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No musical boundaries: Bobby Sanabria on the latest album from his MULTIVERSE Big Band

Bobby Sanabria is an eight-time Grammy nominee and host of WBGO's "Latin Jazz Cruise"
Courtesy of the artist
Bobby Sanabria is an eight-time Grammy nominee and host of WBGO's "Latin Jazz Cruise"

Multi-Grammy award-nominated master percussionist, bandleader, educator, modern-day Griot and all around great human being, Bobby Sanabria, dropped by the WBGO Studios not to host The Latin Jazz Cruise, but to talk about his latest recording Vox Humana (Jazzheads). Sanabria, who has collaborated with a who’s who list of luminaries including Dizzy Gillespie, Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaria, Mario Bauza and Celia Cruz, is celebrating the silver anniversary of his ground-breaking, genre-bending, cross-cultural and generational Multiverse Big Band. Sanabria’s latest effort is autobiographical and shines a light on his eclectic influences and Nuyorican South Bronx roots. Recorded live at Dizzy’s Club, Vox Humana features vocalists Janis Siegel, Antoinette Montague and Jennifer Jade Ledesna.

Listen to our conversation, above.


Interview transcript:

Monifa Brown: Let's dive into this new album, which I'm predicting is Grammy bound. It's such a beautiful project. In your past albums, some with the MULTIVERSE Big Band, you've highlighted vocalists on a track here and there, but this time it's full on with three dynamic vocalists. Almost four when you think about it, along with the conguero, you've got Janis Siegel, you've got Antoinette Montague, and you've also got Jennifer Jade Ledesna. Tell us about the three vocalists and how you narrowed it down to working with these three artists.

Bobby Sanabria: Thank you so much, Monifa. It's been a dream come true for me because I've always wanted to do something like this. As you said before, we occasionally featured vocals on all of our previous albums. We've been fortunate that they've all been Grammy-nominated, in terms of the MULTIVERSE Big Band. I've always wanted to do this, but I never could find the right three vocalists. You mentioned our conguero Oreste Abrantes who is also a fabulous vocalist and is featured on the album. But we have Janis Siegel, who many of you know from the Manhattan Transfer. She's won 10 Grammys. She's not only an incredible vocalist, but also an incredible vocal arranger as well and has won Grammys for that category.

Then Antoinette Montague, what can I say? The Queen of the blues and jazz from Newark, New Jersey. Jennifer Jade Ledesna, who like me is from the South Bronx in New York City. She's half Puerto Rican and half Dominican, but she's a musical polygot because she sings not only in English and Spanish, but also in Brazilian Portuguese on the album.

Jennifer Jade Ledesna
c/o the artist
Jennifer Jade Ledesna

I’m very proud of her because she was a student about 25 years ago when I started to teach at the New School. Around that time, Jennifer was always forthright in her love of Brazilian culture. She actually lived in Brazil, travels there quite frequently, speaks the language fluently. She is also fluent in French. She travels to France a lot to where she works.

The defining thing about all of these great women is that while they're all stylistically different, they have one common bond—they're all fantastic jazz vocal improvisers.

They're so distinctive but when they come together, it's a really a seamless album that just flows, even though each one brings something different to the project. Tell us about the relationship between big band and vocalists. Historically, all the great big bands worked with vocalists. What were you looking for specifically to enhance the sound of the ensemble with each vocalist. What did each one bring that added that extra spice so that you knew you found the right one?

Janis brings all that incredible bebop vocabulary that she knows in her harmonic sense. I call her the queen of harmony. She's got that down and she's from Brooklyn, New York. She's a Brooklyn girl, so she’s got a lot of soul. She grew up listening to R&B and pop music like me and some Latin music. She has her own great solo albums and she's done Brazilian things. But when she got into involved with this project, she really started delving deep into it when we started dealing with the Afro Cuban style. She shared that, “This is some new territory for me.”

Antoinette Montague
c/o the artist
Antoinette Montague

Antoinette brings that background that she has in R&B and gospel and of course jazz. Stylistically, she is like Dinah Washington, Nina Simone, and all these other great artists. She's part of the lineage of all these incredible African American vocalists that have laid down the groundwork for what we do today.

