Poncho Sanchez on Jazz Alley and Cal Tjader

Café with Poncho Sanchez: New Albums, Jazz Alley & Tjader

In my virtual café conversation with Grammy winner Poncho Sanchez, we talked about his new projects, his shows at the Jazz Alley this summer, and his mentor, the late Cal Tjader.

Poncho Sanchez on His New Albums

Latino Music Café (LMC): Poncho, last time we talked about 2 years ago you mentioned you had in mind making an album in tribute to John Coltrane. Are you still planning on making that album or are you going in a different direction?

Poncho Sanchez (PS): Yes, we are still doing it. As a matter of fact we just had a meeting about two weeks ago at UCLA because they have a brand new recording studio there. My manager had gone there for another reason and they end up showing him the new recording studio. He couldn’t believe it. It’s about a year old, top notch, state of the art studio. He suggested they should do a Poncho Sanchez record there and they were all for it.

The UCLA new recording studio.

The new recording studio at UCLA will likely be where Poncho Sanchez records his next couple of Latin Jazz albums.

So about 2 weeks ago me and Francisco Torres, the musical director of my band, went there to see it and, man, it’s a beautiful studio. Well, I think we finally found a place to record our next album. They are willing for us to do it. We are thinking of going there in August to lay down the record. It will probably be out sometime after new year. So that’s definitely in the making.

The other thing is that I talked to the Head of the Music Department and other people there at the studio, and I asked them if the school had a symphony orchestra. They said, “oh sure, the school has a symphony orchestra”. I told them that right now I have about eight symphony charts of my music, and we could easily add a couple more. I’ve done 10 different shows with symphonies in the last few years. So I said that I would love to record my band with a symphony orchestra since I have the material. Fortunately, they said they would love to record us with their symphony.

But first things first, we’re working on getting out this Tribute to Coltrane album and then we’ll talk about doing the symphony orchestra recording. I got really excited about that because it’s hard to find a symphony orchestra and then pay all those people; it’s a lot of money. No record company is paying for that anymore.

LMC: Are you still thinking of inviting Javi Coltrane, John’s son, to play in the album? You mentioned that idea when we talked last time.

PS: I would like to have Coltrane’s son play in the album, but when we approached him a couple of years ago he said he didn’t want to play his father’s music.

LMC: What about the record label. You now have the recording studio, but when we talked last time you told me you had broken with Concord Picante after 30 years. What are your plans for launching these projects?

PS: The first thing for me is to get the recording done and mixed and everything. Then I have several avenues I can take. One is Mack Avenue Records. They want to sign us and pay for the whole thing like Concord used to do. But [also] we can put down this record on our own, as many artists are doing now. We can then negotiate with them. We can sell it to Mack Avenue or have them partner with us for the shipping. So we’ll see what happens.

Jazz Alley Shows: June 22-25

LMC: You’ll be at Seattle’s Jazz Alley on June. People love your shows in Seattle…

PS: Yes, it’s like our second home. We go to Seattle at least once a year, sometimes twice. This year we are going twice. We have this summer shows and then we’re already booked for New Year’s Eve of there.

Poncho Sanchez with his Latin Jazz band at Seattle's Jazz Alley

The Poncho Sanchez Latin Jazz band at one of his many presentations at the Jazz Alley in Seattle.

LMC: You’re going to have to ask John (Jazz Alley owner) to expand the dancing floor there!

PS: [laughs] Yeah, I told John, ‘why don’t you have a little dance floor on the side or something’. As a matter of fact, one year they did put a dance floor on the side, by where the front door is now. I thought it was a good idea. It doesn’t need to be a huge dance floor; just to allow a dozen couple to dance at a time, you know!

LMC: People end up dancing wherever they find a place…

PS: Yeah, people will end up dancing in the aisles so might as well give them some dancing space. [continues to laugh]. I’m going to have to ask John again about that.

LMC: So what do you have for the Jazz Alley crowd this summer?

PS: Thank God we have a huge repertoire. In my traveling book we have about 200 songs. I have another book here at home with about another 200 songs. Every now and then we exchange songs from one book into the other to mix up the repertoire even more. So we have plenty of music.

