“You really have to think and breathe. It’s about relaxing and really thinking and playing. It opens up, you wait, and then the rhythm comes back.
“It’s all about silence and waiting and beauty.”
Meeting him for the first time, you might take note of Sammy Figueroa’s stance — a stance that suggests the physique of a bull, his low center of gravity giving new meaning to the word gravitas. And then, perched behind his set of congas, he becomes the perfect picture of a musician at one with his instrument.
The setting was a New York recording studio last spring, the occasion for Figueroa’s above thoughts coming from the joyous collaborations he was experiencing with other musicians, seeing and hearing what they were creating together. The inspiration was the early ’60s Spanish tinge of Miles Davis’ music with Gil Evans — Bob Belden’s Miles Español — but Figueroa could have been talking about his own recent efforts in the studio, recording Urban Nature, his third album as a leader.
“It’s all about freedom,” the 62-year-old percussion master says during that New York break. “It’s just like the old days, where you became more creative in the studio than actually planning. It’s not about planning; it’s about playing. You sit here and you’ve got all these great musicians together, and you already have an idea. But the idea begins to expand more and more as you’re sitting there. It’s like science — you never know what’s going to happen. You don’t see recordings like this anymore. Normally, they’re really prerehearsed. They’re in and out of there. But when you have so many creative people working together, it becomes more like an event, a creative process. That’s what makes it so exciting.” Incidentally, some of those “creative people” happen to include Davis alums like Chick Corea, Jack DeJohnette, and Ron Carter, as well as fellow percussion greats such as Alex Acuña, Adam Rudolph, and Luisito Quintero.
But the scene has shifted, from New York to Miami, via a stopover in Europe. Figueroa has just returned from another whirlwind tour of that continent as a (return) member of Sonny Rollins’ latest band, the musical injection of the jazz legend’s influence no doubt reinvigorating Figueroa’s penchant for the continual jazz accent on his deep Latin music roots.
“The trip was extremely successful,” he recalls from the comfort of his Miami home. “You know, Sonny is 80 years old; I don’t know how he does it. Music keeps him alive. Because, at that age, god, he’s stronger than all of us. He now looks like a guru from India, like a high spiritual master. As eccentric as he is, he’s a very wise person. So being around him is a lot of fun, because you never know what to expect from him.”
Surprises seem to be a regular, and welcome, part of Figueroa’s life. A Bronx native, he got used to the flexibility of the freelance musician’s life early on, following in his father, Charlie’s, footsteps as a singer, eventually moving over to percussion as a late teen. By that time the singer had already immersed himself in his Puerto Rican roots backing musicians who would have a lasting influence on him, among them The Fania All-Stars and Bobby Valentin. But it was exposure to vibist Cal Tjader with conga player Bill Fitch soon after that that did him in.
A fortuitous trip back to New York City as a percussionist, and a job running the jazz department at a Manhattan Sam Goody record store, resulted in Figueroa meeting another music great, flautist Herbie Mann. Mann would go on to offer him a job as a percussionist, and the rest, as they say, is history. Now touring, the young Figueroa landed gigs with, among other groups, Average White Band, The Brecker Brothers, and John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra. From there, it was only a hop, skip, and a cha cha to work with Chaka Khan, Al Jarreau, Van Halen, and Miles Davis, among what has become countless others. And that’s when he wasn’t working in the new Saturday Night Live band or with Paul Schaffer for David Letterman. Indeed, you could say Herbie Mann was the link to that unpredictable, surprising, freewheeling turn of events for Sammy Figueroa that also found him in and out of recording studios at a sometimes frenetic pace year after year. As he puts it, “I was successful, and busy, because I became known as the guy who knew how to play that groove.”
It’s a wonder he kept his head.