Jennifer, she's the future of the music, because as I said before, she's a musical polyglot and she has a back ground in theater. She's a graduate of the LaGuardia School of the Performing Arts, just like you, Monifa. Because of her background in theater, she's very theatrical when she performs the music, but it isn't cabaret. It's some serious jazz. Her vocal talents in terms of improvising, are very unique. She's featured on that Brazilian song, “Partido Alto,” which is the name of a Brazilian rhythm as well. I'm very fortunate.

Partido Alto Full Promo 45s - HD 1080p

I think congratulations are in order with the MULTIVERSE Big Band’s 25th anniversary. What was your vision when you first set out for the big band, and have you surpassed that? Have you changed along the way? Multiverse crossing cultures, crossing generations? Tell us what it's like in this current time to be able to keep a big band and sustain a big band during this time. What's your biggest challenge?

The biggest challenge as anybody can tell you is keeping it together—both big and small ensembles. My vision was for this band to have no musical boundaries. I was inspired by all of the great musicians that were my heroes when I was coming up. Like Mario Bauza, Tito Puente, Machito, Tito Rodriguez, but also Duke Ellington, Count Basie.

The late great Don Ellis, the most forward-thinking musician in the history of jazz, inspired me. When I saw his band on PBS on TV as a kid, my mouth dropped because I said, “This is what the multiverse is where there's no musical boundaries technically, socially, culturally.” A lot of people describe the band as a Latin jazz big band. No, it's not. It's something beyond that because while we have a strong background in Latin-oriented jazz, particularly Afro-Cuban rhythms, we’ve used Brazilian rhythms, we've used Colombian rhythms, Venezuelan rhythms, rhythms from my ancestral homeland, Puerto Rico.

c/o the artist

You can hear the history of the band from all our albums and also when you see us perform live. I also wanted to have the band be multi-generational, multi-racial, and of course multi-cultural. I wanted to present the music in a very entertaining way. I want to inspire as well and teach about our collective culture from the African diaspora because that's the defining thing that unites us all in the jazz community.

We are children of this gigantic tree, which is Africa. At the core of that tree is Central and South America and the Caribbean, because we're closer to Africa. The hand drums survived in those places. In terms of the African American tradition, slavery was different here and the drum was taken away and the languages were taken away. But the genius of the African American experience is what came out of it, which was blues and jazz. It is what defines us when we improvise, because every culture improvises in their music. But when we improvise in the jazz world, whatever style it is, if you don't have something of the blues in it, it’s not jazz.

When we evoke the blues, that means we pay homage to the African American roots of jazz. That's been my concept with this band all along. When you're in the thick of it, you're not realizing it has been 25 years. When we did West Side Story Reimagined, our previous Grammy-nominated album, it was 20 years. When this anniversary came along, my partner in time Elena goes to me, “You know, it’s 25 years.” When I started doing this, everybody told me I was crazy. But you just have to be persistent. I'm from the South Bronx and you are a New Yorker too, so you know how we roll. When somebody tells you no, that's our cue to show them.

Talk about New York and being a Nuyorican from the South Bronx, growing up as a multicultural person in the arts community in New York. You realize what a special place it is, and what a privilege it is to be in this melting pot of influences. It's just one of the things that I love about you and what you represent in the music. This album is really a culmination of all of the things that have made you who you are and influenced you along the way. Talk to us about how this project is kind of semi- autobiographical. There'll be a lot of surprises, but when you look at the repertoire and how broad it spans, give people an idea of how you connect to this music and why it's so diverse.

It's not semi-autobiographical but completely autobiographical. Any artist will tell you that when they record, if they're serious, something of their personal side comes across. But in this album, if somebody asks you who is Bobby Sanabria, put Vox Humana on. This'll tell you who he and what he is. Every piece of music on the album has some personal connection to my youth. The great thing is that the music is universal. For example, we did a version of “Spooky,” which was a pop hit in the 1960s written by Mike Sharp, whose real name was Mike Shapiro. He was a Jewish alto tenor player, R&B player and alto player in the South. They told him that nobody was going to buy a record from someone with the name Shapiro. He changed it to Sharp and he had an instrumental hit with that tune, “Spooky.”

