The story of Poncho Sanchez — recognized in many circles as the reigning king of Latin jazz — is one that’s been told countless times. The percussionist grew up in L.A. and was raised on straight-ahead jazz and American soul, finding equal inspiration in John Coltrane and Miles Davis as he did in Wilson Pickett and James Brown. But it was another group of sounds — Latin jazz — that he found his true calling and his biggest musical hero: legendary bandleader and vibraphonist Cal Tjader, with whom he landed a gig and remained until the elder musician’s death in 1982.
With Tjader’s death came a new chapter in Sanchez’s career, as he signed with Concord that same year and released his label debut, Sonando!. Nearly 30 years and two dozen recordings later, Sanchez and Concord continue to make their mark in the world of Latin jazz, and 2009 brought the latest installment in the extensive Sanchez discography: Psychedelic Blues.
A 10-track collection of groovy, danceable trademark Sanchez, Psychedelic Blues is enjoyable but inessential. Adding a little more Latin flavor to the record than his recent soul-inflected releases, Sanchez surrounds himself with longtime collaborators and a couple of guest players to conjure up the sounds of his 1980s records, back when his prolific relationship with Concord first began.
Among Sanchez’s studio cohorts are keyboardist/arranger David Torres, saxophonist Javíer Vergara, trumpeter/flugelhornist Ron Blake, trombonist/arranger Francisco Torres, bassist/vocalist Tony Banda, timbalero George Ortiz, and percussionist/vocalist Joey De León. Baritone saxophonist Scott Martin and percussionist Alfredo Ortize — both veterans of early Sanchez bands — also make an appearance on Psychedelic Blues. But the newcomer here, guitarist Andrew Synowiec (of the L.A.-based Gordon Goodwin Big Phat Band), is the most welcome addition, and adds some piquant playing on a couple of tracks, spicing up an otherwise tasty-but-unremarkable dish of tunes.
Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island” leads off Psychedelic Blues with some fine soloing from Synowiec and Torres, but the track never gets above a simmer when it should burn. Freddie Hubbard’s “Crisis” follows and features a guest appearance from Latin jazz stalwart Arturo Sandoval, who lends some smoking trumpet. The title track, a mambo moving at a meteor’s pace, pushes the disc forward and segues nicely into the best track of the disc, a Willie Bobo medley that includes “I Don’t Know”, “Fried Neckbones and Some Homefries”, and “Spanish Grease”. Featuring a strong vocal turn from Joey De León (and some on-point harmonies from the band), the disc hits its stride, and unfortunately, its peak, by the time “Neckbones” fades into “Grease”.
For the remainder of the record, Sanchez and his bandmates weave in and out of tunes that will either have listeners shakin’ their hips or their heads. How is Psychedelic Blues an appropriate title for this session? There isn’t too much — or, really, anything — here that recalls anything of the sort. Closing track “Con Sabor Latino” (translation: with Latin flavor) is a more apt description for this record, but it’s just missing something. Listeners are better off catching Sanchez live the next time he comes to town. When the salsa swings onstage, it’s far more irresistible — much more so than this collection.