Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Surrogate Cuban

By Michael Henningsen

DECEMBER 7, 1998:  Here's a twist: One of the greatest living Latin jazz conga maestros was born in Laredo, Texas, raised in Los Angeles and hasn't spent much time in Latin America. But the 47-year-old Poncho Sanchez was born to mambo and cha-cha--it's in his blood if not in his direct lineage.

"All of my brothers and sisters were into the mambo and the cha cha-cha," says Sanchez. "I heard that music every day in my house. And growing up in a Chicano neighborhood, I also heard plenty of doo-wop and soul music."

And all of those influences resonate in Sanchez's music. A master of Afro-Cuban music, Sanchez says the feel of Latin jazz is simply in his heart. "If you ... love it as much as I do," he says, "it doesn't matter where you're from."

His love for the music is reflected in his extensive discography: 17 albums-worth of Latin flavored delight. His latest, Afro-Cuban Fantasy (Concord), teams him for the first time with a female vocalist, Dianne Reeves. Sanchez himself does vocal duty on a number of tracks on the new record, branching out to exclamate several of the songs with his own passionate voice, but the real breakthrough here is that examples of conga players working in cooperation with singers is unusual. But to Sanchez, it's old hat. In the past, he's worked with salsa legend Celia Cruz, Carmen McRae and Cal Tjader.

Now one of the most highly regarded figures in Latin jazz, Sanchez is typically reserved about his place in the musical world. "Some people consider me the keeper of the Latin jazz flame," he says. "It was an uphill battle, but I feel like I've finally made it to the top of the mountain."


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