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Monday, May 19, 2008

Last Night: Poncho Sanchez at Yoshi's

Posted By on Mon, May 19, 2008 at 8:07 AM


Poncho Sanchez at Yoshi's

May 18, 2008

By Oscar Medina

Better than: Chin scratching jazz shows.

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Latin Jazz percussionist Poncho Sanchez capped off a 2 week stint in the Bay Area last night at Yoshi's by playing an inspired set of blistering salsa, jazz standards and a full dose of latin funk. His tour has been a homage to his mentor and teacher Cal Tjader, a Swedish-American jazz vibraphonist who played an essential part in early jazz history of convincing jazz critics and the American audience in general to accept Latin Jazz as a valid art form on its own. Poncho has brought out his top players in a tour that was meant to relive his youth as a Cal Tjader percussionist in the 60's and 70's and as a way to remind people that latin jazz is still relevant in an age where interest in jazz is diminishing. Last night that audience needed no convincing that Latin Jazz played with verve, dexterity and rhythmic energy is on par with the best of what is considered classic jazz in many circles.

Poncho came out on stage clad in his signature beard, black shirt and white taped fingers to start off the set with "El Conguero", a salsa number that makes use of subtle syncopation of the congas and bongo to make room for the melodic phrasing of the tenor sax. His seven piece band was on a tight locked groove in this song as they were for most of the night, playing off each other like seasoned professional jazzmen, allowing room for songs to spontaneously grow without allowing any self indulgences on the players part, something which is common in a salsa jazz setting. The next few songs almost seemed uneventful, an Eddie Harris latin soul number that came off pleasantly enough and some more Cal Tjader reworkings that were well worked but provided no real traction for their set.

It wasn't until their 6th song "Bati, Bati, Cha Cha" that the band really started to shine and consequently induce people out of their seats to start dancing. "Bati, Bati" is built on a vocal refrain that keeps the rhythmic center in place while the rest of the members weave percussion, horns and piano while keeping the dancers on beat. From there Poncho invited three more people onto the stage, Ruben Estrada a vibraphonist, but most notably Roger Glenn a flautist who played with him in the days of Cal Tjader. This addition of Roger catapulted the night onto another level by adding a melodic tone and an energy that had to some degree been absent before.

At a certain point in "Afro- Blue" Mr. Glenn brought out the chekere, best described as an oversized water jug dressed in beads that is used as a percussion instrument.The man was a master of this piece, he would playfully shake it around, go back to playing flute and then would return to rap the chekere against the microphone and induce tonal reverb that sounded like a deep moaning that worked in counterpoint to the drummers frenetic pounding. All this mayhem caused 3 other band members (Poncho included) to bring out their chekeres and play in tandem to Roger's experimentation. This moment was a poignant one as the rest of the band mates stood aside and watched these masters create what almost sounded like deep tribal spasms that nearly veered on the avant garde; needless to say the crowd responded with approval by chanting, hollering and dancing.

The rest of the night could not match the intensity of "Afro Blue" but in their encore they did somehow manage to pull off something special. As the encore began nearly the whole venue just rose out of their seats and started dancing, everyone from yuppies, old jazzheads, college students, local fans, and salsa enthusiasts just left their seats. They had flipped the surface argument about jazz on it's head, that it has become an armchair intellectual's sport, well for Poncho Sanchez band last night they couldn't have been more wrong.

Critics Notebook

Personal Bias: I've seen Poncho many times in all types of venues from run down cafes to concert halls.

Random Detail: The waitress got angry at me because I told her the beer she served me was warm.

By The Way: Poncho won a Grammy for his album "Soul of the Conga."

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About The Author

Oscar Medina


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