Cubano Be, Cubano Bop: A Memorable Night in Toronto with Poncho Sánchez

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Poncho Sanchez at Koerner Hall in Toronto

As part of the Royal Conservatory 2012-2013 Season, ¡Qué Rica Cuba! Series, Cubano Be, Cubano Bop: Poncho Sánchez and his Latin Jazz Band featuring Christian Scott took place on Saturday, March 9, 2013 at Koerner Hall in Toronto.

It was quite a magnificent closing to the lively series, which also presented Jane Bunnett and The Spirits of Havana (featuring Hilario Durán and David Virelles) with Special Guest Chucho Valdés and Afro-Cuban group Iya Iré; Alex Cuba, and an electrifying double bill with the Alfredo Rodríguez Trio and Tiempo Libre.

The legendary conguero and bandleader brought his Latin Jazz Band and special guest Christian Scott (via New Orleans) on trumpet, to celebrate the legacy of Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo. Sánchez pays tribute to these two giants of jazz and Afro-Cuban music on his album Chano y Dizzy!, released in 2011  on Concord Picante. For those of us who thought this was the first time we had Mr. Sánchez performing in Toronto, he recalled being in town long time ago, at the now extinct Bermuda Onion Jazz Club on Bloor St.

On the evening of March 9, 2013, the Orishas descended upon Koerner Hall, allowing us mortals to experience an amazing performance. Poncho Sánchez, his band and very special guest took us for a historic musical ride, offering some original tunes and fresh new versions of compositions that have become part of the Jazz/Latin Jazz and Afro-Cuban songbook. As soon as the band got on stage they opened up with “Promenade,” a song penned by trombonist and musical director Francisco Torres, setting up the mood for the night. From the very first note the audience was in for a treat. Sánchez’s masterful command is impacting and his sound is magnificent. A medley dedicated to Master timbalero Willie Bobo came after. It included two of Bobo’s greatest hits: “Fried Neck Bones” and “Spanish Grease.” The next performance was a medley of Chano and Dizzy’s most cherished compositions: “Tin Tin Deo,” “Manteca” and “Guachi Guaro,” featuring the young lion Christian Scott, who moves and twists his body while blowing his horn in a very expressive manner. He becomes one with his signature trumpet (that goes by the name of Katrina), a  hybrid instrument that looks like a combination of trumpet and cornet,  definitely inspired by Dizzy Gillespie’s signature curved horn. A heartfelt rendition of “Con Alma” ensued, and closing the first set, “Son Son Charari,” a classic hard salsa composition written by Roberto Angleró from Puerto Rico.

As it is customary in this venue after the intermission, artistic director Mervon Mehta sits down with the performing artist for a brief chat/interview. Poncho Sánchez talked about his beginnings and his musical career. He recalled his impressions and anecdotes about Chano Pozo and Dizzy Gillespie and stressed their historic importance for jazz and Afro-Cuban music. Right after, the band engaged on another killer set, grooving through Jerome Kern’s  “Yesterdays,” the very danceable Sánchez /Torres’ composition “Ven Pa’ Bailar” (Come to Dance) and returning on stage, Christian Scott, who showed off his chops again, blowin’ hard on “Groovin’ High,” proving why he’s been heralded by JazzTimes magazine as “Jazz’s young style God.” Next the notes of “Nocturna,” a song by Brazilian artist Ivan Lins, slowed down the pace, just to return with the last song of the night, a scorching salsa number, “Prestame Tu Corazón” (Lend me your heart). The audience got encouragement to dance on the corridors and wherever possible.  After a standing ovation the band came back on stage for an encore, closing the concert for good on a high-note. A previous request from someone in the audience, which Mr. Sánchez joked it would be a $700 request (per person), was actually fulfilled, throwing an arousing, funky version of Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man,” a song that would become a signature tune for one of the greatest Afro-Cuban congueros of all times, Maestro Mongo Santamaría.

With more than 35 years of illustrious career, Poncho Sánchez is a Grammy Award-winning artist. He was recently recognized with a well-deserved Life-time achievement award during the latest edition of the Latin Grammy Awards. His sound has at the same time a vintage and contemporary feel, a funky, soulful and danceable approach that is unmistakably his. His band is like a well-oiled machine, very tight indeed. As a bandleader he allows plenty of space for his band mates to shine, resulting in superb performances that keep the audience gasping in awe and exhilaration, asking for more.

Poncho Sánchez and his Latin Jazz Band members are: Poncho Sánchez, congas, chékere, campana & leader; Francisco Torres, trombone & musical director; Joey De Leon Jr., timbales; Rob Hardt, saxophone; Ron Blake, trumpet; Andy Langham, piano; Angel Rodríguez, bongos, chékere, campana; Tony Banda, bass

Amazing timbalero Tiki Pasillas (Marc Anthony’s band member) replaced Joey De Leon Jr., and a pleasant surprise, our very own Roberto Riverón (from Toronto via Havana), a member of Jane Bunnett’s “Spirits of Havana,” replaced bassist Tony Banda. Although the band didn’t have time for a proper rehearsal, Riverón performed at his best, proving why he’s considered one of the best Cuban bass players nowadays. Just for the record, Sánchez and his band were supposed to arrive in Toronto on the evening of Friday, March 8th, but they got stranded in a small town in New York due to some airline’s conflicting schedule. On Saturday morning they couldn’t get on a plane either and had to rent two vehicles to drive to Toronto, where they arrived in the afternoon. The lack of rehearsal was not noticeable at all. Thank you Mr. Sánchez and Koerner Hall for a memorable musical evening.

Photos by Atael Weissman