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King Of The Congo
Concert Review: Poncho Sanchez
By Austen Diamond (Salt Lake City Weekly)
Poncho Sanchez is the King of the Congo. I once thought I was the King of the Backpack. Unseemingly, they're connected. Living out of a backpack and bouncing from country to country during breaks in college and afterwards—a similar vagabondia to the Beats—it's no surprise I was turned onto to that generation's music. Jazz embodies—when it waves its musical wand—the spirit of bootstrappin' bohemians and the transcendental tyranny of restless wandering. And, when Latino flares are added, the energy and flamboyance is magnified.
On a trip to southern Mexico's Puerto Escondido for a month of surfing, I split my time listening to Manu Chao and Poncho Sanchez, each having their time and place. Sanchez ultimately won out, and was a musical inspiration when I used to slap congas in a couple of bands back in Tennessee. So, seeing him in concert was like many of my friends seeing the guitar heroes that led them to picking or slashing.
While jazz—at its best—has a youthful energy, Jazz at the Sheraton is a far cry from smoky, dark halls where the musical style took roots in New York City. And, the seated crowd confused Sanchez, who after repeatedly asking the crowd to dance, finally won them over in the last two songs. There were two dance nooks in the open ballroom where hip-swingers could do their thing, but it's more of a everybody-watching, zoo-isk feel than an all-embracing dance arena—props to those daring to be watched. Despite these minor discrepancies, the GAM Foundation does bring big name acts to town and the acoustics are pretty good for a hotel ballroom.
Herbie Hancock's "Cantaloupe Island" started the first set, easing the crowd into the night with a familiar tune. Then they moved through "Sambia" to a love-song medley. The band then did some self-promotion and CD pimping, playing "Psychedelic Blues"—the song Sanchez's 24th album is titled after.
In Sanchez's typical fashion, he humbly paid homage to his hero Cal Tjader with "Speak Low." Sanchez, some 40 years ago, got his start backing up Tjader's band on percussion, beginning his relentless touring career with the band until Tjader's death in 1982. Congo player/ percussionist Joey De Leon intermittently switched out poppin' and slappin' with Sanchez, like on the next song "Raise Your Hand." To the casual observer, it seems like Sanchez has the same mentoring role to De Leon that Tjader had to Sanchez years back.
Other highlights of both sets were "El Conguero" and "Ven Pa Bailar"—a dish of salsa con cahones, or maybe it's huevos. Either way, he certainly dishes up some tasty music, and interestingly he teaches others to, as well. In his Congo Cookbook he teaches students of the drum and the skillet alike how to play syncopated rhythms and cook a mean chili verde. Even if you don't like jazz or latin-jazz, you gotta love this guy for his charisma.
That charisma is what makes a Poncho Sanchez show. This gray-bearded, slightly overweight guy tapes his hands and plays his drums like he was a chipper youth then stands up and sings, dances a little and leads his band through a number of mambo, cha-cha-cha, salsa numbers. He must get younger with age. The show ended with "Watermelon Man" and the crowd filtered out feeling good ... and one fan was able to see an inspirational musical hero. (5/5/2010)