Jazz: Bobby Sanbria Honors His Roots With Big Band Urban Folktales

by Joe Montague

Jazz Police, MN

A ug 21 2007

Big Band Urban Folktales Bobby Sanabria is a bandleader, a composer,
an incredible drummer and, most of all, an individual who believes
in giving back to the community and the jazz art form that he truly
feels grateful to be a part of. He was inspired as a young man growing
up in The Bronx of New York City watching the legendary Puerto Rican
bandleader and percussionist Tito Puente perform a free concert in
his neighborhood.

Never forgetting that experience and the fire that it lit within
him, Sanabria has, by his own estimate, performed thousands of free
concerts and spoken to the students of schools throughout New York
City’s education system.

The fruits of his efforts have been evident over the years, but
perhaps no more obvious than on his current CD, Big Band Urban
Folktales, where no less than eight different students whose lives
he has touched perform either as instrumentalists or singers. Six
former students appear in the orchestra, while Shareef Clayton and
her trumpet appear on the song, "Since I Fell For You." Singing lead
vocals on this track is Chareneè Wade, another former student.

Bobby Sanabria © Andrea Canter"I speak to the kids (in the schools)
about Latin American music, jazz, its history and performing it,"
said Sanabria. "You would be surprised how many of those kids come to
me ten or fifteen years later. Any students that I feel deserve to
will be featured in concerts or on the recordings. Chareneè happens
to be one of them. She graduated from the Manhattan School of Music
about two or three years ago with a Masters Degree in Jazz Vocal
Performance. Before that, she was an honors student at the La Guardia
School for the Performing Arts. She had been working around town as
a jazz vocalist, but she really never had a platform to showcase her
talent. When we were recording this song, I thought that she was
the one who should be singing it. She is more than qualified. For
me a jazz vocalist is not just someone who interprets the melody,
but it is someone who can scat and improvise. Chareneè can certainly
do that. She did a beautiful job on ‘Since I Fell For You.’"

The orchestration for the Buddy Johnson / Ray Santos "Since I For You"
is lush and brings back the big band sound in a way seldom heard today,
complete with a call and response between the members of the band and
Wade. Joe Fielder has created a gorgeous new arrangement and Bobby
Sanabria arranged the final montuno. Jazz venues and labels should
be lining up to book and sign Chareneè Wade. You should write that
name down and remember it because you are going to hear a lot from
this young lady in the future.

At times, it appears that Sanabria is on a one-man mission to reach
out to today’s young people and ensure that they feel connected with
the jazz music that he loves so much. "The biggest problems that
we face in jazz right now are record sales and the lack of radio
(airplay). That is because people in the jazz community never thought
that this would end in terms of popularity. They failed to think that
they had to connect with the youth. When I do concerts, you would
be surprised at how many young people come out of there with their
minds blown. They come up and ask, ‘Mr. Sanabria, where can I hear
more of this music?" Sanabria says, placing the focus on the music
in his statement, and not on himself.

"At this point in time if you ask a fourteen, fifteen or
sixteen-year-old kid in the streets of the United States what jazz
records they listen to, or what jazz artists they are listening to,
they would look at you funny. If you ask them what hip hop artists
they listen to, they would name off five or ten people, then rap to
you or recite to you some of the things that they learned from those
recordings. That tells me that if you can learn something from one
of those recordings, then they are intelligent enough to deal with
listening to good instrumental music that is done in a very creative
way. The fact is the jazz industry has failed to realize that, and
little by little every year, our sales have gone down. How do we
build up the sales in the industry? You have to get to the youth,"
says Sanabria.

Bobby Sanabria © Andrea CanterNow Sanabria dives headlong into a
discussion comparing music and culture of his youth with today’s
world. "I see myself as a revolutionary. I have a revolutionary spirit
that I inherited from the sixties and seventies. I grew up during
the Vietnam era in the United States. We had high school kids that
were very politically conscious. The apathy towards jazz reflects
the apathy towards everything in society today. Music reflects the
times that it lives in. I think the future of jazz is in what has
become known as world jazz music, particularly in Latin America,
because our rhythms are so infectious," he says.

