From Freddie Hubbard and the Eddie Harris to Tito Puente and Mongo Santamana, Poncho Sanchez’s Concord Picante recordings have employed some major names ~ jazz. But while the high-profile guests on previous Sanchez albums have been instrumentalists,’Afro-Cuban Fantasy’ marks the first time the Latin jam percussionist/band leader has employed a well-known female singer. Uniting Sanchez with the popular jazz vocalist Dianne Reeves, Afro-Cuban Fantasy is a definite first for him.
“Bringing in Dianne Reeves was the idea of my manager and agent, Jim Cassell,” explains the friendly’ good-natured Sanchez, who turns 47 on October 30. “Jim and I were talking about ideas for my next album, and he said, ‘What about a female vocalist?’ Jim Cassell knew Reeves and Poncho would be a good match from the beginning, and he was right. Although Poncho and Reeves have never recorded before, their sound together was simply complimentary. Both Poncho and Reeves found the recording to be very successful.
Although Sanchez does some singing himself (in fact, he sings lead on Cuban violinist/flutist Felix “Pup”, Lagarreta’s charanga classic “Guspacha” and his own salsa offering “den Pa Bailar”), examples of the conga player working with singers are few and far between. Sanchez’s festive, hard-swinging band (which he formed in 1982) has played with salsa legend Celia Cruz, but not since joining Cannen McRae and Cal Tjader on the 1982 Concord date “Heat Wave” has Sanchez played with a well known jazz vocalist.
Reeves is no stranger to Latin jazz. In fact, she has Latin jazz credentials going back to the late 1970s, when she was a featured vocalist with the experimental, Latin-oriented fission combo Caldera. A passionate, big- voiced singer, Reeves proved quite compatible with Sanchez’s band on the standard “Darn That Dream” (which gets a rare bolero treatment), the poetic “I Remember Spring” and Clare Fischer’s “Morning.” Sanchez explains: “I had done ‘Morning’ before, but never like this. We went with the Afro-cuban 6/8 style instead of the usual cha-cha cha tempo. It’s a whole new twist.”
Because he has so thoroughly mastered Afro-Cuban music, many listeners have been surprised to learn that Sanchez isn’t Cuban or Puerto Rican, but in fact, is a Mexican-American who has lived in the Southwest all of his life. Sanchez laughs, “People still ask me, ‘Are you sure you aren’t from Cuba or Puerto Rico?’ And I tell there, no, I’m a Chicano. I was born in Laredo, Texas and raised in a Chicano neighborhood in L.A.’ If you feel Latin jazz in your heart and love it as much as I do, it doesn’t matter where you’re from.”
When Sanchez was growing up, one of his heroes was the late vibist/band leader Cal Tjader, who did so much to popularize Latin jazz in the 1950s. After idolizing Tjader most of his life, a 23-year-old Sanchez ended up joining his band in 1975–and would remain with him until his death In the Philippines on May 5, 1982 at the age of 56.
Although Tjader’s untimely death was heartbreaking for Sanchez, he realized that the best way to honor his memory was by helping to keep the Latin jazz flame burning. Only a few months after Tjader’s death, Sanchez assembled his own band and recorded “Sonando,” his first album for Concord Picante as a leader and his third overall. (Sanchez had recorded two albums for Discovery: 1979’s “Poncho” and 1980’s “Straight Ahead”. The conguero has since gone on to record 17 albums for Concord and has become one of the most highly regarded figures in Latin jazz.
“This new CD, Afro-Cuban Fantasy, is a little bit different in that we have a female vocalist, Diarme Reeves, but it’s still the Poncho Sanchez sound and the Poncho Sanchez style,” he stresses. “Some people consider me the keeper of the Latin jazz flame–and if they want to think that, that’s fine with me. Latin jazz was such a big fire burning in my heart. It was an uphill battle, but I feel like I’ve finally made it to the top of the mountain.”