By Jacob Katel
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The high-profile gigs and recording dates continued unabated until the late Nineties when Figueroa got married and moved to Los Angeles. But the market for percussionists on the West Coast was unfriendly to interlopers from New York. After his marriage broke up, he placed a call to longtime friend and current band manager Rachel Faro in Miami. "I said 'I gotta get out of here, I'm gonna go out of my mind,'" gestures Figueroa. So, after an invitation from Faro, he boarded a plane in late 2000 and has been calling Miami home ever since.
After a few painful gigs with questionable musicians and wondering "what the hell am I doing here," Figueroa got back in the swing of things. "It was the kind of thing where you have to be very patient and diligent about everything, forget that you had a name," says Figueroa on the year or so it took to establish himself. "But if you're gonna be a backup musician, you'll starve to death. Miami, if you don't have your own thing, you're dead." The number of live shows and recording opportunities here pales in comparison to the action in New York while the Latin jazz scene is, surprisingly, a small though fledgling enterprise. But now, true to form, he has gotten involved in a mixed bag of projects, from sitting in with DJ Le Spam and the Spam Allstars during their frequent gigs to recording with the Viennese electronica duo dZihan & Kamien on their 2002 release Gran Riserva. The latter experience has led to Figueroa releasing an album of his own digital beats for sampling and a forthcoming electronica single produced by dZihan & Kamien.
But it's the band that has gotten the most attention. Formed near the end of 2002 after Don Wilner, the Van Dyke Café's musical director, offered Figueroa a Friday night slot if he could get his own band together, Sammy Figueroa and his Latin Jazz Explosion has already caught the ear of big labels like Universal and Virgin's Narada Records. Though their sets usually feature standard Latin jazz compositions like "Mambo Influenciada," "Mico's Dream" and "Danzon"; a mix of clave rhythms; and some syncopated montuno vamps on the piano; the results can often reach dizzying heights. Percussion is the centerpiece of their sound and the congas the featured attraction.
"In New York, you're so busy, you barely have time for anything," says Figueroa of the frustrations of putting together a band. "So the first time I did it was in Miami, because you have more time to do it, and the musicians are available because they don't work as much. But I didn't know I was gonna wind up with these great musicians like Mike Orta, Nicky Orta, they're so amazing, Carlos Averhoff. They're just as good as any musicians in New York, or better.
"But we already enjoy ourselves, which is what I didn't do in New York, trying to think too big. Miami has helped me to really just enjoy the moment, and not care about any record deals, and just play, just play for yourself and play for your musicians," says Figueroa, beaming that mile-wide smile.