Poncho Sanchez is known as "El Conguero," or as he puts it, "The guy who plays the congas." His ensemble takes the stage at the Boston Summer Arts Weekend on Saturday evening. For nearly 40 years, Sanchez has performed on numerous stages throughout the world, earned a Grammy, and has even given birth to his own form of jazz, which he calls "Jazz soul." In a telephone conversation this week, he spoke with me about the fundamentals of Latin jazz, how to properly play the congas, his concerns about the future of jazz, and what to expect at his performance in Copley Square. He also discussed the inspiration for his latest CD, Chano y Dizzy, a tribute to two of his influences, Chano Pozo and Dizzy Gillespie.
What makes Latin jazz what it is?
Latin jazz involves Latin percussion instruments. It involves the conga drum, the timbales, the bongos, the maracas, güiros, and all other Latin instruments. It has Latin rhythms but it also has an American jazz influence. In my band, for instance, I play conga, and I have a bongo player, a timbale player, and when I sing I play the hand percussions, like the maracas and the güiro, and the shakers to give it that Latin flavor. When we play a number, usually a mambo, cha-cha-cha, bolero, or a meringue, we do it with Latin rhythm and Latin dances. I also have three horn players in the band, a trombone player, a trumpet player, and a saxophonist. We do a lot of jazz melodies with a Latin rhythm underneath.
What does the future of jazz look like to you?
That’s a tough question. Jazz, I’m very proud to say, is our music. If you were born in the United States of America, this is your music. It was born right here. Latin jazz was also born in the United States of America, when Chano Pozo met Dizzy Gillespie in New York City. I’m glad that it’s ours.
For me, jazz is music that you have to really listen to and you have to know something about it to understand what we’re doing up there, because we’re actually playing a little more sophisticated chord changes, and melodies, and harmonies, and all of that. So it’s a little more advanced, I would say, and there’s plenty of room for more fans.
We also play salsa. Salsa involves singing in Spanish and dancing, so there’s a lot of Latino people who come out to our concerts and they dance and enjoy our music. AND, with the fact that I grew up in Los Angeles in the 50s, I love soul music, and I have adapted soul music to our Latin jazz, which I call “Latin soul” music. I do some James Brown songs, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding songs, but with a Latin groove.
What can we expect to hear at your performance at the Boston Summer Arts Weekend?
We will play some of the songs from Chano y Dizzy, my latest CD. I also always like to reach back and do some of the older tunes that people always request. There are some standards that people always ask for every time I play, like “Watermelon Man,” which we recorded twice. We’ll do a combination of our older favorites and some of the new tunes also.
I interviewed Terrance Blanchard last year, when Chano y Dizzy was first released. I love this CD. How did it come about?
That CD came about when my manager suggested that I do a tribute to Chano Pozo and Dizzy Gillespie. Chano was a great Cuban conga drummer who was also a good writer. He and Dizzy got together in the early 40s in New York City and they started writing songs together. Chano was only on the American scene for about three years because he was murdered in the Rio Café in Spanish Harlem in the early 50s. There are many songs he wrote that I knew he had left us, and there were many songs that Dizzy Gillespie had written and became jazz standards, like “Night in Tunisia,” which I recorded before, and “Manteca,” a song that Chano and Dizzy Gillespie wrote together. They also wrote a song called “Tin Tin Deo.” I also do the medley of that on Chano y Dizzy, which includes all of the above as well as the very famous “Guachi Guaro” that Cal Tjader wrote. So I basically play the part of Chano Pozo on the CD, and when they asked me who I wanted to play the part of Dizzy, they started naming all of the great trumpet players in the United States. Then Terrance Blanchard’s name came up, and he had recorded with us before and had been our guest on other dates. I knew him and I knew that he was a great trumpet player and a great composer and writer.
What do you do when you’re not performing?
For me, nowadays, I love to be at home with my family in Los Angeles. I’ve been doing this for close to 40 years, and so when I have time off, I enjoy swimming in the pool at home and I also go deep sea fishing from time to time.
Poncho Sanchez’s performance begins at 5:45pm on Saturday, July 28, 2012.