Poncho Sanchez: El Conguero Pays It Back

poncho sanchez

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.”

The Legend Of Chano

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.”

Piecing Together A Tribute

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.

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“When we get in the studio, we record live on the spot, the whole band playing together, one or two takes. We might overdub a bit of percussion now and then, but most of it’s live. I like the interaction you get when everyone is together. When we cut the opening medley [‘Tin Tin Deo,’ ‘Guachi Guaro,’ and ‘Manteca’], we went through it once, then nailed it on the first take.” The medley ends with an extended jam featuring Sanchez and timbaleros George Ortiz and Joey De Leon on bongos. The players churn up an irresistible pulse of rhythm and melody. “We all play off of each other. There’s the basic pattern you play, but we’re always interacting and improvising. We never do it the same way twice; we make new art every day.”

Poncho Sanchez

Sanchez’s Setup

Drums Remo Poncho Sanchez Signature Series Congas (Molten Sea finish with matching heads)
1 11.75" x 28" Conga
2 12.50" x 28" Tumba
3 13" x 28" Super Tumba

Poncho Sanchez also uses Remo Fiberskyn heads, DW throne, and Audix microphones (D2 for congas; OM 6 for vocals).

Sanchez has made many excellent recordings in his career and Chano Y Dizzy! is up there with the best. “Siboney,” one of the first world-wide Latin jazz hits, is taken at a relaxed pace, with Blanchard delivering some smoky muted trumpet before the tempo triples and the band lifts off into the stratosphere. De Leon’s bongos and the timbales of George Ortiz are particularly impressive. The high-octane salsa chart for “Ariñañara” is also remarkable, a showcase for the band’s driving percussion and the fine piano work of David Torres. The late-night groove of “Jack’s Dilemma,” a tune by trombone player Francisco Torres, features Blanchard’s haunting, bluesy solos and laid-back rhythms by Sanchez on conga and De Leon on traps. “I wanted to get away from the sound of conga, timbales, and bongo for one track, for a jazzy bossa nova feel. I asked Joey if he could play traps, but he didn’t bring a drum kit to the session. We were cutting at Hansen Studios, the old A&M studios in Hollywood, and asked if we could borrow a drum set. They didn’t have one, but we got a snare from one room and a tom tom from another and slapped it together and Joey played the s__t out of it.

“Francisco wrote the tune when we were in South Africa last year. My driver, who was called Jack, took us to a neighborhood in the suburbs to do a music clinic. It’s an old-style shantytown and the streets are very confusing. Jack’s from there, but we still got lost. Francisco started writing a melody in the car and called it ‘Jack’s Dilemma.’ He wrote it down while we were at the school in Johannesburg and now it’s on a record. It always amazes me the way songs can come to you at any moment.”

Beyond Dizzy

Sanchez spent his life surrounded by music, even before he started playing himself. “I’m the youngest of 11 children,” he says. “I have six sisters and four brothers and we’re all alive and well, thank God. When we moved to L.A. from Laredo, I was three and a half. They immediately got hooked on the radio and TV. In Texas, in 1954, we only got one or two TV stations and not much radio. In L.A. we could hear rhythm and blues, doo-wop, gospel, and Latin jazz. We loved it. Every night my sisters moved the furniture aside in the living room, cranked up the stereo, and danced to Johnny Otis, Machito, Tito Puente, and soul music. When I heard Latin music, I loved it. I was only in the second grade, and they said I was too little, but I could feel the rhythm and it made me move. I wanted to be part of it, so I watched my brothers and sisters and learned how to dance.

“Money we didn’t have, but there was a guy next door named Benny Rodriquez. He had a guitar and an R&B band. I’d go over and he’d let me play his guitar. He taught me ‘Honky Tonk’ and ‘What’d I Say.’ In seventh grade, I finally joined a band, but they already had three guitar players and they were all better than me.” Sanchez hid the guitar he’d brought to the audition and approached the bandleader, Ralph Vasquez. “I knew him because we used to walk to kindergarten together. He told me they needed a singer. I’d never sang in font of anybody before, but I knew I could dance. I did an imitation of James Brown and they said, ‘Man, you sing great.’ They gave me a stack of 45s and told me, ‘Learn all these songs; we have a gig on Saturday.’”

The Halos were an R&B cover band, although Sanchez says they were more like devils than angels. He stayed with them until he was in high school. “Pop music at the time was all Cream and Iron Butterfly. I didn’t like it. I was more into the Latin records my sisters played. I decided I wanted to be a conga player. My dad took me to a pawnshop and we bought my first congas; I paid for one drum and my dad bought the other. I put on records and tried to play what I heard. Today, I have a book and a DVD on basic conga technique, but I learned it all on my own from records and from going to clubs and watching guys like Willie Bobo play.”

Staying In The Groove

Sanchez just turned 60, but he’s not thinking about quitting anytime soon. “Last time I checked, I was still alive and healthy,” he cracks. “I have high cholesterol, but my wife, Stella, who’s been with me for 40 years, makes sure I take my vitamins and eat right. She comes with me on the road these days, which makes it easier. I still bang on the drum pretty hard and don’t have arthritis. My back hurts more than it used to and my arms get sore, but I’m playing as good as I ever have.”

Like his idols, Sanchez leads a band that can breathe fire and put plenty of passion into every performance. The soul and R&B flavors they bring to the stage when they play will excite even the most jaded audience. “We just got back from playing the Percussive Arts Society International Convention in Indianapolis. There were a lot of young kids there from high school and university marching bands and jazz bands. The last night, we played to about 3,000 people, a lot of them kids. I did ‘Raise Your Hand,’ an old Stax tune. I covered it on a record with Eddie Floyd, Booker T., and Steve Cropper sitting in. At the end of the number, 1,000 kids were jammed in at the front of the stage. I started doing a call-and-response thing with them. I was shouting: ‘Jump! Jump!’ and I had those suckers jumping. I know I’ll have to retire one day, or at least slow down a bit, but not right now.”