A Jam-Packed Jazz Weekend
Ramsey Lewis, Sergio Mendes, Eddie Palmieri, Poncho Sanchez and Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club are at the Center for three days of extraordinary music.
By Cristofer Gross
This fall the Center will present three consecutive nights of legendary Latin jazz stars whose performances will be hotter than a bowl of jalapeños.
On Friday, October 9, Poncho Sanchez and his Latin Jazz Band and Eddie Palmieri and his Salsa Orchestra kick off the jam-packed jazz weekend. Jazz icon Ramsey Lewis and bossa nova hit-maker Sergio Mendes follow on Saturday night with sets of musical milestones. On Sunday evening, the Adios Tour of Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club provides a stirring finale to the weekend with a last opportunity to see this phenomenal band from Cuba. That comes after the public is invited to free afternoon salsa dance party on the Arts Plaza.
With the exception of Lewis, marking the 50th anniversary of his Grammy® -winning The In Crowd, the weekend has a decided lean to the Latin side.
Sergio Mendes and his Brasil '66 were, next to Antônio Carlos Jobim, the top purveyors of Brazil's bossa nova when that music swept through America in the 1960s. His Top Ten hits included "Look Around," "Like a Lover," "The Look of Love," the classic "Mas Que Nada" (re-recorded with the Black-Eyed Peas in 2006), and "Never Gonna Let You Go," his number one 1983 ballad.
Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club is at the heart of Cuba's musical tradition since it formed by accident. In the 1990s, nearly two dozen retired legends were invited to join a Havana recording session with American guitarist Ry Cooder. That produced a Grammy-winning CD and later an Oscar® -winning documentary, and they have been touring the world ever since.
The big brassy bands of Poncho Sanchez and Eddie Palmieri represent Latin jazz, or salsa, a mix of Cuban, Puerto Rican, Mexican and other influences. Sanchez, an internationally known conguero (conga drums player) is the hometown hero. He arrived in Southern California from Laredo, Texas, with his parents and 10 older siblings as a 4-year-old in 1955.
"Latin jazz really came to the forefront in the 1940s when the great Chano Pozo came from Cuba to New York City and met Dizzy Gillespie," Sanchez said in a recent phone interview. "I talked to Dizzy about this the many times he was a guest with my band. In less than two years together they created songs we're still playing like 'Manteca,' 'Tin Tin Deo' and 'Night in Tunisia.'
"When I grew up in the Norwalk area," he continued, "hardly anybody knew what Latin jazz was, or Afro-Cuban music. They didn't even call it salsa at that time. It was musica Latina, or musica Cubana, or just the mambo or cha-cha-cha."
Sanchez' childhood was awash in all these sounds thanks to records—and one important radio station—that his brothers and sisters played.
"Chico Sesma was the first Latin disc jockey on the airwaves here in Los Angeles," Sanchez said. "In the late '50s he was the first one to play the groundbreaking cats like Machito, Tito Puente, Cal Tjader, and of course Mongo Santamaria."
Santamaria inspired Sanchez, who originally played flute and guitar, to learn the congas "by looking at the positions of Mongo's hands on the back of the album cover." He was 23 and performing with his own groups when Cal Tjader, the most successful non-Latin Latin musician, asked him to sit in for one song. Tjader was so impressed that he had Sanchez finish the set and then asked for his phone number.
"I thought he was just being nice, but two weeks later he called and hired me for a New Year's Eve show at the Coconut Grove. After the first set he said, 'You're in the band.' "
Sanchez played with the vibraphonist until Tjader's death at 56 in 1982. By that time Sanchez had a couple recordings under his own name and was on his way to becoming one of America's top percussionists. His 20 albums on the Concord Picante label include the Grammy-winning Latin Soul. He has shared the stage with all the great jazz stars, including his October 9 co-star, Eddie Palmieri.
Born in New York in 1936 to Puerto Rican immigrants, Palmieri was, like Sanchez, surrounded by music as a child. Through his brother, Charlie, who was 9 years older and performing in bands, he discovered Thelonius Monk, Bud Powell, Bill Evans, and McCoy Tyner. When Eddie was only 5, the brothers began winning talent competitions. At 11, he won an audition to perform solo classical piano at Carnegie Hall. When he was 13 he briefly quit piano in favor of drums and joined his uncle's Latin jazz orchestra on timbales. He soon returned to the keyboard, however he remains "a frustrated percussionist, so I take it out on the piano."
"Eddie is a monster," Poncho Sanchez said of the nine-time Grammy Award winner. "If you don't like his The Sun of Latin Music, you don't know what music is. That was a killer record with Vitin Paz on trumpet and Lalo Rodriguez singing."
With the rhythms of Sanchez and Palmieri setting fire to Friday night, the cool jazz-pop and bossa nova of Lewis and Mendes on Saturday, and the timeless music of Buena Vista Social Club on Sunday, this will be a jazz weekend unlike any the Center has ever presented!
Cris Gross is a frequent contributor to Center publications.
Jazz Weekend: Oct. 9 – 11, 2015
RENÉE AND HENRY SEGERSTROM CONCERT HALL
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