Continuing with his thoughts concerning the influences of the
international music scene on North American jazz, Sanabria says,
"You are hearing a lot more jazz-oriented music coming from all parts
of Latin America. It is not just Afro Cuban-based rhythms, Brazil has
been a powerful force now, countries such as Puerto Rico and Venezuela
(are becoming more prominent). I just came back from Armenia and I saw
three groups over there that are combining jazz with Armenian folk
rhythms and Armenian folk instruments. If you closed your eyes, you
would think you were listening to Weather Report, only with different
drums that you may not have heard before.

There are those (in the jazz community) who will tell you that it is
not real jazz You get traditionalists who tell you that if it doesn’t
have a swing rhythm, bebop or whatever, that it is not real jazz. The
music is supposed to always be revolutionary, forward thinking and
absorbing from other cultures."

Sanabria applies the same thinking to new trends that are emerging
within the Afro Cuban jazz scene. Referencing Eddie Palmieri, he says,
"If you keep the rhythmic integrity of the genre, then you can do
whatever you want harmonically. That is why you are hearing out of
Cuban dance bands, what we call tipico, which means it is flavorful
in the traditional style. Then it goes off into a harmonic style that
is not normally heard in that kind of music."

"These new Cuban genres incorporate the drum set a lot. When you
incorporate the drum set, you have a wider range of vocabulary that you
can use. You can use funk rhythms, jazz, rock, R&B (and so forth). You
can utilize styles such as pica and timba. Timba is a very modernistic
approach to jazz. It is an amalgam of all of these approaches from the
past to the present. You get a lot of elements of funk in the music,"
he explains.

On Big Band Urban Folktales, the track "El Lider" pays homage to
Sanabria’s Puerto Rican heritage while honoring the new rhythms that
are emerging in that country’s music. "This is the first time ever
that we did a bomba in the grasima style. Grasima is one of the styles
of bomba, just like in salsa, you have mambo, son and cha-cha-cha. In
bomba, we have different rhythmic styles and grasima is one of them. We
had a full orchestra, five saxophones, four trombones and trumpets. For
the rhythm, we utilized the native drums that Puerto Ricans use,
the bomba barrels. Bomba barrels are emptied-out run barrels covered
in goat skins. They have a really deep, powerful sound. On all of my
albums I have included something from my Puerto Rican roots," he says.

Using a full orchestra to record a project such as Big Band Urban Folk
Tales is not an inexpensive proposition, so why did Sanabria embark
on such an ambitious project? "What drives you is the love of the
music. That is why although Buddy Rich could very easily have made a
successful living with a small group, his passion was the art of the
big band. There is no greater feeling than seeing or hearing a jazz
orchestra or a big band. It is the equivalent to, in the orchestral
world, the symphony orchestra. It is the time when you get to express
yourself as a soloist, accompanist, composer, arranger and leader,"
says Sanabria.

Sanabria has remained the jazz artist for the common man.

"Unfortunately, jazz has become the music of the culturally elite
and the very snobbish, among some musicians. It is not supposed
to be that way, it is the music of the people. It is ironic to me
(considering the roots of jazz) that it has now become this snooty,
elitist art form. I am totally against that. All of my recordings
are the antithesis of that. That is not to say that there is not some
deep thought going on, but besides the deep thought there is also a
visceral connection with the African American down south, the Puerto
Rican or someone from another island. As they would say, ‘Man, it’s
got to have some grease on it.’ It has to have something from deep
within that touches you on a visceral, emotional level," he says.

I have only been able to capture here a small portion of my wonderful
conversation with Bobby Sanabria at the beginning of July. To explore
the man and his music further you are encouraged to check out his
website and his current CD, Big Band Urban Folk
Tales from the Jazzheads label.