Poncho Sánchez’s established his pedigree very early in life, performing with Cal Tjader—who invited him for just one set in 1975, and with whom he ended up staying until he died in 1982. Mr. Tjader became Poncho Sánchez’s mentor, and he was instrumental in getting Carl Jefferson, founder of Concord records to sign Mr. Sánchez for a one record deal. Fortuitously that deal turned into a three-decade-long relationship, has resulted in a number of Grammy nominations and one win—for Best Latin Jazz Album—for Latin Soul (Concord Picante, 2000). Now there is this: Another Grammy nomination for the wonderful recording, Live in Hollywood. This spectacularly produced album features Mr. Sánchez at the height of his powers as a conguero together with his Latin Jazz band that responds with brilliant tone and manner to the maestro’s every command as well as to those of its musical director Francisco Torres. And once again it is Poncho Sánchez who proves that he is a worthy successor to his long-time mentor, Cal Tjader, not only carrying on the vibraphonist’s mighty legacy, but also that of every percussionist who played before him in the Latin Jazz idiom. Moreover, the conguero proves, yet again, that he is also a fine vocalist, who leads from the front in that department as well.
Through it all, it is obvious that Poncho Sánchez has been deeply touched by music that is Afri-Cuban in nature. His rhythmic inventions are flavoured by the swagger of mambo and cha-cha-cha, the mesmerising and elemental ache of son and the high-spirited hum of rumba and the propulsive narrative of guaracha. The band struts its stuff with some superb playing in-the-pocket by pianist Andy Langham followed by a beautifully languid trombone solo by Francisco Torres, which leads into the conguero, Mr. Sánchez, who waxes eloquent as he pops into a superb solo, full of nuanced accents and dramatic gestures… and it never looks back from there. The “Poncho Sánchez Medley” is just over twelve minutes and roams the world of Afri-Cuban music with “Mi Negra”, “Baila Baila” and “Bien Sabroso” and features muscular soli by saxophonist, Rob Hardt and trumpeter Ron Francis Blake and a rock steady percussion adventure by Mr. Sánchez. Then comes the magnificent rendition of Bronislav Kaper’s and Ned Washington’s “Green Dolphin Street”—which follows a roistering version of “Mambo Inn” The band’s imaginative rendering of the classic tune is very moving and that medley too is studded with memorable soli and the band literally makes an almost vertical ascent into the “Crosscut Saw,” which also brings to the stage the bluesy guitar and vocals of George Dez. It is noteworthy that Mr. Sánchez and his Latin Jazz Band also play breathtaking versions of Clare Fischer’s “Morning” and Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro-Blue”; the performance of the latter is probably one of the most iconic versions of that song.
However, essentially this is a recording that shows the awe-inspiring sweep of Poncho Sánchez’s percussive powers and his ability to fire up his ensemble into responding to his every gesture and exquisitely annunciated expression using his powerful tenor voice and, of course the congas. His playing is full of expressive dynamics and he makes full use of the drum’s circumference—caressing the skins, when he needs to and slapping them, either with cupped or open palm. However, his lines are never jagged, no matter how staccato; he seems to move in French curves that are full of sensual movements and he creates whorls of music that spin and dance around the linear melodies. Also, while the harmonics are created by piano, brass, reeds and woodwinds—yet the orchestral feel is always present in his music, especially poignant in Clare Fischer’s “Morning”—the polyrhythmic variations keep the music wonderfully spinning and dancing and almost out of control. In this regard, much praise must also be heaped on the bongocero, José “Papo” Rodríguez and on the timbalero, Angel Rodríguez, who together with the great bassist René Camacho keep the music in an undying and rarified state of grace. This is a feature of almost all of Poncho Sánchez’s work, but of especial note on Live in Hollywood, one of the finest recordings in the Latin Jazz idiom.
Track Listing: Promenade; Poncho Sánchez Medley; Mambo Inn/On Green Dolphin Street; Crosscut Saw; Intro; Morning; A Ti Nama; Afro Blue; Son Son Charari.
Personnel: Poncho Sánchez: congas, percussion, lead vocals; Francisco Torres: trombone, vocals, music director; Ron Francis Blake: trumpet, flugelhorn; Rob Hardt: tenor and alto saxophones, piccolo flute; Andy Langham: piano, organ; René Camacho: bass, vocals; José “Papo” Rodríguez: bongos, vocals, percussion; Angel Rodríguez: timbales; George Dez: guitar, vocals (4).