We are a Latin Jazz band that can play dance Salsa music. I can sing the Boleros, and then we do all the jazz thing because it’s a Latin Jazz band. So we do a lot of Jazz standards done Latin Jazz style. Hector, actually everything we play is danceable because even the Jazz songs we play, we play them with a little bit of Guaguanco, or Mambo, or a Cha-cha, or Bolero. But people get up more when we do the juicy straight-up Salsa!

Let’s not forget that I was raised in the 50’s and 60’s here in Los Angeles, where people liked Soul music, so I like to add some old Soul songs, which is also very danceable. We like to invite everybody to come out and enjoy themselves. You can either come out and just listen, or you can come out and dance. John doesn’t mind people dancing in the aisles, you know!

And of course, we’re also going to play a couple of the new songs from the Tribute to Coltrane album there as well.

Remembering Cal Tjader

LMC: How did you get into the Cal Tjader band in 1975?

PS: I used to go see Cal Tjader’s band every time he came to LA. He played a lot in LA, so I saw them often and learned most of his songs. On one of his visits to LA, he let me sit in with the band. At that time, he was getting ready to break up his current band, which he had together for six years. We wanted to try something different, so he was letting people sit with his band.

Cal Tjader with vibraphone.

Vibraphonist Cal Tjader had a prolific recording career and was one of the Latin Jazz masters.

People in LA had mentioned my name to him, so when he came on that particular trip, he let me sit in with his band. Not only I knew most of his songs, but I also knew some of his songs he hadn’t recorded yet. So when I played he was impressed and hired me for a week.

He had six shows planned for LA and San Diego, and hired me for that week. After the first set, he came to me and said; “Poncho, I like how you play, you got the gig”. I said, “so I got the gig for the rest of the week?”. He said “No, no, no; you’re in the band now, you got the gig”. That’s when I joined the Cal Tjader band. It was New Year’s Eve 1975.

LMC: Tjader liked to experiment with music and tried everything from Latin Rock, to electronica, to Latin Jazz. When you entered Tjader’s band, was he looking to redefine his sound once again?

PS: Hector, I don’t think so. I think what Cal was doing was following the [musical] trends, almost because he had to. I once asked him why he did a song of the Jackson 5, and another from Burt Bacharach. He told me he did them because they were popular at the time. Cal was just trying to keep up with the trends. He was trying to widen his audience instead of just doing straight Latin Jazz. And it wasn’t that he necessarily liked that music. He told me, “Poncho, try to not record anything that you’re not proud of”.

Cal Tjader was a proud man, and was a beautiful man. He was a very nice person. Was a wonderful man.

LMC: What did you learn from Cal watching him manage his band?

PS: I learned a lot from him. He must have known something before I did, because he once told me “Poncho, when you get your own band, you’re going to see how it is; it’s not easy”. He had seen ahead of me, and would tell me, “when you get your own band…”, watch out for this, or watch out for that. At the time, I just wanted to play in his band. I wasn’t thinking of having my own band.

LMC: Tjader set you up with Concord Picante so that they would help you with your future recordings. Where you already thinking about your band the last years of Cal Tjader?

PS: The last two years of Tjader’s life, I had started a small group. We would rehearse every now and then, and played like every three months. I was in Cal Tjader’s band and that’s all I wanted to do. But on the side, I had some ideas and started practicing them with my little group.

So when Clare Fisher joined the Cal Tjader band (for the second time), he helped me out. He was the first to help me out, as he got me a recording contract with Discovery Records here in Los Angeles. So I did my first two albums for Discovery Records label. The first album was called “Poncho”, and the second was “Pa’lante / Straight Ahead”. I was still with Tjader at that time.

Clare recognized me and did some arrangements for me. I also wrote some music through him, since I don’t know how to read and write music, but I know what I want. So Clare would help me write my tunes, he would put them on paper.

Also, Hector, to me Cal Tjader was the best vibes players in all Latin Jazz. The way he played was just beautiful.

Ending the Virtual Café

On that note we ended our conversation over a virtual café. Before leaving, Poncho reminded me to invite the people of Seattle to have a good time with his Latin Jazz band at the Jazz Alley (June 22-25) where he will play Latin Jazz, Salsa, Soul, and Boleros, including a couple of songs from his upcoming album in tribute to John Coltrane.

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