Listening to Sammy Figueroa tell his life story is like being led, blindfolded, through the back alleys of some exotic foreign city. What hits your ears conjures vivid images of forgotten eras and the exploits of legendary figures set against extraordinary backdrops. A discourse on the sonic healing techniques of long-dead European alchemists connects with tales of late-night romps with a young John Belushi, which merges into Jaco Pastorius’ manic-depressive meltdowns. Down bustling side corridors you’ll stumble upon a half-century worth of memories – scenes from tiny clubs and festival stages, from towns and cities all across the globe, populated by the likes of Steve Gadd, Miles Davis, David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Aretha Franklin, Joe Cocker, Herbie Mann – always with Figueroa off in some corner, happily keeping time. What this 59 year old has seen from his vantage point behind a percussion rig could fill volumes. But the story begins with a simple, cautionary tale; a recent anecdote that illustrates how tenuous the music profession can be, even for a seasoned veteran.
At 3:00 A.M. one morning last August, Figueroa rolled out of bed into the clammy pre-dawn chill of his Florida condo, hours before his flight was set to leave for Venezuela. He was looking forward to joining an assembly of top-notch jazz artists in Bolivar, big names like Chick Corea and Mike Stern, who, like him, would be coming from all over to play a festival on the lush banks of the Rio Orinoco. Just as Figueroa was about to leave, the phone rang. It was the concert’s organizer.
“I said, ‘Yeah, Leo, I’m on my way to the airport right now.’ He said, ‘Well don’t go, because it’s cancelled.’ He cancelled me walking out the door.” Figueroa lets out an incredulous belly laugh. As it turned out, the promoter in Venezuela – a novice organizer with limited funds and an overabundance of sugarplum visions of holding a jazz show in the jungle – had purchased one-way tickets for all of the invited artists. “Could you imagine being in the middle of the Amazon and not having any way to get home?”
It fell to this hapless American liaison to announce the cancellation of the epic musical event. “This poor guy must have been totally destroyed,” Figueroa says. “I could hear in his voice how upset he was.” Still, Figueroa had been planning for the Rio Orinoco festival for a month, and had cancelled a well-paying gig with Dave Grusin and John Patitucci in L.A. to attend. He also knew what came next. “I said, ‘Well Leo, I’m sorry but you’re going to have to pay me everything, because I’m not going to accept a third or a half or nothing.’ And once I knew that I was going to get paid no matter what, I took my clothes off and went back to bed,” he laughs. “I mean what are you going to do? There’s nothing you can do.”
Figueroa learned long ago to take gigs as they come … or go. He’s been freelancing his talents ever since his days growing up in the Bronx, first as a singer, like his father, and then as a percussionist.
As a teenager, he followed his ethnic roots back to Puerto Rico, where he spent several years flexing his vocal chords behind popular Puerto Rican bands, including those of Bobby Valentin and other members of the Fania All-Stars. “Really, I didn’t get into percussion until I was 19 or 20, really late in my life,” he says. “I saw a video of [vibist] Cal Tja, and I saw this guy playing congas, Bill Fitch, and he blew me away. And I said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ Bill turned my head around. I saw him playing shaker with his left hand, and congas with his right hand. And this was back in the ’60s – can you imagine?”
For years, Figueroa had been amassing an impressive record collection, which would serve as his instructional bedrock long before he ever laid his hands on a set of congas. “I was listening to nothing but Miles, and Freddie Hubbard, and Claire Fischer, and Bill Fitch, and Charlie Parker, and listening to Warren Marsh, and really eccentric musicians,” he says. “And when The Beatles came out in the ’60s I sort of wasn’t interested in The Beatles. I was so lost listening to Freddie Hubbard and those guys, and they blew me away to such a degree that I thought, ‘How could anything be better?’”
