Conga King Sanchez takes Latin jazz in various directions
Poncho Sanchez and his band know how to stay out of the traps that niches create.
The conga king led his octet Friday evening through two shows at the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild that were clear displays of how to accomplish that end.
To be sure, Latin jazz is a niche field, enjoyed by its enthusiasts far more than the broad run of fandom. Because it tends to stay in one type of sound, it can be limited in its ability to reach a wide audience.
But Sanchez and his group go further than most because they are able to take the music many directions in its genre.
Their work seemed to please the guild audience, whose enthusiasm called them back for an encore. The crowd got a lively version of a Latin jazz number that found a new audience in the ‘60s: “Watermelon Man.”
The shows at the guild were billed as a tribute to Cal Tjader, the vibes player and percussionist with whom Sanchez player for seven years as part of a Grammy award-winning band.
In doing that tribute, the band went from Tjader's own “I Showed Them” to his arrangement of the Kurt Weill classic, “Speak Low.”
The latter had a more mellow sound that any of the others in the evening because Ron Blake played the deeper flugelhorn instead of trumpet on which his tone tended to be bright and crisp.
The band then followed with Chano Pozo's “Soul Sauce,” a tune far removed from “Speak Low” even though Blake stayed on flugelhorn.
Broadening its range a little more, Sanchez and Co. also did a medley of his own material, several pieces by trombonist and musical director Francisco Torres and even a new arrangement of John Coltrane's “Liberia.”
That chart by Torres put the familiar ‘Trane melody in a Latin accent. Did it work? Perhaps only if a listener is fluent in that lexicon.
Whatever it was doing, though, the band performed well. Sanchez is a marvelous conga player and a great host with an energetic stage presence.
The three horns of the band — Blake, Torres and reed player Rob Hardt — create a big sound, and each of then had plenty of room to show off strong solo skills.
Niche or no, the show proved to be a strong close for the guild season.
Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7852.