The Family That Plays Together

Well, well, well -- it's finally happening! Is that a huge conga I see in the horizon? The murmur of a Latin jazz scene? Perhaps it's too soon to celebrate, but Miami is off to an auspicious beginning.

In the past two months some of Latin jazz's most gifted children have strutted through town, y con sabor. Already in the course of 60 days, Miami has attracted the First Annual Afro-Cuban Jazz Festival (although it's been postponed); a Latin jazz all-star show promoting a new release featuring Tito Puente, Tito Nieves, Cachao, and others; and the Latin Meets Jazz series at the Stephen Talkhouse, which is in full effect, bearing already at least two memorable shows -- Giovanni "Manenguito" Hidalgo and the Cachao-Patato Valdez pairing.

This Friday the Talkhouse will stage, apart from the Latin Meets Jazz program, a show that promises yet another sonorous rumble. The giant hands of Los Angelenos conguero Poncho Sanchez will be in the 'House, alongside his band, which he calls his "familia," to give Miami a dose of Latin jazz as hot as the most tongue-numbing chili.

Sanchez is on the road promoting his latest release on Concord Picante, entitled Bailar, a live follow-up to the Grammy-nominated 1991 CD A Night at Kimball's East. Both CDs were recorded during the same December 8, 1990 concert in California.

Bailar opens with a swinging cut, "Siempre me va bien," an original composition by Sanchez's pianist and musical director, David Torres. While saxophonist Gene Burkert steady phrases and Tony Banda cooks up lively bass lines, the self-taught Sanchez sneaks up with crisp licks, reaching a climactic solo -- melodic, complex, yet fluid enough to make it swing. This sense of knowing how much not to play permeates the CD.

The title song from the 1984 Grammy-nominated CD Bien Sabroso, resurrected as the second cut on Bailar, is a son montuno reflecting the obvious and heavy Latin flavor as well as subtle elements of jazz, in the tradition of the old Cachao descargas -- horn section, bass, piano, congas, timbales, bongos, the works. A solo by bongo player Jose "Papo" Rodriguez at the song's apex (that is, the montuno)absolutely boils. And for dessert -- another brilliant Poncho solo.

One of my favorite tunes on Bailar is "Alafia," played in a typically Afro-Cuban 6/8 rhythm, complete with chequere (ancestor of the maraca), cowbells, and the rumba cascara (an expanded and more dynamic 3/2 clave rhythm). Here Sanchez really shows his versatility as a conga player, switching styles from guaguanc cents to more African sensibilities. A sax solo by Burkert really shines, true to the Yoruba meaning of alafia -- "everything is fine!"

After those first three spicy tunes the listener might be ready for a break (or not). Poncho and his "brothers" slow things down a bit with a romantic, moody, bolero-inspired tune. Delicate sax lines caress the body like fresh linen.

"Sonando" provides an infectious, uplifting cha-cha featuring percussive piano arrangements, solid solos by Sal Cracchiolo on trumpet, and Papo Rodriquez on bongos. And there's "Manteca," a classic Latin-jazz original by Dizzy Gillespie, Walter Fuller, and the legendary Cuban conguero/rumbero Chano Pozo. Sanchez displays his chops with some excellent repiques (roughly translated as "cutting the congas"). Apparently he's honoring one of his greatest influences -- and it's either Mongo Santamaria or Chano Pozo.

The seventh cut is a tribute to the great timbalero/percussionist Tito Puente. The base of "Tito Puente Medley" is the standard "Oye como va" (made famous by Santana) but the band uses refrains of another Puente classic cha-cha "Cayuco," as well as the Orquesta Aragon favorite "Clavelitos."

Completing the set is the family band's signature song -- "La Familia." Poncho Sanchez, the youngest of eleven kids of a Mexican-American clan, grew up listening to his siblings' collections of Mongo Santamaria, Machito, Eddie Palmieri, and the mentor he later played with (until his untimely death in 1982) vibraphonist Cal Tjader. The Banda brothers Tony and Ramon (featured on bass and timbales/percussion respectively) and other members have been playing with Sanchez for many years; they feel comfortable with one another, playing with each other, not just at the same time. The tightness of their music spills over from their personal tightness -- la familia. And this family serves up a feast of jazz and salsa with a dose of jalapeno. ­Baya!

Poncho Sanchez performs at 9:00 p.m.Friday at Stephen Talkhouse, 616 Collins Ave, Miami Beach, 531-7557. Tickets cost $20 and $25.

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Adrian Castro