In the wake of those busy yet sometimes scattered ’70s and ’80s, Figueroa realized there was more to music than playing it. Fast-forward to the present, where we find Figueroa working with someone he met at the tail end of those crazy times, forming a time-tested musical partnership that’s lasted to this day. Eventually creating Faro Figueroa Productions with producer Rachel Faro in the early ’90s, the duo’s association has been a bedrock of both their careers.
“I met Sammy in late 1989 at a benefit for [jazz impresario] Pat Mikell at Tramps,” Faro recalls. “I was introduced to him by my dear friend [guitarist] Robben Ford.” Originally a singer/songwriter signed to RCA Records, Faro began composing and supervising documentary soundtracks and that evolved into a career as a record producer. “When I met Sammy,” she says, “I had already produced Odetta, Bobby Sanabria, and Eddie Palmieri, among others, and had begun to get deeply involved in Cuban music, including producing an album with the Cuban band Mezcla.”
But Faro was actively seeking a production partner who really knew the music and the culture, one who could speak the language and who could relate to the players more directly. That partner became Sammy Figueroa. During this period of the ’90s, Figueroa and Faro coproduced several albums, including two albums by the Cuban a capella group Vocal Sampling, Fania All-Star Yomo Toro, orisha songs set to modern instrumentation with Lazaro Ros con Mezcla, and the Cuban fusion band Cuarto Espacio. This led to Faro forming the Ashe record label in 1998 with Rounder Records, with Figueroa doing A&R and bringing in some great music. A short while later, Figueroa moved to Los Angeles while Faro moved to Miami to continue with the label. In 2001, Figueroa said he wanted to leave L.A., and Faro suggested he try Miami. Figueroa said yes.
Since moving to Miami, Figueroa has thrived. “When Sammy arrived he was a big fish in a small pond,” Faro remembers, “and one of the greatest musicians in the area. He was also playing differently: No longer the consummate accompanist, he was now telling a story on the congas every time he played, as if he was singing through his hands. It seemed pretty obvious that he was ready to form his own band and be a leader as he now had his own voice. Sammy arrived in Miami at a very good time to start a band. The area is full of amazing players from Venezuela, Cuba, Brazil, Colombia, and Argentina who have never lived in New York but are just as good as New York players.”
“... And Sammy Walked In was my first solo album,” Figueroa says, reflecting on those early days as a leader. “Being a backup musician for so many artists and recording with a lot of people is totally different than being a leader. Being a leader is somebody handing you the keys to the building, and then people are calling you because there’s a broken window. I didn’t know how to do that, and I did it totally wrong. So it took me a while to learn how to be a leader. But the first record was what I call ‘tears and sweat,’ because we worked for a year putting it together, piece-by-piece. It was a labor of true love at the beginning, when you’re doing your first album, when you put your heart and soul into it. And what came out was what came out, but I didn’t think it was going to go that far. So when it got nominated for a Grammy, I was shocked.”
That was 2005, with an album essentially made up of cover tunes played with his new Latin Jazz Explosion sextet. In 2007, Figueroa’s second album as a leader, The Magician (also Grammy-nominated for Best Latin Jazz Album), had a slight change of personnel. “That album had beautiful melodies, but at the same time it was Latin,” Figueroa says. “When we got in the studio, the musicians brought these amazing tunes, and we started rehearsing them, and they just got better and better. And when we did them live on the gig, the people went nuts. I thought, ‘So now we got a better album that has originality, and is closer to what we’re looking for in the original idiom. Because when you do the first one, the first one is always the one that’s the experiment for the second, and the second for the third.”
“The first band was more Cuban-oriented,” says Faro, “with [keyboardist] Mike Orta and [bassist] Nick Orta and [recording engineer] Carlos Averhoff. Sammy has always admired Venezuelan music and musicians and the current band has a much stronger Venezuelan influence with [pianist] Silvano Monasterios and [bassist] Gabriel Vivas. But both bands always have had the Nuyorican and serious jazz influence that Sammy brings to them. Both bands are breathtaking in their virtuosity, which is accomplished but also emotional, not so conceptual. Sammy and his music are more on the jazz side than the Latin side. I call it Yellowjackets with rice and beans. It’s Latin jazz in the ultimate sense of the word.”
“The new album, Urban Nature, is similar to The Magician, but with even more original tunes,” says Figueroa. “Urban Nature is taking it more to the original idiom we wanted to go, because we started becoming a real band, getting tighter and tighter as we played. So now, this third album is based on all the experiences of the last two with more body to it, more originality, more experience; it’s more mature.
“We did do a Mongo Santamaria tune,” he adds, “that I’ve been wanting to do for years since I was a kid called ‘Cuco y Olga.’ It was recorded back in 1963, and it’s a really Latin, Latin, Latin tune; it’s like a salsa tune without the vocals. And I thought it’d be a good idea to stick it in there for the older people when they listen to it, that they hear that it’s real tipico.” In addition to Monasterios and Vivas, other musicians on Urban Nature include New York trumpeter Alex Norris (a former University Of Miami professor), drummer Nomar Negroni, and tenor and soprano saxophonist John Michalak, a longtime bandmate of Figueroa’s. On selected cuts, special guests include pianist Mike Orta, Ed Calle on tenor saxophone, and Venezuelan percussionist Jose Gregorio Hernandez.
Commenting on the work of producing these records, Faro notes, “I’ve worked closely with Sammy on all of his albums. I’ve done most of the actual production, working with the engineer on the sessions, the mixing, the sequencing, the mastering. But Sammy has very high standards and knows exactly what works and what doesn’t. For Urban Nature [which Figueroa and Vivas coproduced], we went for a very live, organic sound, recording at Afterhours Studio in North Miami with engineer Hal Batt. The studio has a great old Neve [mixing console] that used to belong to the Bee Gees and an acoustically designed room with a great collection of mikes. We aimed for the same relaxed, accomplished feel that the band shows on their gigs, with a warm, almost predigital sound.”