American music

If you want to play congas and earn people’s respect, you better be from Africa, Cuba, or Puerto Rico. Or you can be Poncho Sánchez.

“Nobody showed me nothing,” says conga player and bandleader Sánchez, who was born in Laredo, of all places, but grew up in Los Angeles. “I learned from listening to records, and I was too young to go to nightclubs. Maybe today it would be a little easier for a Tejano or Chicano or Mexican-American to break into the circle, probably because of me (laughs). But when I was coming up — early ‘70s — there were very few Mexican-American conga drummers around, and half the time they really didn’t know the real way to play congas.”

Unlike the too-abundant overtly dance-oriented, crowd-pleasing, Latin-jazz orchestra leaders, self-taught percussionist Sánchez concentrates on making solid albums. He doesn’t cover hits just for the sake of covering hits. In concerts, he lets the music, not his technical skills, do the talking, and his latest albums have been especially sonically superb: 2003’s soulful Out of Sight is arguably the best-sounding Latin-jazz album ever recorded. Musically, he later jumped from the funkier Do It! (2005) to the well-rounded Raise Your Hand (2007), a stirring mix of salsa, Latin jazz, soul, and R&B.

Now he comes to San Antonio with the same orchestra that recorded Psychedelic Blues, his new album (to be released on September 29, his 24th release with Concord Records), named after a Sonny Henry-penned classic popularized by Willie Bobo. The album also features guest appearances by Andrew Synowiec, guitarist for LA’s Gordon Goodwin Big Phat Band, and Cuban ace trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, and starts off with a new version of Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island.”

“The last couple records have gone a little heavy on the soul music, which has gone over really well in our live shows,” explains Sánchez in press materials, “but we wanted to do more of a straight-ahead Latin jazz record this time — something in the tradition of our earlier Concord records that we made back in the ’80s.”

Message to Little Joe Hernández: If you’re in SA on Saturday, stop by Travis Park.

“Little Joe `Hernández` and I have spoken about `recording` a polka pattern with a mambo beat,” says Sánchez. “I told Little Joe, and he got really excited. I said, ‘Joe, we gotta do a record together and mix those two ideas.’ He’s ready to do it with me, but I had to do `Psychedelic Blues` first. Maybe for my next album.”

At 57 (58 in October), Sánchez says he doesn’t feel like a Tejano, Chicano, Angeleno, or all of the above. He has transcended external designations, yet he understands the Afro Latin, soul, and funk worlds as only an American could.

“I feel like Poncho Sánchez,” he says, laughing. “I feel very proud. I am a Latino that is from America, because I was born in the United States of America. I’m proud to say that. And many great things happened in the United States of America. Latin jazz was born here when Dizzy Gillespie met the great Cuban conga drummer Chano Pozo in the ’40s. That, to me, is American music, you know?”

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