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Latin Jazz Conversations: Bobby Sanabria (Part 3)

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Bobby Sanabria A full time dedication to music is an honorable way for a person to spend their life, and their legacy should be honored at every turn. When an individual focuses their complete energy upon artistic growth and the extension of a musical tradition, they take the road less traveled, insuring a life outside the mainstream. Unfortunately, our culture doesn't always celebrate individualism, and the noble choice of a life in music generally doesn't come with financial and social rewards. Although the majority of popular culture remains blissfully unaware, every musician that records and performs extensively does leave a legacy behind for us to enjoy. These legacies speak volumes about culture, history, and artistic forward motion, so it's vitally important for people with a connection to these artists to find ways to keep their work alive.

Drummer and bandleader Bobby Sanabria has made a point of honoring the history of many important Latin Jazz masters during his career, while creating a memorable legacy of his own. His passion for history and great performance has filled him with an in-depth knowledge of the great Latin Jazz performers and their vast accomplishments. Sanabria's knowledge doesn't stay locked inside him though; he takes every opportunity to share this important information with the world. From the outstanding tribute albums Kenya Revisited Live!!!and Tito Puente Masterworks, Live!!!to modern interpretations of the Latin Jazz big band on Afro-Cuban Dream ... Live & In Clave!!!or Big Band Urban Folktales, Sanabria shows the world the beauty of the Latin Jazz tradition. His own legacy is deeply apparent through his work as an educator at both The Manhattan School Of Music and The New School. Through his work with both schools' Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestras, Sanabria has shared an in-depth look at Latin Jazz with generations of young musicians. The young musicians that have graduated from his ensembles not only carry a connection to the past Latin Jazz masters, but also they hold the benefits of Sanabria's knowledge, passion, and extreme musicality. Sanabria has created a reputation for excellence in his craft, built upon music that both honors the contributions of the past while looking into the possibilities in the future.

Sanabria's legacy is intimately intertwined with the lessons of the Latin Jazz masters, and fortunately for the world, he proudly carries those lessons into the twenty-first century. On Tito Puente Masterworks, Live!!!, Sanabria shows the power of those lessons, as he leads a student group—The Manhattan School Of Music Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra—through a set of Puente classics that shimmer with a vibrant modern relevancy. This is simply another step in his work as an educator though—a legion of modern jazz musicians are taking Afro-Cuban Jazz into the world based upon the depth of Sanabria's teaching. In Part One of our interview with Sanabria, we looked at the impact of Puente upon his early life as a musician, the background of Tito Puente Masterworks, Live!!!, and some Puente history. Part Two of our interview delved into Sanabria's relationship with Puente, the lack of acknowledgement that he saw Puente receive during his time at Berklee, and the state of Latin Jazz in education today. Today, we talk about Sanabria's work as an educator, the importance of Puente's legacy, and more.

LATIN JAZZ CORNER: Were most of the guys on the Kenya Revisited Live!!!album long time members of the band?

BOBBY SANABRIA: Yea, I had worked with them. It took me at least two years to get them to sound like that. I needed o get the drummers up to speed, playing the way that I needed them to play—aggressively and super on-point. Disciplined too. Jazz drummers want to keep a pattern and then they want to do fills. But in this music, they needed to stay on the time. Then I had to show them how to do a fill and keep it in clave, it can't be just arbitrary fills. That was the key.

LJC: Now that Kenya Revisited Live!!!and Tito Puente Masterworks, Live!!!are both out there, are you seeing that kids want to do Afro-Cuban music more at Manhattan School Of Music?

BS: Oh yea, I used to get e-mails all the time with students asking me to join the ensemble. They have to audition. It's a very popular ensemble.

For me, it's interesting to go across the country and see the growing interest at the high school and college level—and even on the junior high level—of band directors, attempting to teach this music to kids. That's where someone like me comes in—I can coach them. I just did a thing with the University Of Wisconsin in Eau Clair Big Band -we recorded two Michael Mossman charts for a new album that they're doing. It's a great band, but they just lacked the experience in the style. We had to deal with the phrasing and everything else. They were good musicians though, so they were quick learners.

LJC: Do you find that it's tough to get young people into Puente's legacy?

BS: It's tougher with younger kids, because they're used to this technological society, where they see everything on videos. They have no respect for the history, which is unfortunate. That's the way that they've been taught. They obviously only get to see one thing, which is rap and rock, unless they're down south, where they get exposed to rap, rock, and country. They don't have an appreciation for multi-culturalism, because they haven't been exposed to it.

My generation was the last generation that got exposed to jazz in subliminal ways—cartoons or T.V. Shows. Listening to the theme from “McHale's Navy"—it was written by Quincy Jones! The first time that I heard tensions written for brass was in the Johnny Quest theme!

LJC: I found it really interesting that you had the swing tunes on Tito Puente Masterworks, Live!!!, which shines a different light on his legacy—what's your take on Tito doing a swing tune?

