Arts Desk

DC Jazz Festival: Pancho Sanchez’s Mambo de la Mediocre

Poncho

Jazz, the writer Whitney Balliett said, is "the sound of surprise." Obviously that goes for Latin jazz too. But for all my comments yesterday about Poncho Sanchez's bending the idea of "straightforward," his set at the Hamilton was nothing if not straightforward. To a fault, in fact. If jazz sounds like surprise, the only thing about the concert that was jazz was Sanchez's bursting congas. The rest was frankly mambo-as-usual, by the ropes and through the motions.

It takes some doing to make a John Coltrane composition with the stridency and mystery of "Liberia" seem so safe and predictable. But here it was all stock salsa licks and self-consciously "picante" trumpet from trumpeter Ron Blake. Following that was another (no title given) of the same, only with more trombone and a Spanish-singing chorus. It was nothing you couldn't hear on any Tito Puente album, with considerably more inspiration.There was a lot of Coltrane—the band's next album, Sanchez explained, was a tribute—including a "REAL fast mambo" version of "Giant Steps." Even that labyrinth of a tune from the start ran through the clichés. Hyper-syncopated melody? Check. High-register, clanging, triplet chords on the piano? Check. Long, long vamps to accommodate percussion grooves that themselves became long, long vamps? Triple check. Once again, it was Sanchez who provided the only real edge, the only sense that things might not go precisely according to rule book.

Having said all this, I must admit that I was apparently in a small minority. The room loved it, screaming and whistling and clapping. At least one couple broke into a seriously gyrating salsa dance in the standing room, to even more applause from those around them. It was Hollywood-level obvious: a scene you'd expect to see in Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights. Certainly no one can argue that they weren't giving the people what they wanted. Maybe I was just the jerk in the room. Or maybe the Sanchez band should have given the people what they wanted without being so bland about it—with something that sounded like surprise.

P.S. Immediately following Sanchez's first set (spies in the field tell me that the second was better), I left for Bohemian Caverns, where alto saxophonist Marshall Keys was having his residency; Keys was letting his special guest, the Swiss pianist Alex Bugnon, run the stage. He and Keys' band (second pianist Federico Pena, bassist Tarus Mateen, drummer Mark Prince) were doing a high-octane Latin arrangement of "A Night in Tunisia." (Keys and trombonist Greg Boyer laid out.) It was already more bite and surprise than Sanchez's whole set.

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