The restless course of Figueroa’s career suggests that question wasn’t merely a hypothetical one. And as good as his tenure with Valentin in Puerto Rico was, he began longing for New York, for the opportunity he’d left behind. When he found a band headed that way, he didn’t hesitate to sign on. “I came to New York with a free ticket with a really terrible band,” he says. “They were sort of a little clubby wedding band. And I said, ‘This is my free ticket out of here.’ And I wound up in a club called the Piedmont Inn in Scarsdale, New York, in this area where a lot of rich Germans live when they’re retired. The guy hired us for a month, a whole 30 days in that club, playing every day, with Elvis Presley uniforms. It was the corniest thing I’ve ever seen and ever done in my life. After singing with all these great bands!”
As soon as the 30-day stint ended, Figueroa was gone. He headed straight for the heart of the city and landed in a tiny room in some seedy Manhattan hotel. “It was all prostitutes and pimps,” he remembers, and it almost burned to the ground with him in it. But he managed to get a job 15 blocks away at the Sam Goody in Rockefeller Center and, over the course of the next two years, worked his way up to become head of the jazz department. It wasn’t the big time, but it kept him in the company of his beloved records. It also put him in a position to rub elbows with some top-notch musicians.
“I got to meet [jazz flutist] Herbie Mann and all these people because they used to come to that store to buy records,” Figueroa remembers. “I wasn’t really playing with anybody, but by Mann’s ninth visit he said, ‘Listen man, you’re always helping me, and I really like you. Man, do you play anything?’ And I said, ‘Yeah I’m a percussionist.’”
Before he knew what was happening, Mann had invited him to jam with him that night at the well-known jazz club, Sweet Basil (now Sweet Rhythm), in the heart of Greenwich Village. It’s not hard to imagine Figueroa walking into the club that night, dragging a pair of congas behind him, and getting hit with the distinct feeling his luck was about to change. “You know who was on drums? Steve Gadd. That was my first break, with Steve Gadd, and all these monsters,” Figueroa laughs. “I s**t my pants. I said, ‘Herbie, I don’ t think I can do this.’ He said, ‘Yes you can. Sit down. Put the drums here.’ He introduced me to the guys. They were really nice to me. They knew I was a nervous wreck. And I played for the first time in my life in front of a jazz audience at Sweet Basil in New York. [Mann] even gave me a solo, the whole deal. Steve Gadd comes up to me [afterward] – and I was just a kid – and he says, ‘Hey kid, you play great.’ And Herbie comes up to me and he says, ‘Listen, you’re going on tour with me. We leave in two weeks.’”
The next day, Mann showed up at the record store and calmly informed the manager that Figueroa was quitting. “So I left with Herbie Mann, and he helped me pack my stuff, and I wound up living in Park Avenue at his house,” Figueroa says. “It was like a kid’s dream.”
With Mann, Figueroa toured the world, ending up at the Montreaux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. There, he got to exercise the versatility that would become the defining feature of his career, sitting in with an astounding 18 different bands. One of those, Average White Band, asked Mann if they could “borrow” Figueroa for their own tour. Mann agreed, Figueroa left with AWB, and wound up touring with them for two years. From there it was The Brecker Brothers (11 years), and then John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra (a year and a half).
“Oh my God, it just didn’t stop,” Figueroa says. “I was with Chaka Khan for a long time. And then I started playing with Eddie Van Halen and David Lee Roth and those guys. And then I was the guy they called for everything in the studio. I did all those Boy George records, and 10,000 Maniacs, and Bryan Ferry, and playing with Al Jarreau, and doing George Benson and Earl Klugh. And then I joined Miles Davis’ band in the ’80s.” He spent the next four or five years floating in and out of Miles’ band, and the two became very close. “We talked ten times a day,” Figueroa says.
But it was before Miles, in the late ’70s, that Figueroa landed what, even then, had to be the cushiest gig in showbiz: a spot in the newly formed Saturday Night Live band. It was a stint that kept him busy for the next seven or eight years, as SNL producer Lorne Michaels would continue to call on him. “I did the two best eras,” Figueroa remembers, “the one with John Belushi and the one with Billy Crystal and Eddie Murphy. After that it just started to go downhill a little bit.”
