By Rebecca Bulnes
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When Sammy Figueroa smiles, it's one of those mile-wide smiles that starts at the bottom of his feet and spreads to his entire face, then fills up the room. It's a grin that Tito Puente and Mongo Santamaria used to flash and Francisco Aguabella still does. There's something about conguerosthat makes them look like the most joyful people in the world. And for Sammy Figueroa, the man behind the row of conga drums on stage in the upstairs jazz lounge of the Van Dyke Café, life as a master conguero has been sweet indeed.
"This next song is called 'Syncopa o No.' I have no idea what that means," jokes the congueroto the audience. "Man I've been living in buildings too long, I need the country," he continues, speaking in playful rat-a-tat riffs that sound like his drumming. "I'm just a Puerto Rican from New York."
The song starts with a slap of the skins and a steady dooo-lat-tat, dooo-lat-tat as Figueroa sets the tempo and drives the engine of the quintet known as Sammy Figueroa and his Latin Jazz Explosion, with guest trumpeter Ray Vega sitting in for a special JVC Jazz Festival showcase. Figueroa palms a tight but subdued rhythm in repeated motion over the congas as the band jumps from the melody of the tune to a round of fevered solo improvisations, starting with tenor saxophonist Carlos Averhoff's heady Latin-bop workings. Next up is Mike Orta on piano, followed by brother Nicky Orta on bass, then Goetz Kujack on drums. And finally it's Figueroa's turn to show his stuff, teasing the crowd with a taste of beats before slowly building into a flurry of hands and resounding pops.
"Sammy is like a combination of a lot of things. He has a lot of similarities to Mongo. He's a very precise percussionist and has a great concept of the tempo, the beat," says Averhoff, the band's musical director and a founding member of the landmark Cuban group Irakere. If anyone knows conguerosit would be Averhoff, having played with the likes of Ray Barretto, Candido, Patato Valdez, and Jorge Alfonso, to name just a few. "Sammy has perfect timing and he has the mastery of suggestion, even to me as a saxophone player, because he's very creative with the rhythm and the combinations with us. I'm very fortunate to be here in Miami with a percussionist like Sammy."
If you had to summarize Figueroa's playing in two words it might be "less is more," a versatile yet economical style. He learned early in his career to stay within the structure of the song no matter the idiom he found himself in. Indeed, Figueroa's way of playing has been so ideal to musicians and record producers (Arif Mardin, Quincy Jones) that the number of albums where you'll read the credit "Sammy Figueroa: percussion" in the liner notes is an eye-popping catalogue of close to 300, including ten platinum sellers that include David Bowie's Let's Dance, Average White Band's AWB and Whitney Houston's Whitney. It has also earned him three Grammy awards for Best Percussionist of the Year. According to many, Sammy Figueroa is one of the greatest percussionists in the world.
Born in the Bronx and raised in New York and Puerto Rico, Figueroa started his music career as a singer like his balladeer father Charlie Figueroa, but switched to congas in his early twenties while working at a Sam Goody record store. The change stemmed from a desire to play and feel an instrument, and percussion and rhythm were the closest things to his heart. Amassing a collection of records through his job, Figueroa taught himself to play by jamming along to Bill Fitch from Cal Tjader's group.
Like a New York fairytale, he would go from record store clerk to the stage of the Montreux Jazz Festival in the blink of Herbie Mann's eye. As Figueroa tells it, the famous jazz flutist was a regular customer who was often impressed by his recommendations. When Mann learned that he played percussion, Figueroa was invited to sit in with Mann's band at one of his club gigs. Mann was so impressed with Figueroa's drumming that night that he offered him membership in the band on the spot, with one condition: He had to quit his job at the record store.
"I said 'I can't quit the store, where am I gonna live?'" says an animated Figueroa over lunch at Soyka's on Biscayne Boulevard. "But Herbie came to the store and told the owner, 'He doesn't work for you anymore, he works for me.' And I was like shaking, 'what are you doing?' Herbie said, 'Take that off, you look silly with that vest,' because in those days you had to wear a red vest. And the manager said, 'If you leave this store, you'll never come back here again.' Herbie rushed me out of the store like a B-movie and I stayed at his place for a month, and then after that it was history."
Since joining Mann's group in late 1974, Figueroa has gone on to tour with the Brecker Brothers and John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra. He's played or recorded with an honor roll of jazz greats like Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock, Chet Baker, Etta James, Donald Byrd, and Freddie Hubbard. And his rock credits, which include Mick Jagger, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Annie Lenox, Brian Ferry, and Stevie Ray Vaughn, are no less impressive. Then there was his membership in the original Saturday Night Liveband and his many appearances with Paul Shaffer's CBS Orchestra on Late Night with David Letterman.
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.