The Miami-based Figueroa has worked with artists including David Bowie, Luther Vandross, Sonny Rollins, the Average White Band and the Spam Allstars, in addition to leading his own ensembles. His career spans six decades so far and shows no sign of slowing down, despite a recent heart attack.
“It wasn’t a heart attack where you fall over,” he says. “It was a feeling like acid reflux, you know?” His distress subsided, then returned, and he decided to go to the hospital. Wise choice - there he learned he had three blocked arteries and would be staying for a week.
Since then, he has changed his diet and lifestyle, and says he’s like a kid again. “I feel better than ever and have a new lease on life.”
He’s excited about the festival performance with his Cal Tjader tribute band, Sally’s Tomato. The group takes its name from a tune that was recorded by the vibraphonist and bandleader Tjader and written by Henry Mancini for the 1961 movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Figueroa recalled meeting Tjader, one of the greatest non-Latin leaders of Latin bands, in San Francisco while working with Ashford and Simpson.
“We talked for hours,” Figueroa says. He decided that night to do a tribute to him – someday. Tjader died in 1982. “Maybe 10, 15, 20 years later, I said there’s not Cal Tjader music anymore... Nobody has done a tribute to Cal Tjader.”
Other local stars who will perform at this year’s festival include vibraphonist Alfredo Chacon, saxophonist Yainer Horta, flutist and singer Magela Herrera and trombonist Ruben Caban, who will play during a six-hour, free event on Saturday, January 4 at Lummus Park. Earlier in the day, Grammy-winning drummer Jonathan Joseph is scheduled to lead an all-ages master class at the Miami Beach Community Church. And that night, pianist Kiki Sanchez will entertain at the Capital One Cafe on Lincoln Road.
The festival’s other ticketed event will be on Sunday, January 5: a jazz brunch with drummer Reuben Hoch’s Chassidic Jazz Project at the Marseilles Hotel. That afternoon, violinist, vocalist and educator Nicole Yarling will present up-and-coming musicians on the student stage at 1111 Lincoln Road. Pianist Fanni Sarkozy, trombonist William Cepeda and singer Ashley Pezzotti will play on the main stage at Euclid Avenue and Lincoln Lane North before Sally’s Tomato appears.
The festival will end with a screening of the biopic Ray, starring Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, on the wall at SoundScape Park on 17th Street.
Figueroa says he really enjoys performing at the South Beach Jazz Festival. “Where it’s located, the people that come to the concerts to perform, the setting, outdoors, people just having a great time, eating great food, listening - all their senses are open in this sense,” he says. “The visuals are beautiful.”
The festival’s success speaks to the growth of the local music scene, he adds.
“What it means to me is that the Miami scene is continually progressing,” he explains. “Now Miami is turning into the way New York was in the ’70s and ’80s. All these festivals are happening, this is phenomenal.”
— Tracy Fields, Artburst Miami
South Beach Jazz Festival. Friday, January 3 through Sunday, January 5 at various locations around Miami Beach; sobejazzfestival.com. Admission to ticketed events costs $40 to $75 via sobejazzfestival.com.