Sammy Figueroa has long been regarded as one of the world’s great musicians. As one of the world’s leading percussionists he has played on countless records, providing the rhythmical framework for hundreds of hits. Well-known for his versatility and professionalism, he is one of the few percussionists equally comfortable in a multitude of styles, from R & B to rock to pop to bebop to Latin to Brazilian to New Age. As one of New York’s most sought after session players Sammy played on countless albums, jingles and film scores and appeared often on The David Letterman Band and the Saturday Night Live Band. He has recorded and toured with Miles Davis, the Brecker Brothers (for 12 years!), Sonny Rollins, Michel Camilo (who wrote the tune ‘And Sammy Walked In’ in his honor), Chaka Khan, David Bowie, and Mariah Carey (in her multi-million selling MTV Unplugged). Sammy’s famed sense of humor, ebullient personality, and open-heartedness is famous within the music industry and has further empowered him in his connection with musicians and audiences alike.
While continuing his career as one of the world’s leading sideman (for the last three years he has been touring in the band of Sonny Rollins), Sammy has also now established himself as a bandleader and artist. It is rare for a successful professional musician such as Sammy to make the transition from sideman to leader in what some might term “the middle years”. Even more unlikely would be for both of this artist’s first two albums to each be honored with Grammy Nominations. But since Sammy Figueroa became a leader in his own right the role has fit him comfortably, as if that was always his destiny. Sammy Figueroa is currently considered to be the most likely candidate to inherit the mantles of Mongo Santamaria and Ray Barretto as one of the world’s great congueros. When Sammy plays percussion he tells a story, taking the listener on a journey.
Sammy Figueroa was born in the Bronx, New York, the son of the well-known romantic singer Charlie Figueroa. His first professional experience came while still a student at the University of Puerto Rico, with the band of bassist Bobby Valentin. During this time he co-founded the innovative fusion Brazilian/Latin group Raices. Raices was signed to a contract with Atlantic Records and Sammy returned to New York.
Since then Sammy has played with a multitude of distinguished jazz and Latin jazz artists including Sonny Rollins, Dave Sanborn, Quincy Jones, Dave Grusin, George Benson, Chet Baker, Stanley Clarke, Grover Washington, Jr., Al Jarreau, Lena Horne, Joe Williams, Mark Murphy, Mike Mainieri, Nestor Torres, Chico O’Farrill, Mike Stern, Dave Valentin, Arturo Sandoval, Paquito D’Rivera, Ruben Blades, Eddie Palmieri, Tania Maria, Jorge Ben Jor, Daniella Mercury, Tom Jones, James Taylor, Dr. John, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Celine Dion, Natalie Merchant, Luther Vandross, Ashford & Simpson, Anita Baker, Roberta Flack, David Lee Roth, Hall & Oates, Joe Cocker, Rickie Lee Jones, Annie Lennox and many, many more.
In the spirit of experimentation he has recorded and appeared with “New Age” artists such as Paul Winter, Glen Velez and Michael Schrieve and some of Europe’s greatest electronica artists, including Vienna’s dZihan & Kamien and the UK’s Mark De Clive-Lowe. He has also taught numerous clinics and master classes in connection with his endorsement arrangement with Pearl Percussion.
In addition to his work as a musician, Sammy has also produced or co-produced several important jazz and world music albums, including his own two Grammy-nominated releases. In 1990 he and producer/musician Rachel Faro (producer of Odetta, Eddie Palmieri, Bobby Sanabria and others) formed Faro Figueroa Productions, which soon became one of world music’s hottest production teams. Trips to Cuba and Venezuela led to historic productions with groups such the phenomenal Cuban a cappella group Vocal Sampling (Sire/Elektra), authentic Afro-Cuban rhythms set to modern jazz arrangements in “Cantos: Lazaro Ros con Mezcla” (Intuition), spectacular Cuban jazz recorded in Venezuela with Cuarto Espacio, featuring Omar Hernandez and Ernan Lopez-Nussa (Ashé), and the classic “Celebremos Navidad” (Universal) by cuatro legend and Fania Allstar Yomo Toro.
In 2001 Sammy relocated to South Florida where he discovered a rich treasure trove of Latin jazz virtuosos from Cuba, Venezuela, Brazil, Colombia and Argentina, along with members of the University of Miami’s extraordinary music department. In September 2002 Sammy Figueroa and his Latin Jazz Explosion made their debut at the Hollywood Jazz Festival, with special guests Dave Valentin and Ray Vega. Since that time Sammy and his band have been unstoppable and they are now one of the most exciting groups in Latin jazz today.
As leader of The Latin Jazz Explosion, Sammy empowers his players and has created an ensemble that is astounding in its musical excitement. His first album, And Sammy Walked In (on Savant Records), co-produced by longtime production partner Rachel Faro, included music by Michel Camilo and Hermeto Pascual. His second album, The Magician, (also on Savant Records), again co-produced with Rachel Faro, features spectacular original compositions by Venezuelans Silvano Monasterios and Gabriel Vivas alongside jazz classics such as Seven Steps and Cedar Walton’s Firm Roots. Both albums received Grammy Nominations for Best Latin Jazz Album. His third album, Urban Nature further explores the connection between Latin rhythms and complex modern jazz, with offerings ranging from the complex ‘Gufillo’ to the poetic lyricism of ‘Zuliana’ to the swinging salsa of Mongo’s ‘Cuco y Olga’.
Gifted with a warm speaking voice and a fanatic knowledge of jazz, Sammy has also found a natural vocation as a radio host. His show “The Sammy Figueroa Show” every Monday morning on Miami’s WDNA 88.9 FM is one of the station’s most popular and has fans that stream it on the internet throughout the world.
Sammy’s residency in South Florida has introduced him to the best of South American music. He has been appearing as a featured artist with the band Brazilian icon Jorge Ben Jor, who has written a song specifically for Sammy. Recently Sammy also appeared with Brazilian superstar Daniela Mercury, performing for over 60,000 fans. Other collaborations have been with Grammy Nominees DJ LeSpam and the Spam Allstars and violinist/composer Alfredo Triff.
In late 2008, ‘just for fun’, Sammy developed a second band, Sally’s Tomato, an exciting tribute to the music of Cal Tjader. With the blessings of Tjader family, this band caught on instantly, magnetizing a devoted fan base of its own with its breezy tropical, retro sound.
Sammy recently appeared with the Dave Grusin Orchestra in a Jazz Roots revisiting of Grusin’s legendary rendering of Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story”. This concert was released on Concord Records as a DVD and was broadcast on National Public Television.
Sammy appears in several important books on music and its legends. His relationship with Miles Davis is described at length both in Miles’ own words in his autobiography entitled “Miles” and in “The Last Miles: The Music of Miles Davis From 1980 – 1991” by George Cole. Anecdotes about Sammy abound in Paquito D’Rivera’s amusing book “My Sax Life”. Sammy has also been included in The Grove’s Dictionary of Jazz.
Photo credits: Danilo Navas [ Jazz Global Media ]