Sammy Figueroa: Freedom Latin Jazz Dance

Sammy Figueroa

“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.”

“You Never Know What To Expect”

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.

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Produce And They Will Come

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.

Miami Heat

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.”

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Back From Coproducer To Artist

Over the years, there’s been an evolving transformation of Figueroa and Faro’s professional relationship, namely, from coproducers to artist and producer. While Faro obtained the deal with the Highnote/Savant label that resulted in the first two releases, the new album has some added flair. “Urban Nature was financed by Senator Entertainment, in Berlin,” says Faro. “Their CEO, Helge Sasse, is an old friend of mine and has financed many of our projects, including the Cuban ones. Through Mr. Sasse’s structuring, the record is going to be coming out on its own imprint, distributed by !K7, a highly successful electronica/dance label and distributor, which is opening up to other music, such as distributing the Fania catalog in Europe.” In addition, Figueroa’s Latin Jazz Explosion band plans to tour and promote the album during 2011.

And while all this activity is happening around Figueroa, Faro is frank when she says, “Sammy could use a real good manager with clout at this point in his career.” And, she goes on to add, “One thing I haven’t been able to do is to get Sammy to sing on his recordings. He has a beautiful voice and I still hope that we can do that for the next album. His father, Charlie Figueroa, was a well-known sentimental Latin singer and, as you know, Sammy started his career as a singer with Bobby Valentin. He just needs to brush up.”

(In his own defense, Figueroa let’s it be known: “The vocal thing, I’m gonna do it on the next album.” In fact, his singing has already emerged, with his touching “Duermete Mi Cielito,” from ... And Sammy Walked In.)

“Right now,” Faro summarizes, “the gig with Sonny Rollins is creating a great balance between creative accompanist and his solo career. Musically, I see Sammy as someone who has musical talent in every cell of his body, but as a solo artist, needs someone to help bring out his vision and guide and direct things so that they can manifest, which I see as my role.”

In addition to his very popular Monday night gig as a local radio DJ in Miami (where he is exposed to and plays all kinds of music), as well as fronting his Miami-based Cal Tjader tribute band Sally’s Tomato, Figueroa does keep that singer in him alive, if only in the studio. Alluding to food and cooking, he says, “When you’re talking to musicians like Silvano Monasterios and Gabriel Vivas — who are also composers — and you’re telling them what you want, it’s like asking a chef to make you an original dish: You don’t know what it’s going to taste like, but you have an idea of what you want it to taste like. So, I was describing to the guys what I wanted, and how I wanted it, and I sang it to them vocally.

“When Silvano and Gabriel [who wrote most of the material] presented the music to me for Urban Nature,” Figueroa concludes, “I ended up getting exactly what I wanted, and they delivered the record even better than I anticipated. The tastes and the flavors are just fantastic — a lot of flavors that I wanted, including the Latin thing, the sort of European-ish salsa style, and the jazz. I always try to do music for people that they will like, that they’ll play on the radio, and they’ll call me all the time and say, ‘Hey, Sammy, what was that you played?’

“It’s like turning you on to a nice CD ... you gotta buy this CD. It’s great!”

Sammy Figueroa

Drums Pearl Elite Congas (Cosmic Sparkle)
1 11" x 30" Quinto
2 11.75" x 30" Conga
3 12.5" x 30" Tumba
4 Pearl Marc Quiñones Timbales
5 Pearl Elite Bongos

Cymbals Sabian
A 17" HHX Special FX Thin Hand Crash
B 14" HHX Special FX Thin Splash

Percussion Pearl
C PBL-30 Clave Block
D New Yorker Cha Cha Bell
E Pearl toys include 32-bar chimes, shekere, maracas, cabasa, guiro

Sammy Figueroa also uses Pearl hardware and heads, and Vic Firth sticks