During his time with the cast, he and John Belushi became fast friends. “He thought I was out of my mind,” Figueroa says simply. “We were two whacked-out guys hanging out. He would pick me up at my house. After a while I had to tell him to stop picking me up – it was driving me out of my mind. He was picking me up every night. I said, ‘John c’mon man, get some rest; grow up; do something. I want to stay home tonight.’ [He imitates Belushi], ‘C’mon, c’mon, we gotta go drink; we gotta go out.’ He would blow out every night. Those were some crazy days.”
But Belushi’s antics were eclipsed by the frightening behavior of Figueroa’s next co-conspirator: Jaco Pastorius. “Jaco was cool, I was having fun. But Jaco was kind of flipping out on me. He was manic depressive, and he was losing it.” Figueroa quickly tired of the kind self-destructive behavior that would eventually get Pastorius killed outside of a nightclub in Ft. Lau.
For the next several years, Figueroa floated from one studio or stage date to another, even doing some voice-over work and singing TV jingles. “I was the voice for Pacific Theaters [in L.A.],” he says. “I was the voice of AAA [American Automobile Association] for a while. I did a lot of those Coca-Cola ads with Ray Charles.” It was becoming, it seemed, difficult for Figueroa to find new things to try.
So it was in the early ’90s that Figueroa decided to try his hand at producing. In ’93 he met producer Rachael Faro, who invited him to come out to Cuba to play the Havana Plaza Jazz Festival. The trip struck a couple of chords in Figueroa. The island’s seductive rhythms kept pulling him back over the years, but they also inspired him to help spread Cuban music around the world. He decided to team up with Faro to form Faro Figueroa Productions. “You couldn’t put out [Cuban] records here because of the licensing, so we were doing it through France and Germany,” he says. The two went on to produce five albums together under their shared banner.
Around this time, he also lent his talents to a recording project in which a slew of Latin percussionists got together to lay down a double disc of samples for producers and DJs. “It just wound up that I was the main guy in the recording, and they used my credits for the album sales,” Figueroa says. “It wound up being the biggest-selling album in the country for producers and writers, all over Europe and the United States.” But instead of the album’s success being music to Figueroa’s ears, it became a nightmare. “I got totally ripped off,” he says. “They didn’t pay me any royalties.”
In the heat of the initial battle, Figueroa retaliated with an independent spin-off project, but he never released it. “I got sidetracked,” he says. Now, with nearly a decade passed, he says his skills have far surpassed what he put down on those albums.
Still, with his samples sprinkled throughout thousands of recordings, he’s continually tormented by their appearance everywhere he goes, even in Europe. “I could probably go into it right now and get a real lawyer to do it. But when you really think about it, you have so many things to do in life that that was the least of my worries. I just didn’t want to get into the whole psychological aspect of that. I just wanted to dedicate myself to keep on playing in a great frame of mind, which is, these days, very difficult to do, to keep yourself balanced and having a good time.”
The record he’s referring to is 2005’s Sammy Walked In, his first album with his newly formed sextet, Sammy Figueroa & His Latin Explosion, and his first Grammy nomination as a leader. If the success of Sammy Walked In wasn’t enough, the recent release of the band’s second album, The Magician, proves Figueroa is on the right track. The album features Figueroa in top form, laying down accessible, deeply persuasive Latin grooves in his patented style.
“I play very simple and very straight-ahead. I play more for the people,” he explains. “Unlike Giovanni Hidalgo and Ritchie Flores, who are incredible virtuosos, my style, like I say, is more for the people, more commercial. Because of so many years playing rock and roll and funk, and playing Brazilian, and playing Latin, and playing all these different idioms of music, I was able to develop a way of playing that was comfortable for me, without exerting so much energy.”
