Poncho is Head Honcho at Cape May Fest


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Poncho Sanchez never fails to ignite his audience, and his Latin jazz band came out blazing as the Saturday night opening act/headliner at the semiannual Cape May Jazz Festival April 8-10.

Sanchez, the hammer-handed conga player and leather-lunged lead singer for the eight-piece band, has a crackerjack three-horn front line as always, a pianist who doubles on electrifying organ, and a couple fellow percussionists blending on hard-driving arrangements and contributing creative solos. All of which compelled some in the crowd to heed his command to get up and dance.

Sanchez saluted a half-dozen of his musical heroes over the course of two sets, including conguero pioneers Willie Bobo and Chano Pozo the latter in a medley of three Dizzy Gillespie classics, Con Alma, Tin Tin Deo and Manteca. Early mentor Cal Tjader (Guachi Guara) was remembered, and so were rhythm and blues legend Ray Charles (One Mint Julep) and soul star James Brown (Out of Sight).

Excitement reached a peak on one long, unnamed salsa tune as the ensemble riffed feverishly behind tenor saxophonist Robert Hardts marathon solo. For a needed change of pace, trombonist Francisco Torres and pianist David Torres teamed on a luminous version of the ballad Nearness of You, while Sanchez tapped tenderly behind them.

The leader paid deserved homage to his sound man, Larry Sanchez, whos worked with Poncho for 24 years. Indeed, the sound in the school gym that serves as Cape Mays concert hall while a new Convention Hall awaits construction was superb. Even in the controlled chaos of the busiest ensemble passages, every note came across crystal clear.

Friday nights headliner, ex-Tonight Show guitarist Kevin Eubanks didnt fare as well. Now touring with a quartet, Eubanks leans toward funk, and his often-splendid guitar work got swallowed up in the energetic drumming of Marvin Smitty Smith and booming bass of Alfred Rene Camacho.

Eubanks sounded great on his one feature, the hymnlike Adoration, as drums and sax sat out. And listeners were charmed by his genial personality as he related anecdotes about his TV years and current life as a touring jazzman.

Vibraphonist Warren Wolf brought mellower-sounding marimbas for his three sets leading the Wolfpac. In one set, he introduced an exotic original, Natural Beauties, then raced down Green Dolphin Street, with drummer John Lamkin applying the whip as Wolf was a blur on lightning-fast runs. A luxuriant Lush Life let everyone catch their breath; then it was back to the fast track on Cherokee.

Lauren Hooker sang with infectious gusto on several jazz standards,and collaborated with longtime friend, poet Jeannette Curtis-Rideau, who recited some of her works while the quartet grooved behind her. A highlight was her They Can Scat, Man, a clever homage to singers from Louis Armstrong to Nina Simone that incorporated some of their linguistic innovations.

Leon Jordan Jr. is a quintet-leading trumpeter with a great sound and a flair for original bop-based compositions. His last set finale, Cant Get It Right, was a dance-inducing boogaloo a la Sidewinder that put a bounce in my step as I headed to bed.

After the first hour of Poncho Sanchez, savvy listeners relaxed at Kim Clarkes Inner Circle performance delicate interplay between the bassist leader, guitarist Sheryl Bailey and drummer Sylvia Cuenca on several classic tunes.

Pianist John Beasley's sensitive playing with a trio suffered from a talkative late-night crowd; not ever drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts bombast could shut them up. Perhaps when emcees remind people to shut off their mobile devices, they could ask compulsive yakkers to go sit far to the rear.

Winston Byrd used to be a regular at early Cape May festivals, until he packed up his trumpet and magnetic personality in the early 2000s and headed to Hollywoodland. The erstwhile high-note bopster was back this year, leading a soul-jazz sextet that showcased the remarkable voice of Daniel Walsh, with Byrd inserting Miles Davis-like obbligatos.

Several blues bands, afternoon jazz jams and three sets by the Afrophonik Rhythm Crew helped fulfill the festivals goal of music for every taste. Fall festival dates are Nov. 11-13.


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