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Living for the Rhythm : Drummer Poncho Sanchez underpins all his offerings with an alternately bubbling and explosive Latin beat.

August 20, 1993|ZAN STEWART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Zan Stewart writes regularly about jazz for Valley Life.

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," Sanchez said. "We pull because we have something for everybody, from Latin jazz to salsa to R&B to pop."

For years, Sanchez--who plays La Ve Lee in Studio City tonight and Saturday and again Aug. 27 and 28--worked only in the Los Angeles region, playing to solid audiences in 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 plain word of mouth, he broke out and started to play nationally, and then internationally.

Sanchez thinks he's done so well for a number of reasons. First, no matter what the venue, the musicians come to play, and play hard.

"We give 100%," he said. "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 that can really get people going.

"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."

And these numbers will all be done with professionalism and precision, said Oliver Vabois, who books the bands at La Ve Lee.

"Poncho has about 200 tunes in his book, and he'll call on the spot, and when he gives the signal, the band is right there," Vabois said. "These are very talented musicians."

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, who was born Ildefonso Sanchez in Laredo, Tex., and moved to Norwalk as a child (he still lives there), got his start in Latin/jazz playing with the late 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 maybe that his band offers more vocals, and he sings more now than he used to.

His latest Concord Jazz album is "Bailar: A Night With Poncho Sanchez Live."

"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."

Sanchez's band includes Sal Cracchiolo, trumpet; Andy Martin, trombone; Scott Martin, saxes; David Torres, piano; Tony Banda, bass; Ramon Banda, timbales, and Joe Rodriguez, bongos. The band travels extensively. This year, it has performed in Finland, Spain, France and Japan, as well as in Chicago, New York and Boston. In Japan, Sanchez played clubs and festivals in Osaka, Nagoya and Tokyo. At one event, young trumpet whiz Roy Hargrove sat in.

"He was a little leery of our Latin stuff, being a heavy be-bopper, so we played Dizzy's 'A Night in Tunisia,' and he ended up taking extra choruses," Sanchez said. "Then he stayed on and played three more tunes, and we did a big Latin thing at the end."

Sanchez said he likes to come back home and play a small club like La Ve Lee.

"There it's like playing for your friends, people you know, who follow you," he said. "The people are right up close, and it's intimate. And I can go to the gig and come home on the same day."

Where and When What: Poncho Sanchez at La Ve Lee, 12514 Ventura Blvd., Studio City. Hours: 9:30 and 11:30 tonight and Saturday. Price: Cover charge $10, two-drink minimum. Call: (818) 980-8158.

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