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Eddie Palmieri and Pancho Sanchez: A Night of Latin Jazz at the Kimmel Center

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The dominant players in the Palmieri group were the horns. Their improvisations were infused with African-American, mainstream, and modern jazz traditions.
Eddie Palmieri and Pancho Sanchez Bands
Mellon Jazz Fridays, Verizon Hall
The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Friday, March 2, 2007

"Latin jazz is a very popular genre today. But exactly what is it? Like other current music idioms, it can be hard to pin down, but you could say that the term encompasses any music with a Latin rhythm that also includes significant jazz elements, whether syncopation, blues, extended solo improvisations, jazz-associated melodies, and other features drawn from the jazz mainstream—from its origins in New Orleans to the present-day international scene. A Latin band also typically includes a full percussion section: congas, bongos, klaves, maracas, etc., along with the standard jazz drum set.

Initially, the stream of Latin jazz into this country was a narrow estuary, starting out with Latin dance rhythms of the swing era, and eventuating in the bossa nova craze and then salsa music. Some years ago, before my knees gave out, I enjoyed jogging along the Delaware River on Saturday mornings listening on my Walkman radio to the salsa show on WRTI. But one barely heard a peep of such music during the rest of the week on RTI, the main jazz station in Philadelphia. Nowadays, you can practically count on hearing some Latin jazz selections on all their jazz programs, 24/7. Latin is an integral part of the current jazz scene—reflective of the frequent commingling of jazz and Latin musicians in the Carribean, South America, and elsewhere (for example, Paquito d'Rivera's extended tour with Dizzy Gillespie) as well as the expanding numbers of Latinos now making their home in the U.S.

The problem of musical styles and definition was recently illustrated by the double bill appearance of the Sancho Panchez and Eddie Palmieri bands at the Kimmel Center. Here we had two popular ensembles that superficially sounded similar, with their respecctive rhythm sections pounding out body-stimulating Latin beats and the piano, winds, and bass taking solos with the inflections and chord changes of jazz. The music heated up, with the volume extinguishing a few kilohertz from my high range of hearing(!), and the audience wanting to stand up and dance, clap, and shout, which some folks actually began to do. On a surface level, a listener might be hard- pressed to distinguish between these two very exciting, energizing groups, but upon closer listening, the differences were telling.

Sanchez' group, first on the bill, reflected the natural way he came up as a musician. A populist, fully immersed in Latino culture, he was born in Texas in 1951 into a large Mexican-American family and then grew up in the Los Angeles area, where he was exposed to a broad range of Latin and non-Latin popular music. Inspired by the conga playing of Cuban great Mongo Santamaria, he honed his skills as a percussionist and broke into the limelight at the age of 23 when he joined vibraphonist Cal Tjader's famed Latin jazz ensemble in 1975. Over the years, Sanchez has hand-picked guest artists who have had a special role in shaping his growth as a musician, from trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and saxophonist Eddie Harris, to Latin-jazz patriarch Tito Puente, conga legend Santamaria, and the late Ray Charles. Sanchez's music, deeply rooted in Latin and popular music traditions, only gradually grafted on mainstream jazz influences.

Accordingly, true to his roots, his band played in a predominantly Latin style, with jazz, rock, and funk added for a more complex flavor. Sanchez, a big hulk of a man with a strong persona, was the dominant force throughout, up front on the stage with two large conga drums which he popped relentlessly in frenetic rhythm. From the start, a composition entitled "Talking Blues from Sanchez' new CD Do It!, the Latin rhythms took command and dominated throughout. It wasn't until another few numbers that saxophonist Javier Vergara and trombonist David Torres had a chance to shine in Torres' piece, "Tito in the City, dedicated to Tito Puentes. The soloing of both players, though equally full and rich, had little of the African-American tonalities, blues scales and quarter tones that jazz fans are used to.

The set climaxed with a crowd-pleaser called "Raise Your Hand, with Sanchez drumming, singing, and encouraging the audience to lose it. Frankly, few serious jazz musicians, it struck me, would interact with the audience in this way. Sanchez clearly functioned as a popular entertainer at this point, and many in the audience ate it up. The set concluded in a more structured manner with a comparatively sedate salsa, re-instating the Latin "dance emphasis.


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