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Bobby Sanabria: Afro-Cuban Storyteller

By Published: March 24, 2008
AAJ: Let's talk about this new record. To start, let's talk about some of the people who are on it. If you yourself are intimately connected to the beginnings of the tradition because of your performances with the folks you just mentioned, then I'm guessing it must be cool for people like your pianist, Yeissonn Vilamar, who's a younger guy, to have you as that touchstone. Now he's got a direct connection to the root because he's getting a chance to play in your band and expand his vocabulary. Do you think that's the case?

BS: Of course, of course. To use that whole corny cliche of the "circle of life," it's like the circle of music. As the tradition was passed on to me, I pass it on to the next generation. I do that in a very direct way, through my teaching at the New School University and also at the Manhattan School of Music, where I teach the only authentic Afro-Cuban jazz orchestras on the college and university level. The great thing about the concerts that we do is that the majority of the audience is always young people, so they get turned on to the music. They're always coming up and saying, "Mr. Sanabria, where can I hear this music?"

The sad part is that jazz radio leaves much to be desired today, because there isn't that much jazz radio on the airwaves. So it's important that with this show you have [The Jazz Session] and with other shows and the print media, it's important that we get the message out there for young people to get involved in this music, which really represents the best of what we are as a society. It's America's greatest art form. People from all over the world come to study it. Yet the average 16-year-old kid walking down the street, if you asked them are they into jazz, they wouldn't know Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington. I consider what I do very serious, especially on the teaching end.

AAJ: One of the things about this new record is that the music comes from a lot of different sources. Not only members of your band, but also a couple previously unrecorded pieces by composer Hermeto Pascoal. And also music by one of the all-time great Afro-Cuban composers, Frank Zappa. How did you choose "The Grand Wazoo"?

BS: [laughs] I've always been into Frank Zappa. I first became familiar with him on the Dick Cavett Show. It would come on at 11:30 at night. I also used to flip back and forth between that and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, because both shows had big bands. On the commercial breaks, they would play. I had a TV in my room and I would keep the sound low so that my parents wouldn't know I was still up.

I also used to see the David Frost Show, which would come on at 10 o'clock at night. Mike Douglas was on in the afternoon. All these TV shows had bands. But not like the type of bands that you see today on David Letterman or other shows. These were primarily big bands, with full saxophone sections, trombone sections and trumpet sections. So it was really exciting on the commercial breaks to see these bands.

They had incredible drummers, too. The Dick Cavett Show had Bobby Rosengarten as the drummer and musical director. Johnny Carson had Ed Shaughnessy with an incredibly massive double bass drum kit with like five tom-toms. I was impressed that he had three or four music stands.

AAJ: And some impressive facial hair.

BS: [laughs] Yeah, those big mutton-chops. And Grady Tate was the drummer for David Frost. Occasionally, different players would sub in these bands. I remember watching the Johnny Carson show and [drummer] Billy Cobham was subbing for Ed Shaughnessy. The musicianship on these shows was incredible.

So on the Dick Cavett Show one night, I see this guy that Cavett introduces as "The Ugliest Man In America." It's Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. I started getting curious about him and checking out his records. In college, I really got into him, especially this one album called The Grand Wazoo (Bizarre, 1973) and that one particular tune. I always said I'd like to do some of his music and adapt it to big band, but utilizing Afro-Cuban rhythms.

I came up with the concept of this chart, and the different rhythmic changes and all that. Our lead trombone player, Joe Fiedler, I gave it to him and he came out with a beautiful adaptation that really pays homage to Frank and also to the universality of Afro-Cuban jazz. Frank, to my knowledge, never got involved in any ethnic things, unless you want to call R&B music something ethnic, which it is from the black community. He was prolific in terms of his historical knowledge of R&B and blues. But he never got involved in Latin rhythms. I think at the end of his life, he was going to collaborate on something with [Irish traditional group] The Chieftans. Alas, it never happened. I'm thinking that he's listening up in heaven and really smiling, because one of the things I love about Zappa is his unique way of combining funkiness and intelligence and humor in his music.

In this piece, we added the exciting rhythmic element of Afro-Cuban rhythms, and also some Dominican rhythms, too. At one point in the piece it switches to merengue from the Dominican Republic, so it's a combination of the blues shuffle, bembe, which is the rhythm that comes directly from Nigeria in West Africa, then was brought to Cuba in 6/8. We show the connection between jazz rhythm and West African rhythm when you hear that combination in the opening of the piece. Then there's obviously some orchestral elements, then it switches to son montuno, cha cha cha, then it goes to merengue, and then it goes all out to a church revival, where David de Jesus, in the role of Cletus Awreetus-Awrightus, the mythical figure that Frank Zappa created, plays the Grand Wazoo's Mystery Horn in a symbolic battle against the forces of jive and junk that the jazz musician battles constantly in this world today.

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