The Elvis of Salsa and Latin Jazz – Poncho Sanchez is Latin Jazz Storyteller and Favorite Son

Drums have probably been used to communicate more than any other instrument, so it should be no surprise that percussionist Poncho Sanchez considers himself a “storyteller.” Sanchez’s tales take place in a Latin jazz setting; his characters are melodies and rhythms drawn with congas, timbales, trumpet and trombone, keyboards and sax. But he’s also part of the story or jazz itself, furthering a Latin jazz lineage passed on in part from late, legendary masters such as vibraphonist Cal Tjader and conguero Mongo Santamaria.

Sanchez fanned the flames of Latin jazz as a bandleader through dozens of recordings since his 1982 debut for Concord Records, Sonando, which was released two months after Tjader’s death. Sanchez, born in Texas and raised in musically diverse L.A., had occupied the conga player’s chair in Tjader’s ensemble since 1975 but became a permanent bandleader after his mentor passed away. Tjader’s inspired approach and gracious attitude made a permanent impression on the younger musician that Sanchez seems to have carried forward to this day. If a Poncho Sanchez concert feels like a celebration of music and cultural heritage, that’s because it is.

Poncho Sanchez Latin Jazz Band arrives at The Smith Center Nov. 27 and 28 after five nights at New York City’s venerable jazz club Birdland, so expect the band to be in muy caliente mode when they assemble in Cabaret Jazz. As a warm-up, check out Sanchez’s 1986 album Papa Gato for a good representation of his early period as a bandleader, 1996’s Conga Blue to catch Sanchez with guest musician Mongo Santamaria on Herbie Hancock’sWatermelon Man,” and 2011’s Chano y Dizzy! for Sanchez’s collaboration with trumpeter Terence Blanchard. The latter album is a tribute to Dizzy Gillespie and percussionist Chano Pozo, who are considered founding fathers of a musical story continued to be told by favorite sons such as Sanchez.

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