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Poncho Sanchez: Raise Your Hand(Profile/Biography)

United States
With an astounding quarter-of-a-century track record of producing 22 albums for the same label, it would be tempting for an artist to begin to take it all for granted. The fame, the adulation of fans and critics, and the very process of making music could all become too predictable. But not in the notable case of Poncho Sanchez. For the leader of the world’s most popular Latin jazz group, conceptualizing and producing a new session is as stimulating and rewarding as it’s ever been. The thrill is far from gone. And neither has the pride of ownership been diminished. “This album’s got it all,” the globe’s most recognized conguero says of his new Concord Picante release, Raise Your Hand. “I like what I like, and this is it.”

In terms of stylistic variety and the involvement of special guests, Raise Your Hand underscores Poncho’s hands-on approach to crafting every new album. This record also highlights the conga legend’s innate curiosity, his sincere interest in a wide spectrum of popular music, and his cordial relationship with an eclectic group of world class musicians. On 10 invigorating tracks, Raise Your Hand explores traditional salsa and Cuban music, bebop-rooted and West Coast-seasoned Latin jazz, and vintage Latin soul -- a spicy amalgam of R&B and funk. Along for the ride with Poncho and his well-traveled octet are some of the most hallowed names in traditional salsa and soul music. Fabled Puerto Rican sonero Andy Montañez guests on one sensational salsa track, while R&B icon Booker T. Jones, in the company of his Mgs guitar legend Steve Cropper and vocalist Eddie Floyd, add their patented funky licks to two Floyd classics. Rounding out the guest roster are saxophonist Maceo Parker and singer José “Perico” Hernández. And behind the participation of every guest is a personal story that gives their involvement special significance.

“I‟ve admired Andy’s singing for many, many years, going back to the big salsa explosion in the 1970s,” says Poncho of salsero Montañez. “I was honored at the San Juan Heineken Jazz Festival last year, and we got there a few days early,” he recounts, “so the first night, we were checking out where all of the Latin bands were playing in San Juan, and I asked about Andy’s band. It turns out that they were playing for a prom! I said, “Oh man, let’s go!‟ We were told that it was a private event, and there were security guys in suits, and we couldn’t just go in. So the way they do it in Puerto Rico is to go around to the back to where the kitchen is, and the guys in the kitchen were cool and they let us in.” He ended up being asked to sit in, much to the delight of the prom-goers, and the seed was planted for Montañez to sing ”El Agua de Belén,” an old Puerto Rican tune associated with the late Puerto Rican crooner Tito Rodriguez.

“Dónde Va Chichi?” feature Cuban vocalist José “Perico” Hernández, whose last recording with Poncho’s band was on the 1983 release Sonando, his very first album for Concord Picante. “The first time I heard him sing,” Poncho says of his longtime friend, “I thought “Wow!‟ He goes back to the old school in Cuba.” When it was decided to do the old Cuban tune ”Dónde Va Chichi?” he called Hernández, who was very familiar with the song. “It hasn’t been recorded for a long time,” Poncho adds, “and man, he really nails it!”

An interest in soul music goes back to his high school days in Norwalk, California, when Poncho sang in an R&B group. Since then, he’s covered genre hits by James Brown and other soul gurus and has recorded with a long list of R&B royalty, including Tower of Power, The Crusaders‟ horn section, Ray Charles, Sam Moore, and Billy Preston. “I love soul music -- the whole thing, from Motown and Stax to James Brown,” he readily admits. “Concord Music now owns the legendary Stax Records library,” he adds, “so I called Booker T. and asked him if he‟d be interested in doing a couple tunes he‟d done in the past. He was all excited and put me in touch with Eddie Floyd and Steve Cropper, and I was really surprised that they knew so much about me,” comments Poncho, who recalls meeting the threesome for the first time years ago when both bands were on tour in Italy.

The marriage of Latin and soul is nothing new: In the 1960s, the boogaloo movement was championed by such revered Latin jazz artists as Mongo Santamaria and Willie Bobo, who covered such soul standards as “Cold Sweat” and “Hurt So Bad.” “I grew up with all of that,” the conguero recalls, “so when young people tell me, “Hey Poncho, that’s a great idea to do the soul stuff,” I always tell them, “I”m not the first cat to do this; Mongo and Willie did a lot of soul and funk tunes many years ago. I‟m just adding on to it, and doing my own thing.‟”

Maceo Parker, best known as James Brown’s singular sax player, adds his salty licks to another soul masterpiece, “Shotgun,” and “Maceo’s House,” an original penned by Poncho’s trombonist and arranger Francisco Torres that was based on a fragment of solo the saxophonist played on an earlier album. Torres and Poncho also join forces on two originals, the soulful instrumental “Tropi Blue” and “Amor Con Amor,” a spicy number with Poncho taking lead vocals. Rounding out the session are several other engaging new Latin jazz gems by Poncho, keyboardist David Torres and band members Ron Blake and Javier Vergara.

By now, the story is well known of Poncho’s ascendance from his formative years as an eager young disciple of the late Cuban conga master Mongo Santamaria and a sideman for Latin jazz vibraphonist Cal Tjader to his current position of prominence in the Latin jazz universe. In recent years Santamaria, Tito Puente, Ray Barretto, Hilton Ruiz, Mario Bauzá and Arturo “Chico” O‟Farrill, among others, have passed away, leaving an enormous void. With each passing, Poncho’s role as a keeper of the flame has become even more important. It may seem improbably that a Mexican-American kid who was born in dusty Laredo, Texas on October 30, 1951 grew up to become an international ambassador for the music he has idolized since his youth. His remarkable record of accomplishments, including the extensive Concord Picante discography and his Grammy Award for his 2000 release Latin Soul, make Poncho a truly one-of-a-kind Latin music star. Raise Your Hand is the latest affirmation of his prowess -- a bold testament to his multi- faceted artistry and unbridled affection for the music to which he has dedicated his life.

“When we perform, I tell people, “This is Poncho Sanchez and his Latin Jazz Band,‟” he concludes, strongly accenting the words ”Latin jazz.” “I do like to mess around with soul music and salsa, so you‟re going to get some of that too. But there is always going to get a strong dose of Latin jazz, you can count on that.‟”
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