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Variety Is Instrumental to Success : Poncho Sanchez, Who Credits Eclecticism and Latin Beats With Ensemble's Appeal, Is Singing More Too


Popular response in the jazz realm usually means that an artist is working as a hybrid, playing a variety of styles. The Latin-jazz band led by conga drummer Poncho Sanchez, arguably the most popular instrumental jazz-based ensemble in Southern California, is no exception.

"We're not just a jazz band, not just a Latin band," said Sanchez. "We pull because we have something for everybody, from Latin jazz to salsa to R & B to pop."

For years, Sanchez--who plays a free outdoor concert tonight at Fashion Island in Newport Beach--worked only in Southern California, playing to packed nightclubs. Then, about six years ago, as a result of a steady string of albums for the Concord Jazz label, a number of ace reviews and old-fashioned word-of-mouth, he started to play nationally, and then internationally.

Sanchez thinks he's done so well for a number of reasons.

Foremost, he said: "We give 100%. The guys all know that's what I demand, but they do it anyway. The music is what's important, not anything else."

Then there's the group's repertoire, a finely balanced yet flexible presentation of Latin, jazz and other genres.

"If I see the crowd is reacting, I'll go a little toward the commercial side of things, like playing 'Cold Sweat' by James Brown or 'Oye Como Va,' " he said, referring to a favorite Latin number made famous by guitarist Carlos Santana.

"But we still play Clifford Brown's 'Daahoud' or Frank Foster's 'Shiny Stockings' or an authentic salsa number that was done by singer Celia Cruz, or something that came from Cuba."

Sanchez underpins all his offerings with an alternately bubbling and explosive Latin rhythm.

"That rhythm, that beat, that groove, that feel, it just grabs you. I love it," Sanchez said.

The drummer was born Ildefonso Sanchez in Laredo, Tex., and as a child moved with his family to Norwalk, where he lives. He got his start in Latin/jazz playing with vibist Cal Tjader in the early '70s.

When he formed his own band in 1979, he kept some of the flavor of Tjader's material but added his own take on Latin and other genres. He said his approach really hasn't changed through the years, except for one thing.

"The fans have asked me to sing more," he said, "and since I started as a singer in the first band I was in, in seventh grade, I do it."

"So now about half the set is vocals," he said. "Besides the salsa numbers, which are more '60s and '70s salsa numbers, not the bubble-gum salsa that's being written today, I also do a bolero, which is a Latin love ballad."

His latest Concord Jazz album is "Bailar: A Night With Poncho Sanchez Live." The band's current lineup includes Sal Cracchiolo, trumpet; Andy Martin, trombone; Scott Martin, saxes; David Torres, piano; Tony Banda, bass; Ramon Banda, timbales, and Joe Rodriguez, bongos. The group usually works four or five nights a week, taking two weeks off each year.

The band travels extensively. This year, it has performed in Finland, Spain, France and Japan, as well as in Chicago, New York and Boston.

"We got caught in the blizzard" in Boston, he said. "It looked like we were on the North Pole."

In Japan, Sanchez played clubs and festivals in Osaka, Nagoya and Tokyo. Such trips make him more appreciative when he returns to his home turf to play.

"It's like playing for your friends, people you know, who follow you," he said. "And I can go to the gig and come home on the same day."

* Poncho Sanchez will play today from 6 to 8 p.m. in the Neiman Marcus/Broadway courtyard at Fashion Island, 600 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach. Free. (714) 644-7520.

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