Given all the ups and downs the music industry has experienced in the past three decades, it’s remarkable to find anyone who still retains a sense of allegiance or loyalty. Master Conguero, Band Leader and Latin Jazz Legend Poncho Sanchez is the exception. Thirty years ago, his close friend, multi-instrumentalist jazz icon Cal Tjader recommended he sign with Carl Jefferson’s Concord Records. Tjader told him that Jefferson was looking for new talent and he highly recommended Sanchez. Jefferson gave Poncho a one record deal with his Concord Picante imprint, and the rest is Latin Jazz history. Thirty years and 26 albums later, Sanchez, whose Live in Hollywood recording is set for digital release today, September 25, 2012 on Concord Picante, is still with the label; even though he had plenty of opportunity to leave in the late ’90s. (There will be a physical release October 30, 2012.)
“When Carl died, Concord was in a big mess,” says Sanchez. “They were going to lose the whole thing. People in the office were calling me and telling me they were trying to raise money. I knew they were in big trouble. I started getting phone calls from other labels interested in signing me. I was strong enough to say, ‘I’m going to hang on and see what happens.’ Concord hung on, and they have always let me do what I want to do. C’mon, man. Where do you get that privilege? They don’t do that with everybody. It’s like a family to me. I love them and here we are 30 years later.”
Recorded over the summer at the Hollywood & Highland KKJZ Summer Concert Series, Live in Hollywood features Sanchez and his Latin Jazz Band at their best. The album opens as the live show did – with the swinging tune “Promenade.” Sanchez follows the tune up with the first-ever “Poncho Sanchez Medley.” He says it’s a concept that he and his music director Francisco Torres have discussed for years.
“Francisco told me ten years ago that I should do a medley of my tunes,” says Sanchez. “I said, ‘Ah, my songs aren’t that great; they’re just alright.’ I wanted to move on to new stuff and I didn’t pay too much attention. Then he told me again that we should do a medley for the live album and I agreed. I thought it would be cool to start with ‘Mi Negra’ and ‘Baila Baila’ and with the last one we step it up a notch and go a little faster.”
Now, Sanchez says he’s working on another medley he’ll include on his next album. “I say, ‘What the hell. You ain’t gonna stop me now!’”
In addition, Sanchez pays tribute to two of his biggest influences – keyboardist, composer and arranger Clare Fischer and Latin Jazz percussionist Mongo Santamaria. Fischer helped Sanchez get his first record deal with Discovery, the label for which he recorded before joining Concord in 1982.
“Clare was a harmonic genius,” says Sanchez. “He wrote beautiful tunes and I knew these tunes when I was in junior high school. When I met him, I told him how much I loved ‘Morning’ and ‘Pensativa’ and ‘I Remember Spring.’ Then when we did our first record, at the last minute, we recorded ‘Baile Mi Gente,’ the first song I ever wrote, with Clare Fischer. We needed one more seven-minute song. I was done. I didn’t have any more songs. Then, Clare said, ‘Why don’t we do “Morning?”’ [Saxophonist/Flutist] Gary Foster said, ‘Let’s do “Morning” as a cha-cha.’ He got the Flute out and I told him to try it on the Alto. That was the hit on the album and that’s why I did it on Live in Hollywood. That’s how that all came together.”
Sanchez also delivers a high-energy rendition of “Afro Blue” that serves as a tribute to the late Santamaria, whom he considers a good friend and important influence. When Sanchez performed at the Hollywood & Highland concert, he introduced the song by talking about what an inspiration Santamaria was to him. While Sanchez’s brief commentary didn’t make it onto the album, the song still stands a worthy tribute.
“He was my hero in life,” Sanchez says of Santamaria. “I opened that song up with a little thing by myself, which is a Rhumba I sing. It’s an old Cuban street song. I did that off the top of my head. And then, boom, I set the time into ‘Afro Blue.’ He is my all time favorite Conga drummer. I even named my son Mongo.”
The album closes with the vigorous “Son Son Charari,” which Sanchez introduces by exclaiming, “Alright, it’s time for a little salsa!”
“I wanted to end the night with a hot salsa number and there are a few more I could have done,” says Sanchez. “I always liked ‘Son Son Charari’ and that song did very, very well in Puerto Rico. They used to play it on the radio all the time.”
For Sanchez, who turned 60 this year and will receive A Lifetime Achievement Award from the Latin Recording Academy at a November 14, 2012 ceremony in Las Vegas. Being able to make a living playing music is a dream come true. As a teen, Sanchez first learned to play guitar from “the guy across the street” because he couldn’t afford to buy an instrument and his friend would let him borrow his guitar. He then gravitated to percussion after his siblings introduced him to the music that was then called cha-cha music.
“I’ve been involved with this from the beginning but just as a listener when I was a young boy,” he says. “I never dreamed it would happen that I would become a professional musician. You go with the flow and you go with your heart and what feels right, and now I know it feels right because this is how I made a living for my whole life. I’m not braggin’ but I did pretty well for a guy from the neighborhood.”