What's a kid to do when caught between the world's of psychedelic rock, surf music, bebop, rhythm and blues, and Cha Cha?
If you're Poncho Sanchez, you combine them in giant soul stew on the way to becoming the leading purveyor of funky, grooving music with a deeply soulful edge. Many call it Latin jazz or Cubano bebop. Sanchez doesn't think it really needs a name (beyond having a place to shelve it in stores).
"It's a twist on soul music with a Latin groove," he says by phone from his Los Angeles home. "We take a funk and soul groove and give it a Latin tinge."
Growing up on a mixture of classic Latin artists (Machito, Tito Puente, Cal Tjader, Mongo Santamaria) and funky soul brothers (James Brown, Ray Charles, Junior Walker), Sanchez was always caught between worlds. When his friends started listening to Jimi Hendrix and Cream, Sanchez didn't follow the trend.
"Kids in the neighborhood would come over and I'd put on Cal Tjader or Tito Puente records, and they'd look at me like I was nuts," he says with a laugh. "Like, 'Why do you like that shit? That's old people's music.'"
Sanchez stuck with his passion, switching from guitar to congos. He joined Sabor, a local outfit that played weddings, parties and Latino clubs in the L.A. area. One day this "white guy" with a "hat and cigar" came to watch him play at The Latin American Press Club.
"He stuck out like a sore thumb," Sanchez recalls, adding that the man, Ernie Stills, claimed a friendship with Cal Tjader, Sanchez's favorite artist.
The two talked and when Stills left, "I said, 'Don't forget to tell your good friend Cal Tjader about me.' He said, 'Yeah, I will tell him.' I thought, 'Yeah, right.'"
Two weeks later Tjader was performing at Concerts By The Sea and Sanchez spied Stills talking with the Latin vibe master.
"It stopped me in my tracks," Sanchez says. "He turned around and pointed at me: 'Cal, there's the guy I was telling you about!'"
Tjader invited Sanchez to sit in. Impressed, Sanchez was offered a weeklong gig beginning on New Year's Eve 1975. Sanchez recalls the night: "After first night he said, 'You sound great, you've got the gig.' I said, 'You mean the other nights?' He said, 'No, you got the gig.' I thought he meant one night, but I was with him for seven and a half years until he died."
Building on his work with Tjader -- and a Tjader connection at Concord Records--Sanchez forged a lengthy career. All told, he's released 27 albums. (A 28th is in the works: a Latin tribute to John Coltrane.) The secret, he explains, besides the high energy found on each album, is mixing up the styles. His music typically starts a with Latin groove, but albums have explored various jazz avenues, blues idioms, Cuban rhythms, funk, soul and even some of that psychedelic rock.
"There's more to Poncho out there," he says.
Though the albums are a respectable showcase of diversity, it's live that Sanchez and his long-time band truly excel. The grooves are extra tight, the rhythmic bounce hypnotic, the improvisation forays inspired, and the energy's like the rush of a passing train.
"They come ready to play in my band," he says with another big laugh. "I want the band to have a good time. I'm just wanting to have a good time because I still enjoy performing and playing the conga drums and singing. I'm there to make other people happy and make sure the fans have good night.
"We can do anything," he adds. "It's a lot of fun."
Of that, there's no doubt.
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