Seraphic Surge: Conguero Poncho Sanchez
Michael Robinson and Poncho Sanchez
A neighbor here in Los Angeles who passed away too young used to be a professional racecar driver. When I knew Scott Ullman, he still owned some fancy cars that appeared incongruous with his extremely modest residence. Apparently, he put most of his money into this collection of automobiles, which is understandable. Ullman was especially proud of an immaculate red Mercedes convertible sports car that was normally only found in Germany. Upon hearing that my own modest car needed some work, Scott directed me to a preferred auto repair shop on Venice Boulevard. This led to one of my most memorable dinners in Los Angeles because the owner, a Mexican American gentleman with considerable presence and kindness, extended an invitation to join him and his crew after work for dinner after learning I was Scott's friend. So there I was in a large auto yard at dusk betwixt ultra urban metallic silhouettes, enjoying conversation while drinking straight tequila, and dining on a mélange of delicacies grilling in the open air on oil drums. It was wonderful.
Around this time, I began feeling the history and culture of this land called California, which was inhabited for thousands of years by indigenous peoples before the Spanish arrived. It’s a subtle sensation. Gentle, yet so powerful you barely know it envelops our lives.
When I first heard the name Clare Fischer I was puzzled. The first name seemed to indicate a woman, and the full name sounded like a famous author of piano exercise books. Definitely not exciting music. It took much too long, but I finally experienced Fischer's extraordinary creativity through two separate Piano Jazz interviews with Marian McPartland heard online at NPR.
Clare, a scintillating jazz pianist, was a pioneer in Latin Jazz, and electric piano playing, exerting a powerful influence on Chick Corea. Fischer's vocal arrangements for the Hi-Lo’s, cited by Herbie Hancock as a major influence, are uncanny, and he also composed one of the most stunningly ravishing songs of the twentieth century: Morning, which we’ve all heard, even if we don’t know the name, or the lyrics.
Having noticed that Poncho Sanchez was performing at Vitello’s in Studio City, I was excited to go hear one of Clare Fischer’s collaborators, and arrived for the second set at this inviting venue that proved to be conducive and conductive for great music.
There is a mystic aural maze rising upwards in a mélange of skin, metal and wood percussion that hints at the secrets of life in Latin music, and the performance I heard posited such enigmas with rare grace and power. Along with vocals, congas, timbale, guira, cowbell, cabasa and the piano’s pitched percussion, there was acoustic bass, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, flute, trumpet and trombone. All of the eight musicians onstage were superb, including the unforgettable image of Irving Flores’ fingers dancing on the piano keyboard like a Kathak master.
It was during the encore piece that Poncho Sanchez sat down to play the congas, and he seemed to catch the imperceptible beginnings of a tsunami way out at sea, gradually swelling in an unstoppable manner as it approached the shoreline. But part of the magic of music is that such things do no physical harm, and it was truly a thing of beauty; percussion melting like the love of a woman inspired to dance near the musicians, and then a partner inspired to join her. This dancing, in confluence with the music, was the crest of the performance together with Poncho’s soloing on the congas. After the encore, I felt my appetite and appreciation for this music was just beginning, and was in the mood for several more hours of an earth-soaring art form that transports one’s spirit, body and intellect together.
- Michael Robinson, October 2013, Los Angeles
© 2013 Michael Robinson All rights reserved
Poncho Sanchez Latin Jazz Band
Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and writer (musicologist).