re the same off stage, and it definitely helps a lot.
SANCHEZ: Some people say that they just hire the best musicians that they can find and just play, but this band’s not just like that; this band hangs.
DE LEÖN: That’s a great feeling to want to see your guys again. It’s all family.
SANCHEZ: But nobody takes advantage of that relationship either. We have a tune on this [new] record with a trumpet and sax player, “Gestation.” It’s a 6/8 song, but then it goes into 3/4, and I don’t play a lot of 3/4. I was playing this one little part that lasted about six bars in the 6/8 part, and it just didn’t feel right.
DE LEÖN: It’s kind of like a waltz.
SANCHEZ: Yeah, and it just felt funny to me. We ran a dry run on it and it just didn’t feel right. George, really cool, asked the guys to give him a minute, so they started talking about the music or something and he walked across to me and said, “Poncho, you know that one part there, it’s in threes so it’s weird. I think if you slap it right before you start that pattern you do, it’ll line it up better.” I said, “Can you show me?” He showed me, I tried it, and that nailed it.
DE LEÖN: That’s class.
SANCHEZ: He didn’t go, “Hey Poncho, your part’s not cool!” He could have said something in front of everyone because we’re family, but that shows what kind of respect he has, you know what I’m saying?DRUM!: Let’s talk about Raise Your Hand. What was your approach heading into this record?
SANCHEZ: This is record number 22 with Concord. For this record, I had some ideas for some stuff I wanted to do. I love salsa, which involves singing in Spanish. I love authentic, straight-up Latin jazz, which involves bebop jazz, Latin jazz, and salsa. And I love soul music from the ’60s – I grew up with all that. Those have all worked very well for me and I wanted to do more with all of that. John Burk told me that Concord had just bought Fantasy records, and I did records with Cal Tjader on Fantasy. John also told me that the Stax, Riverside, and Prestige catalogs came with Fantasy, and that we can do anything with the Stax Records stuff. I said, “Booker T And The MGs is cool, can you get me his number?” I’d shared a bus in Italy with Booker T, Steve Cropper, and Eddie Floyd like, 20 years ago, and when I called him and said I wanted to do “Raise Your Hand,” he thought it was cool. Then I asked him if he thought Steve Cropper would be into it, so I called him down in Alabama or something, and everyone was so cool. I sent them CDs of a few of our rehearsals – we changed the songs a little bit, it was more of a Latin groove – and then they came down and started to hang with us, which was great because they’ve all got their own look and style.
SANCHEZ: I don’t like to rehearse. I like to be right here, you know what I mean? [laughs] I like to be at home, chilling. Rehearsal? That means I’ve got to tell people what to do! If they need me …
DE LEÖN: … We just tell him that we’re having a barbecue!
SANCHEZ: [laughs]I Love my barbecue, man! We do rehearse as a band before we go into the studio, because we’re still one of the bands that records the old way. I have to record with the whole band in there, live. We have separate booths, rooms, and partitions from each other, but it’s important to me that everybody can see each other, so we have to be in one of the big rooms in town, and I’ve got to be in the middle so I can see everybody and everybody else can see me and each other. It’s also got to have a lot of wood in there, because I like the sound of natural wood. It’s just like a live gig. That’s how we record.DRUM!: So there isn’t a lot of overdubbing?
SANCHEZ: No, we don’t do that much. We just overdub the vocals, and like maracas, small stuff. The main meat we’re doing live, then we overdub the vocals later.
ORTIZ: I think the big difference between the studio and live is that when you’re in the studio you’ve got mikes up your … everywhere! [laughs] and that’s when you’re going to hear it. That’s not the business part of the music, but you’ve got to get down to business because everyone in the world is going to be listening to the record. It’s a little more serious because live, at a gig, we can do a lot more.
SANCHEZ: There’s a lot more freedom.
DE LEÖN: You put in any album you want, and Poncho has a style of playing that you know is Poncho. Our job is to let him do his thing and we back him up. He’ll make a call, I’ll hit something out, and when it all comes together, it definitely works.DRUM!: Is everything note-by-note and structured in the studio, or is there flexibility within the arrangements?
SANCHEZ: Oh no, there’s a lot. We rehearse the general tunes and run it down, but once we get in the studio, solos are open, that’s when you open up and do your thing. We learn the general tune, work on some stuff and hit it. It’s usually the first or second take that I keep. If I do a fourth take, that’s a lot for me – one or two, maybe a third for insurance, that’s it, and it’s usually the first or the second that we go with. That’s what this music’s about, you just hit it a few times and see what comes out.DRUM!: Poncho, how involved in the recording process are you?
SANCHEZ: I’m there for everything, from recording to mixing and mastering. But I’ve used the same guys for my last five records, and I’m best friends with John Burk, the vice president of the record label, so everybody knows my style. They know if I think there will be too much echo or whatever. Sometimes there are spots that need to be cleaned up or added. Like on this last record Raise Your Hand there were maracas and bells and stuff, and I just called Joey and he came in and did it all. Before, I used to do all that; but Joey does such a good, quick job of it, it’s great.
SANCHEZ: That’s an interesting question because we’re a band that travels all over the world all the time. You would think that would be the case but it’s not, and even promoters make that mistake. This band plays for every color and every shape and I get a kick out of that. For us, of course – New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Puerto Rico – all the places you would think are very big markets, are. The ones that are interesting and surprising are the ones you wouldn’t expect, places like Fayetteville, Arkansas. We just went to Taiwan for the first time and they told us we were the first Latin jazz band to ever play there. I was really nervous that they weren’t going to know who we are, but we did pretty good. The first night there weren’t that many people, but the second night was packed, and they even got up and danced. They’re very respectful there, they just clap really fast right after the song, then stop, and they’re very quiet when you’re playing because they don’t want to interrupt you. It’s different, but I like to play places like that because they’re never what you expect them to be. We’ve been blessed with this band; we’ve done pretty good in all the locations we’ve hit.DRUM!: If you weren’t doing music professionally what do you think you’d be doing now?
DE LEÖN: I was pursuing the restaurant business. When I went to college I paid for school working at restaurants, starting as a busboy, then waiter, and I started to get really serious about getting into the managerial side. I took a break from music because I was burned out and felt like I needed to experience outside life for those four years. I went through that, then ended up taking a left turn and coming back. I come from a long history of musicians in my family, especially on my father’s side. My dad played for an important group in New York City in the ’70s, when the salsa craze was really big, Bobby Rodriquez …
SANCHEZ: Bobby Rodriguez y La Compañia, I have the records with Joey’s dad playing on them right there [pointing to his wall of CDs and LPs]. And when I first got George in the band, he was a paramedic.
ORTIZ: I was an EMT at an emergency room in Long Beach. I was there working trauma and ER. I was working and playing music, and that’s when Poncho called me. I was trying to juggle both for awhile, but it wasn’t working. Somebody who worked at the hospital went to a gig and saw me playing and the next time they saw me at the hospital, they were like, “Why are you even working here?” But I really did like it. It’s not for everyone, but I really liked the atmosphere. After a while I just made the decision to stick to the music.
SANCHEZ: Even when I was already, so to speak, Poncho Sanchez, I had day jobs. I had five records out and a Grammy nomination, and I still had to go drive a liquor truck. I had a family. I used to work in a foundry, hard work, even when I was doing this professionally. I’ve been married to my wife for 35 years this year, and she was with me when I didn’t have a pot to piss in, and we didn’t have anything and barely made rent. This didn’t all come easy, and it wasn’t always this nice.