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By Mark Holston
Bobby Sanabria has been a champion of the Latin large ensemble. On His Multiverse Big Band’s latest release, he adds more vocals to the mix.
During the past three decades, Bobby Sanabria has become one of the most active large ensemble leaders on the scene with his Afro-Caribbean-rhythm-influenced Multiverse Big Band, and one of the most prolific Latin percussion recording artists in history. But Sanabria’s path from obscure South Bronx beginnings to Latin jazz fame owes as much to his ravenous viewing of The Ed Sullivan Show and Saturday morning cartoons as to his exposure to typical Puerto Rican music influences of the day.
“I was in the last generation that saw big bands in full force on TV,” Sanabria reminisces today. Born in 1957 to parents who had moved to the mainland from Puerto Rico, Sanabria was, like many young Nuyoricans of his day, mesmerized by English-language television programming. The Sullivan show, which was must-see TV on Sunday nights from 1948 to 1972, was the definition of a variety program, from Borscht Belt comedians, pie plate jugglers and Topo Gigio, the Italian puppet mouse, to the historic first U.S. concert appearance of The Beatles. Over the years, every style of big band music was showcased by Sullivan, from Guy Lombardo’s hotel orchestra sweet sound of the late-’40s to Maynard Ferguson’s early-’70s jazz rock fusion.
“I was into The Beatles and the British invasion, like every other kid of the day, but I was totally flabbergasted by the power of the big band drummers like Buddy Rich and Ed Shaughnessy,” Sanabria says. “I saw Rich, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and other fantastic big bands on the Sullivan show, as well as on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, with its big band led by trumpeter Doc Severinsen. There was also Dick Cavett’s program, which featured drummer Bobby Rosengarden’s group, and David Frost’s talk show, with pianist Billy Taylor’s band.”
Another element that was prevalent on TV programming of the day also proved inspirational — cartoon music. “Consider the theme music for shows like The Flintstones and The Jetsons,” the drummer enthuses. “The jazz element in those programs was just monumental. Think about it: I learned about swinging on the drum set from the theme of the early 1960s animated sitcom Top Cat!”
Ironically, despite the cultural influence of his Puerto Rican heritage, what was missing from the young musician’s development was the Latin influence that in time would become his calling card. When he was 12, he had an opportunity to witness for the first time the visceral power of the Latin big band sound in live performance, and it was mind-altering. “The orchestras of Machito and Tito Puente performed an outdoor concert in front of the Melrose Projects where I grew up on East 153rd Street, and I got to see both of those great bands in full force,” Sanabria recalls as if the performance had happened yesterday. “When Tito Puente played ‘Para Los Rumberos,’ one of his signature songs from the 1950s that was also a hit recording by Santana two decades later, my head exploded witnessing his timbale solo. And I said to myself, ‘This is what I want to do for the rest of my life!’”
At the same time, however, the fledgling musician continued to be entranced by the style of jazz drumming personified by Buddy Rich. “I was seeing Buddy on public television in 1973, doing a program called Rich at the Top, produced at the legendary Rochester, New York, jazz club, and I had the same emotional reaction as when I’d seen Tito Puente years earlier,” Sanabria remembers. “At that time in my life, there were those who would tell me, ‘Bobby, you have to pick one style of music to play, you can’t do both jazz and Latin. You have to pick one.’ And my response was, ‘Why do I have to do that? I love both of these styles.’ I’ve been nurtured by them all and more growing up in New York City. Jazz, salsa, blues, Brazilian, funk and others. So, I cast away all those aspersions and moved ahead with my career.”
Sanabria’s Nuyorican street smarts gave the aspiring drummer an edge, which was further honed by a stint at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. “There I met a teacher who changed my life in terms of my technical facility on the drum set, Keith Copeland,” he says. “He and the school gave me the tools to do what I do today as a player, composer, arranger and bandleader.”
Vox Humana (Jazzheads), featuring Sanabria’s Multiverse Big Band and three noted female vocalists, is the eighth big band date Sanabria has produced since the release of Afro-Cuban Dream: Live and in Clave!!! on the Arabesque label in 2000. His most recent foray into the large ensemble tradition was the critically lauded West Side Story Reimagined in 2018, also for Jazzheads. Every effort, with the exception of the just released Vox Humana, has been recognized by receipt of a Grammy nomination.
“This album is something I’ve always wanted to do,” Sanabria says of Vox Humana. “It’s a program featuring vocalists on all of the date’s 13 tracks, with each bringing their own particular talent to the session.”
Seasoned jazz and blues chanteuse Antoinette Montague is majestic on her outings, which include a cover of Christina Aguilera’s sexy “Genie in a Bottle,” a dash of New Orleans flavor on the jump blues classic “Let the Good Times Roll,” a sample of the singer’s gorgeous balladry skills on the Gershwin brothers’ “I Love You Porgy,” and the vocalist’s chilling, self-penned lyrics to the socially conscious theme of “Who Taught You That?”
Janis Siegel, of Manhattan Transfer fame, demonstrates her genre-spanning command on Brazilian, pop and ballad entries. Her selections range from Brazilian pianist João Donato’s mesmerizing “Amazonas” to the sultry Latin soul of “To Be With You,” a 1962 crossover hit for The Joe Cuba Sextet, and an outrageously groovy cover of the 1967 Latin-influenced soft rock hit “Spooky.”
Vocalist Jennifer Jade Ledesna emerges as a key member of the program, interpreting traditional Puerto Rican fare and salsa icon Eddie Palmieri’s hallowed ’70s era repertoire. Also on hand to bolster the vocal ranks on several tracks is the band’s own conguero, Oreste Abrantes, whose polished sonero style enhances the session’s típico mood.” All three of the female vocalists take solo turns on Steely Dan’s “Do It Again.”
