VAIL — If Poncho Sanchez can promise one thing of his live shows, then it is that “you are guaranteed to have a good time.”
No matter how many times you may have seen the conga-thumping band leader over the years, one thing that’s guaranteed is never seeing the same show twice. Sanchez and his Latin band travel with more than 250 songs in their repertoire — songs they nearly lost a few years back when the tunes only existed on paper and disappeared along with the band’s van when it was stolen while parked in front of a roadie’s Los Angeles home.
“That was a drag,” the 62-year-old band leader said. “Now we’re back up to par. Now they’re all on computers in case something like that happens again.”
A big part of what keeps Sanchez’s fire stoked to continue lighting up stage after stage after a career that has already spanned more than four decades and led to nine Grammy nominations and two wins, is that no two shows are ever the same.
‘THE SPIRIT OF THE MUSIC’
“What keeps me going all these years is the spirit of the music ... the energy,” Sanchez said. “I’m always adding new tunes to the repertoire.”
He shares another story, one that took place about 10 years ago when he and his band were playing at New York City’s famed Blue Note, opposite Eddie Palmieri’s band.
“Eddie’s band played the same set, in the same order. But we went about our business, played a different set every night for a whole week,” Sanchez said.
Palmieri made a point that week to pass along his admiration of Sanchez’s variety and spontaneity, but Sanchez said he can’t possibly envision going about his life’s work in any other way.
“We have a lot of music, that keeps me wanting to play and staying sharp. Because I have to remember this stuff. You draw blanks and say, ‘What’s the break in this song?’ As soon as I hear it, I know it,” he said.
When Sanchez and his band return to Vail this evening, expect an eclectic, high-energy set, likely to be speckled with John Coltrane hits, as Sanchez’s next recording project will be a tribute to the saxophone icon.
As far as practice time, Sanchez remembers the days of playing four hours a day, upsetting the neighbors when he was so absorbed in the music that he’d forget it was a quiet holiday Sunday and there was no mute button.
“As a kid the neighbors were always banging on the door. One neighbor — a nice neighbor who never complained — he heard it every day. But then ‘boom, boom, boom,’ he went on the door one day. The guy was like, ‘Oh Jesus, not today.’ I was like, ‘Oh yeah, it’s Easter Sunday.’”
The band typically rehearses before going into the studio but uses live shows to tighten up new songs. Sanchez still likes to beat out tunes at home, too, when it strikes his fancy.
“I do play at home from time to time. I get a little urge. I’ll hear something on the radio and crank it up and play,” he said.
BEST IS YET TO COME
As much as the drummer struggles to narrow down all the highlights throughout his career — naming the seven years of touring and performing with his idol Cal Tjader and also playing with Dizzy Gillespie — he believes that many bright moments are still to come.
“Really you can tell everyone that comes to my show — me, the band, everyone — that they will have a great time,” he said. “Some people will point out that I’m getting older and say, ‘It’s got to be difficult.’ But for me it hasn’t been real difficult. In the later years now, traveling is the hardest part, the to and from, airport and airlines. That’s the roughest, saddest part. But once you get there, you’re cool. You just know that’s what you came for.”
Shauna Farnell was contracted by the Vail Jazz Foundation to write this story. Email comments to email@example.com.