BS: He was a jazz musician. He thought like a jazz musician when he wrote or he played timbales. Obviously, he tempered that with his knowledge of clave, but he thought like a jazz musicians through and through. Even when he was playing a swinging guaracha for dancers, there were always little solo spots for somebody. That comes from the jazz aesthetic. He tempered that in the early sixties and seventies, and then got back to it when he started the Latin Jazz Ensemble.

The creation of the Latin Jazz Ensemble was done out of necessity, to get gigs and get booked. It was kind of a happy coincidence. Martin Cohen talked to Tito about forming a small group to promote LP products through a tour in Europe and Japan. That was the impetus of it. The band for that tour was Potato, Johnny Rodriguez, a pianist, and a bassist—the band was called the Latin Percussion Jazz Ensemble. That was the beginning of it. That was the beginning of Tito touring in jazz festivals. The funny thing is that he should have been doing that already, but then again, it's the same thing, the way that Latinos are invisible in this country.

It all goes back to my days at Berklee—nobody knew who Tito Puente was. There were two staff members who knew about Tito—Tony Texeira, he was Portuguese from Boston. He had played with Puente subbing as well as Xavier Cugat. He was a great jazz musician and a hardcore guy. The other guy was Keith Copeland, who was my mentor. What Mr. Williams was to Tito, Keith Copeland was to me. Keith Copeland was the protégé of Alan Dawson, who was responsible for the way that modern jazz drumming is taught today.

LJC: Now you've got a lot to pass onto your students today . . .

BS: I was very fortunate, because I was always the youngest guy in the bands that I played in. I would be with these hardcore older musicians that would be merciless. They told you right away if what you played stunk. A lesser person would have gone into therapy! I went through my own Vietnam, as did all my contemporaries, which was good.

Sometimes people think that I'm harsh with my students, but I temper my harshness with a lot of love. You can hear it on the recordings. I always get phones calls and e-mails after the fact—"Mr. Sanabria, thank you for everything that you taught me. I didn't realize it at the time, but you were right. If I could get through you, I can get through anything!"

My students are out there playing with everybody now. Just look at Arturo O'Farrill's Orchestra, it's made up of some of my ex-students. Trombonist Tokunori Kajiwara and saxophonist David DeJesus (who also plays in my band, as well as the Chico O'Farrill Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra)—they both play in that group. John Koz is another one; he's playing with Michael Buble in the trumpet section. Tenor saxophonist Ivan Renta was a student of mine at The New School. Kathy Rodriguez-Harrold is playing saxophone with Beyonce. Trombonist Doug Beavers was a student of mine at The Manhattan School Of Music. You know who was my first bass student at The New School, 18 years ago? Avishai Cohen. You know who was the pianist? Jason Linder. Isn't Afro-Cuban music a big part of what they do now? They got that with me. The fact that they are great musicians, that's all due to their talent and hard work, I just exposed them and guided them early on in their careers. My students are all over the place, I'm proud of all of them.

LJC: It's interesting, because in the case of some of these musicians, you can hear the influence of Afro-Cuban music, but it's not right in the forefront of their sound. Do you hear some of these musicians taking the mambo big band tradition and keeping them going?

BS: Jason has a big band that has some element of that. But no, these guys are not coming from that. They haven't had the experience of playing for dancers, like I did when I was growing up. When I play in my quartet, my big band, or my nonet, there's one underlying aesthetic. We could be playing the most avant-garde type of piece, but I want it to have the same power and intensity of a dance band. That means hard groove.

I hope that when people are listening to my music, they don't think, “Bobby is into this retro thing." It's not that. Anybody that listens to Afro-Cuban Dream ... Live & In Clave!!!or Big Band Urban Folktales, would see that thought is sadly mistaken. What I want to show is that these things are the foundation of today's music. I also want to show how these things that are 50 or 60 years old—even older in some cases—and how they're timeless. And how they can be redone in very creative ways, like what we did with the Kenya album.

With the Kenya album, it would be stupid to simply recreate that music exactly the way it was with the original charts. That might be what someone else would do. That's what people thought that I was going to do when they originally heard that I was going to do the concert. When they heard the concert though and heard the music, they saw that wasn't the fact. You hear the elements of the original piece, but then it diverts into this whole other thing. They're incredible vehicles for jazz improvisation.

It's the same thing with Puente. You'll hear the subtle differences. In “Elegua/Chango," the voicings are thicker and they're more modern. I assigned the arrangement to baritone saxophonist Danny Rivera, who plays in my big band and just graduated with his master's degree from The Manhattan School Of Music. He said, “What do you want me to do Bobby?" I said, “Just keep the essence of the piece and find a spot in there for the muted trumpet to play. But beef up the voicings. Puente only used four saxophones, so you've got an extra alto. There's some extra note choices, so make them sound as massive as humanly possible." You tell an arranger what you want, but you have to give them liberty, in terms of creativity. If you listen to the original version and the new version, they're strikingly different. Why would you just recreate the whole thing the way that it was originally done, it's just nostalgia. My aesthetic is to honor the past; don't just remember it, but bring it into the future also. You can do that with a lot of different kinds of music.


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This story appears courtesy of The Latin Jazz Corner by Chip Boaz.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved.
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