“Jennifer was a student of mine over 20 years ago at The New School,” Sanabria reflects on the versatile vocalist’s role in the Multiverse Big Band. “She’s from the South Bronx, boasts Dominican and Puerto Rican heritage and is multilingual, speaking French, Portuguese, Spanish and English. In all, a perfect representation of this group.”
“I lovvve singing with the Multiverse,” Ledesna exclaims. “As a student at Vassar, I was in the jazz big band, and at The New School, I was in Maestro Bobby’s Afro-Latin Orchestra, among other ensembles. In Multiverse, Bobby trusts us to jump directly into the fire without hesitation. For example, my very first time playing the güiro [the gourd-shaped scraper used in tropical Latin music] was in front of a live audience, center stage, during our show at David Geffen Hall. It’s prepare yourself to improvise or else, huzzah!”
What Ledesna relates to most in working in a big band format is the communal aspect of listening, complementing and blending, while maintaining one’s individuality amongst a colorful wall of soulfully moving sound. “And tradition is very important to me,” she adds. “When Bobby asked me to sing ‘Capullito de Aleli,’ written by composer Rafael Hernández and first recorded in 1930, it was an incredible honor because this song is so revered in Puerto Rico. I remembered that my mom had given me a fake book of Hernández’s music when I was in high school, an example of full circle 101! I found it, cracked it open and started to learn the tune in real time. It was a very special blessing from beyond the grave.”
Janis Siegel’s time on the Vox Humana sessions also provided its share of serendipitous moments. “Growing up in New York, the Latin music scene was pretty much unknown to me, compared to what I know now,” the singer admits. “I started getting more into it in my 20s and I was hearing it unconsciously all over the place. I knew about Eddie Palmieri because I studied with someone who had taught him, as well. And there were incredible hits like ‘Bang! Bang!’ that were on pop radio.”
“To Be With You,’” the Joe Cuba bolero hit from 1962, has its own singular history involving Siegel. She had already recorded the song with Tito Puente’s rhythm section on her first solo album, Experiment in White, for the Atlantic label in 1982. Sanabria recounts the song’s circuitous history. “It’s Latin and it has soul, is done with an R&B and doo-wop flavor and jazz harmony. It’s all of that plus a bag of chips, as we would say in the South Bronx.”
Siegel’s funky rendition of “Spooky,” a cha-cha-chà-influenced pop hit by The Classics IV in 1967, has an equally intriguing history. “Years ago,” she notes, “I produced several demos for bassist Christian McBride, and ‘Spooky’ was one of them. That arrangement forms the basis of this Multiverse Big Band version.”
Although she has worked with many big bands over the decades, Siegel says her experience with Sanabria’s band stands out. “First of all, it’s all of the percussion — being rhythm-driven in such a big way,” she attests. “The band has such an incredible feral energy. It’s almost out of control it’s so powerful. It’s like having a big carnivorous beast behind you.”
Sanabria is a living encyclopedia of Latin music history and can rattle off detailed information on even the most obscure recordings that were produced when he was just a kid. “Nuyoricans also grow up with the African American experience because we intermingle with our Black brothers and sisters, and we grow up with Cuban and Dominican music, as well as our own island Puerto Rican music. To top it off, we have a Jewish sense of humor.”
Multiverse members are all working professionals, Sanabria notes, and many have roots as students in the band. Gabrielle Garo, the unit’s flute specialist is of Dominican descent and is a former student of Sanabria’s with the New School band. David DeJesus, the lead alto saxophonist, a former member of the leader’s Manhattan School of Music student big band, is of Puerto Rican descent and has gone on to head the jazz program at State University of New York Purchase. Trombonist Armando Vergara, another former Manhattan School of Music alum, boasts Cuban and Puerto Rican lineage. Nine of the musicians involved in the Vox Humana recording are former students of Sanabria’s.
A hallmark of Sanabria’s tenure as an educator and bandleader is his devotion to academic discipline. He has been an unrelenting taskmaster when it comes to ensuring his students acquire the skills needed to write a big band arrangement, whatever their role in the band. “The reason someone enrolls to study music at the college level should be to become a complete musician,” he maintains. “Anyone can study privately on the instrument they’ve chosen — they don’t need to go to college for that. However, if you become a complete, well-rounded musician, you have a better chance of surviving as a musician, because, when you’re not playing, what are you doing? You’re writing, you’re composing, you’re arranging. And you’re getting paid to do that.” He cites his own career as an example — he’s achieved success in a long list of jobs that range from documentary film producer to a multitude of performance experiences, even playing country music on a date he laughs about today.
Despite tough economic times, Sanabria believes big bands have a bright future. “As long as there are people studying jazz composition and arranging, that voice will always want to be expressed,” he believes. “The Multiverse Big Band has been successful. We’ve played at festivals in Europe and the U.S. That’s particularly challenging given that our band features 24 musicians — eight or more than a traditional big band. But I’ve stuck to my guns in working to keep this band alive through 25 years.”
“This album is totally biographical,” Sanabria continues, referencing the eclectic programming that’s the hallmark of Vox Humana. “Each selection has some meaning to me in terms of having influenced me in my upbringing as a young musician. And recall that in the 1970s, the Bronx was burning,” he says, noting the violent civil discord of the day. “But” he asserts, commenting on the coexistence of a broad coalition of styles that ranged from salsa and disco to avant-garde jazz and funk, “the music was what kept us alive. It was an amazing time that I grew up in and it will never be duplicated. This recording is an homage to all of that.”
Photos by Jeremy Fletcher.