When it comes to accomplishments in the world of jazz, percussionist Sammy Figueroa has been there and played that. The Bronx-born Figueroa began his music career in the mid-Seventies with the Latin fusion group Raices. His stint with the widely acclaimed band was soon followed by tours and recordings with artists as diverse as jazz legends Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins and pop icons Chaka Khan and David Bowie. Lately DJs and electronic groups such as dZihan & Kamian and DJ Le Spam have enlisted Figueroa's services. You'll find the name Sammy Figueroa listed in the credits of several hundred albums. So when Figueroa and his Latin Jazz Explosion recently released their debut album, ... And Sammy Walked In (Savant), it was one more achievement in a stellar career that already spans four decades. For jazz aficionados, it's great to finally hear the consummate studio musician and sideman bring his prodigious talents to the forefront.
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There's nothing particularly groundbreaking about ... And Sammy Walked In, but that doesn't mean it isn't an immensely enjoyable CD. In many ways it will remind listeners of the intimate Latin jazz shows Figueroa and his crew have performed at Miami Beach's Van Dyke Café. Many of the songs on the disc are staples of his live set, and the band's familiarity with the songs and each other is evident throughout. There is a fluid interplay between the musicians that can only be attributed to playing small rooms together for several years. Even when seemingly disparate ideas and sounds simultaneously snake through the compositions, Figueroa and crew maintain a central synergy that holds the compositions together.
Throughout ... And Sammy Walked In, Figueroa demonstrates a great deal of respect for his band. He is content to stay in the background when the song requires it, and he generously passes off solos to trumpeter John Lovell and tenor saxman John Michalak. Also taking turns are the unparalleled Nicky Orta on bass and brother Michael Orta on piano. Their phenomenal solo work, particularly in the Chucho Valdes tune "Mambo Influenciado," will leave fans breathless. But when Figueroa does take his turn soloing, like in the title tune "And Sammy Walked In," it's an exciting display of his lighting speed and exceptional sense of rhythm. Latin beats are embedded in his blood and run through the tips of his fingers. He has a preternatural ability to make his congas sing. Figueroa even shows off a lovely singing voice on the album's swan song, the short but sweet "Duermete Mi Cielito." All in all, ... And Sammy Walked In is joyous music and a wonderful addition to Figueroa's long resumé.