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 when he watched 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 "Since I Fell For You," is ChareneèWade, another former student.
"I speak to the kids (in the schools) about Latin American music, jazz, its history and performing it. 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 gorgeous new arrangements 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.
Now 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 Palmerie 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 www.bobbysanabria.com and his current CD Big Band Urban Folk Tales from the Jazzheads label.