Poncho Sanchez doesn't think of himself as much of a storyteller. But get him talking and he'll relive the moments that eventually led to one night in 1974. On that evening, vibraphonist Cal Tjader, a Latin jazz icon, plucked Sanchez from the audience and threw him onstage behind the conga drums at L.A.'s premier jazz club, Concerts by the Sea. Sanchez's musical journey exudes the kind of real-life minutiae that envelop the listener, so he's had to add skilled raconteur to his bandleader/conga player/singer credentials.
"Once you wind me up, I go crazy," exclaims Sanchez on the phone from his home in southern California a week after playing two gigs in Alaska. "I mean, we've played for the king of Thailand in his palace, with Dizzy Gillespie, Tito Puente and Mongo Santamaria, all of my heroes. We've done some big shows, at the Hollywood Bowl and Carnegie Hall.
"We've also played in prisons," he laughs. "You know, we've done just about everything, so I guess there are a lot of stories there."
Sanchez's impromptu performance with Tjader was the result of a reputation he gained while moonlighting as a conguero with a local band called Sabor. A chance encounter at a nightclub with a good friend of Tjader's who saw Sanchez play and liked what he heard sealed his fate. A week later, Tjader was in town to play a concert.
"So we pay our way in like everybody else to sit down and enjoy the show, right? As I was walking down the stairs at this Concerts by the Sea place, that white guy named Ernie who had bought me a drink `a week before`, was standing at the front door talking to Cal Tjader. I stopped dead in my tracks," Sanchez excitedly recounts. "At that moment he was talking to Cal Tjader about me! Then he pointed me out to Cal and I about died right there."
During the middle of the set Tjader invited Sanchez, then 23, onstage. "I started playing and he gave me a solo," Sanchez recalls. "The crowd reacted, everybody went nuts, and then I got up and I thought, ‘Wow, I played one song with Cal Tjader!' I got up to get off and he `Tjader` put his hand on my shoulder and says to me, ‘Stay with us for the rest of the set.'"
Two weeks later Tjader phoned Sanchez and hired him to play at a New Year's Eve concert. Sanchez stayed on with Cal Tjader's band for nearly eight years. They recorded a Grammy-winning album, La Onda Va Bien, in 1979. When Tjader died of a heart attack in Manila in 1982, Sanchez was by his side. "I was right next to him," Sanchez says. "It was very sad; he was like my musical father."
Sanchez went on to form his own band, releasing more than two dozen recordings. On 1995's Soul Sauce: Memories of Cal Tjader, he paid tribute to the vibraphonist who groomed him into a professional musician.
"I knew Cal Tjader's music inside and out," Sanchez affirms. "He was amazed that I knew so many tunes. He would say, ‘Man, you know the breaks to all these tunes.' I told him, ‘Hey I have every one of your records, man. I practice to them every day.' He goes, ‘You sure do, man, you know the breaks better than me.'"
Born in Texas, and raised in California, Sanchez grew up in a Mexican-American family listening to cha-cha-cha and mambo. While his peers dug Jimi Hendrix, Sanchez idolized Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaria. Right out of high school, he bought his first set of conga drums at a pawnshop and taught himself to play in his mom's garage. Whenever Santamaria played the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, the young Sanchez would arrive an hour early just to stare at the drums onstage.
"And then when Mongo would walk out and start playing it was like wow, heavy," Sanchez says. In 1995 Sanchez featured Santamaria as a guest musician on his Conga Blue album.
These days Sanchez adds soul music to his repertoire of Latin jazz and Afro-Cuban rhythms. On his last album, Do It!, he turned up the funk by collaborating with Tower of Power and legendary South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela. An album due out in early 2007 will feature Booker T. and the MGs and duets with Eddie Floyd.
"I'm hip to all that stuff," Sanchez says. "I started doing some James Brown songs as funky cha-cha-chas and people liked it, so now I do some old soul numbers as cha-chas or mambos."email@example.com