Figueroa’s sextet features the crème de la crème of Florida’s Latin percussion scene in a revolving roster anchored by the writing of pianist Silvano Monasteiros and bassist Gabriel Vivas. “These musicians have seen me play for so many years that they wrote music that really fit my style of playing, and my character, I guess. And I was very honored that they did that. You have to be honored when people do that for you. It’s such a great thing when music comes to that point in your life.”
Having just completed the tour for The Magician, Figueroa is already at work with Monasteiros and Vivas on a Latin jazz project with a rare emphasis on vocals. “Latin jazz is not the easiest idiom to sing,” Figueroa says. “People sing either jazz or they sing pop. But Latin jazz is kind of strange to put a vocal on. It either sounds too corny, or it’s going to sound really hip. And so far, what I’ve heard in the past 20 years has been pretty corny. The vocal becomes a little too salsa-English. We’re sitting down trying to figure how to do it so that it’s commercially viable, and at the same time that, harmonically and aesthetically, it sounds proper.”
In his quest for harmonic and aesthetic cohesion, Figueroa has long incorporated certain “fringe” practices that can seem a bit outlandish from the outside, but to which he is soberly devoted. If the taro card theme on the cover of The Magician doesn’t give it away, Figueroa offers this explanation: “I have to tell you that a lot of my life was taken by alternative science,” he says, somewhat sheepishly. “That means it’s not conventional science. It goes against that. These are scientists that the government threw out – all the quackers.” Suddenly, the conversation takes a new turn, into the realms of electro-magnetic induction, bio-photon spins, and sacred geometrical architecture.
“I was always into alternative science, even when I was a kid, because I was into Yoga, and into metaphysical realms of living. And so through the metaphysical aspect, and studying color healing, and studying sounds, and healing with certain harmonics, I started doing research into all these people in the 14th and 16th centuries who were healing people with harmonics. The Anthroposophical Society in Germany, in the early ’30s, had scientists that were healing people with just sound, with certain frequencies that were placed on the body and were breaking up cancer cells. And I said, ‘Man, we could be using this technology today.”
This is no passing fancy, Figueroa has devoted 27 years of his life to this thread, working on the side as a consultant for those with open minds (and maybe more than a few X-Files viewings under their belts). “I studied feng shui, I studied bau biology, I studied bio-photon energy fields with professor Albert-Fritz Popp in Germany.”
A quick Google search of any one of these buzzwords will open the portal to a world of controversy and extravagant claims, not to mention confirming the existence and legitimate credentials of this suspiciously imaginary-sounding Albert-Fritz Popp character. But the more Figueroa explains his beliefs from the easily swallowed standpoint of music as a healing mechanism, the more the veil of skepticism begins to drop. After all, who can really say they’ve never felt the healing power of music?
“I truly believe in the healing of mankind,” Figueroa says. “That’s why I love alternative science and I love alternative music. Sound and science are all one in the same. Music is all science. I like music that when you hear it from the first instant, it goes right into your heart.”
I love Jazz records that give everybody a chance to burn a solo. We’re not talking eight bars, but serious extended jams. The seven-minute title track to Sammy Figueroa’s latest record, The Magician, has all of that. Figueroa has orchestrated some tasty unison band cadences leading in and out of different sections and soloists. The one in Ex. 1 is about 1:15 into the song, and leads into the piano montuno (a repeated syncopated vamp), releasing the tension from the blistering beginning. Note that Figueroa does not play congas on every unison lick, and gives the drummer his own fills – albeit sparse ones at such a fast tempo.
From his Grammy nominated release And Sammy Walked In, the “Songo” flavored Syncopa O No features a great “trading twos” section towards the end of the piece. Ex. 2 is a sampling from his last solo during the second round of trading, and the last cadence heading back to the top of the A Section. Note the accented “slaps” after each group of thirty-second-note blasts.