|Poncho Sanchez & Terence Blanchard|
Saturday February 18, 2012 was a spectacular California day, it was bright and the temperature was almost perfect. It was still officially Winter, but it was more like Spring. By nightfall it had cooled significantly, but not to require serious Winter gear for outdoors. It seemed a perfect evening for checking out some good music, and Poncho Sanchez's Latin Jazz Orchestra's appearance at Yoshi's Oakland, California Jazz Club fit the bill delightfully. I opted for the late show (10:00pm), I figured everything ought to be nice and warm; all the kinks worked out; and real excitement in the air, built by the hard core Latin jazz fans like myself. I was right, by 8:30pm, a sizable number of patrons for the 10 o'clock show had already arrived. Everybody was excited. The women were gorgeous; the men were composed and cool. I mean, "the scene was clean."
Sanchez's concerts always jump off with something swinging and hot, featuring the blistering trumpet of Ron Blake. Tonight however, he chose a medium tempo number, but Blake still had space to fill with some burn and energy. The pianist got in a nice solo, I noticed that he was playing the upright grand piano, and not a synthesizer; this seemed to foster a cool feel to the atmosphere; even Sanchez was laid back on his congas. It was the first tune I assured myself, things would heat up soon enough.
Tonight, with Sanchez on congas, percussion, vocals, and trumpeter Terence Blanchard were, Francisco Torres, trombone; George Ortiz, timbales; Rob Hardt, tenor & alto saxophones; Ron Blake, trumpet. The always interesting, Tony Banda was not in his usual spot on bass, neither was regular pianist David Torres, and I did not hear the names of the players that took their places. Percussionist Joey DeLeon was not in the line up either. I wondered how this altered band would perform as they began their second tune of the show, with an over-the-shoulder look back to 1993 for a tune that first appeared on the album Bailar: A Night With Pancho Sanchez: Live, "Siempre Me Va Bien." Just as the alto saxophone was featured on that date, Rob Hardt stepped out front with his alto and blew a clean, body-swaying solo to which Francisco Torres attached an intense, searching trombone solo until Sanchez moved in, mixing percussive power and flight with the crowd's rising enthusiasm.
Poncho Sanchez must have been feeling especially good, he was delightfully talkative and engaging with the audience. Either that, or he was deliberately prolonging the feeling of suspense present in the room, because he decided to pay tribute to the great Tito Puente; but first, a story about him and Puente at the Watergate Hotel bar while attending an All Star Show at Kennedy Center, in Washington D. C. The story is too long to recount here, but I learned that Tito Puente never missed a gig; he was a real fun guy; was very generous to friends and acquaintances alike; he could definitely hold his own at the bar; said he did not need a lot of sleep; only an hour or so, and he was good to go; that was until he hit a bed, dressed in a tuxedo, or whatever he happened to be wearing; then it took an entire hotel staff to get him up. Trouble was, following this particular night, he missed an early morning airline flight, and had to pay $11,000.00 (ouch) for a special chartered flight to a gig on the Caribbean island of Barbados. But I figure, if you're heading to a beautiful, sun-drenched paradise, with white sandy beaches; water so blue, it looks almost emerald-green, and full of really cool, fun-loving people: then maybe, it's worth $11,000.00 to get there. The tribute to Tito Puente consisted of a smoldering medley of "Oye Cayuco/Oye Mi Cha Cha Cha" that turned into Puente's infectious, monster hit "Oye Como Va." There is something about this tune that makes you want to dance the instant you hear it, but the club was packed, and there was no room to dance, you could almost hear the audience groan in desperation, and no matter how mellow Ron Blake's trumpet tried to make this hit sound, it was a losing battle; people started to dance at their tables: It was then that I realized the band had lost nothing in its altered state!
In retrospect, it is clear that Sanchez was craftily preparing the audience for trumpeter Terence Blanchard's eventual entrance, by mixing moods, tempos, keeping anticipation keenly alive with a vignette straight out of Jim Morrison and The Doors, "Light My Fire": "You know that it would be untrue/You know that I would be a liar/If I was to say to you/Girl, we couldn't get much higher." It was great, perfect, theatre:
Enter trumpeter Terence Blanchard to carry on the rich, vibrant tradition of cross pollinating the jazz idiom with Latin rhythms.
Sanchez artfully announced the young trumpeter's presence as the featured soloist on trumpeter Clifford Brown's classic 1954 composition "Daahoud." The front line horns of Blake, Hardt and Torres took the first chorus, and the pianist soloed while Blanchard stood like a quiet gentle giant; compact, solid, head movin' to the beat, diggin' the groove; getting the tempo down; listening with 'big ears.' Then he heard his 'space' approaching; pursed his lips; and in one quick movement, like a boxer seizing an 'opening,' he raised the trumpet and blew with such unbridled power, passion and feeling, that the audience literally gasped. Blanchard did not blow "Daahoud" again after this opening salvo, until the coda of the piece, when he joined the other horns: but that was enough; the audience knew a 'heavy' was up on stage, and he was 'down' with his horn.
Sanchez allowed everyone to collect themselves by selecting a 'bolero' for Blanchard: the tempo slowed and Blanchard blew with a nice, warm, burnished tone, nourished by cool power; hitting high notes with effortless clarity; never sacrificing form, structure, or feeling, and harvesting whispered excitement around the room.
Now it was time to engage the Latin jazz canon of the iconic John Birks "Dizzy" Gillespie; the jazz musician who was not only one of the principal architects of bebop, but to quote Sanchez himself, Gillespie and Chano Pozo "were the pioneers of what is now known as Latin jazz." Gillespie's smooth "Con Alma" was featured; acknowledged as a tune that "incorporates aspects of bebop jazz and Latin rhythm, and is known for its frequent changes in key centers (occurring every two bars) while still maintaining a singable melody; and if Dizzy Gillespie wrote it, there would be shameless ventures into the trumpet's upper register, where Gillespie was a monarch of all he surveyed; once prompting a young Miles Davis to query Dizzy, why he (Miles) couldn't play like Gillespie. Dizzy's response: "because you don't 'hear' up there." Tonight, Blanchard not only was 'hearing up there,' he was also seeing a panorama of majestic peaks and valleys stretched out before him as far as his musical eye could see, and he was painting the picture in vivid, effulgent colors pouring out of his own "soul."
Eventually it was time to end the show, and Sanchez gave his "we have time for one more" spiel, and it was going to be some Salsa. The band burned through a tune called "Ven Morena" that contained some blazing exchanges between Blanchard and Ron Blake that almost set the place on fire, and was worth the price of admission by itself, as the rest of the band rocked underneath with a hypnotic rhythmic smoothness much like those sensational 50's days and nights when Puente, Machito and Tito Rodriguez reigned at the Palladium in New York City. When the fire was over, Sanchez and the band actually tried to walk of the stage and almost started a riot. They quickly thought it over, and returned to play the much called for 'encore'; so Sanchez dug deep into his 60's R&B bag and dug out Junior Walker & The All Stars crowd- pleaser, "Shotgun," complete with its mind-blowin' organ groove. The room roared and dancing broke out everywhere; around tables; in the aisles; and in any available space...but Sanchez gave them what they wanted for a solid 10 minutes or so, and then, and only then, was the band allowed to get off that stage...
Whatever else is said about Poncho Sanchez and his Latin Jazz Orchestra, his musical concepts, planning, implementation, and ultimate execution are brazenly impressive, and mark his band as one of the most trenchantly incisive and successful of the genre.
Listen to the band play Ernesto Lecuona's classic Afro-Cuban composition