Then the Classics Four wrote lyrics to it. They had a hit with it. And then the Atlanta Rhythm Section when I was in college had a hit with it again in 1977. With Janis being featured on this, I hope we have a hit with this version of it, which really brings out the Cuban cha cha cha elements and plus the R&B elements of it as well.

There's a another WBGO connection because the arrangement is based on a small group arrangement that Christian McBride did for Janis. When you hear the opening bassline, that's Christian's inventiveness. I assigned it to Jeremy Fletcher who blew it up. I know Christian is going to smile and he is going to enjoy it when he hears it. And I must say, because of that New York connection, Janis was the one that called me up. She either calls me Sanabria or Bronx. “Hey Bronx,” she said when she called. “You know that tune ‘Spooky.’” I go, “Yeah, I remember that tune.” She says, “Well, I want you to hear something.” I heard it. I said, “If we blew this up with a band in an authentic way with the majesty of a big band…fuggedaboutit,” as our Italian American brothers and sisters say in New York. Then we did a version of “Do it Again” by Steely Dan.

Janis Siegel
c/o the artist
Janis Siegel

It was probably one of my favorite tracks on the album. You’ve got all three vocalists on it as well, right?

Steely Dan was always one of my favorite groups. They weren't jazz musicians, but both of them, Walter Becker and Donald Fagan, were influenced by jazz. They used jazz musicians on all those recordings. I always dug the tune and it was an opportunity to feature all three vocalists. I'm so happy that you say that's one of your favorite tracks because all three vocalists shine on it. We get to feature Gabrielle Garrow on the flute and Noah Bless on trombone who takes a really funky solo evoking the great Barry Rogers. To quote what people used to say on American Bandstand, “It’s got a nice beat and you can dance to it.” But it's also got a lot of hip jazz harmony.

You've got Juan Tizol, Gershwin, Christina Aguilera, the album just gets better and better.

The version that we do of “I Loves You Porgy” featuring Antoinette, I think is the most definitive version. Again, a piece of music that I heard in a production of Porgy and Bess when I was young and moved by the music. When working with Antoinette as a sideman for her, I heard her sing it in a small group version, bringing the audience to tears. I didn't tell her. I surprised her in the next rehearsal. She comes in and we lay out the music and she just knocked it out of the park. Again, it’s these great memories that I have of growing up in New York City, despite the craziness that was happening in the South Bronx at the time, the fires and all that. But what kept us alive and thriving was the music, the culture, as you well know.

A lot of people are thriving with your music. You're keeping that energy, bringing that ache, that positive energy that we need. Thank you.

Let’s talk about “Caravan.” When my parents took me to my first jazz concert at Carnegie Hall, I saw a gentleman by the name of Artie Miller, who was a protege of Benny Goodman on clarinet. The last song that he played was “Caravan.” I was nine years old. I had never heard a jazz group live. I'd seen it on TV but not live. The drummer takes a fabulous solo and at the end, everybody's applauding and there’s a standing ovation. My father winks at me and he tells me in Spanish, “You know, a Puerto Rican wrote that song.” That song opens the album. I think it's the most exciting version of the piece that has ever been recorded. In homage to Juan Tizol and my Puerto Rican roots. We use three Afro Puerto Rican rhythms in the piece—plena, bomba yuba, and bomba cica.

Can you clap those rhythms out for us so we can hear what they are?

The first rhythm you're going to hear is this…[claps and beats out the rhythms]

All right. Your father was one of your first music teachers. Your first influence.

Jose, yeah. He opened the gateway for me to the multiverse. He was very eclectic in his taste in music. He was a machinist. It took him two hours to get to work in Long Island and two hours to get to back. His ritual was to sit in a La-Z-boy chair, drink some Schaefer beer, smoke a cigarette, and listen to music. A lot of times I'd do my homework sitting next to him and he'd be putting on everything from Harry Belafonte Live at Carnegie Hall to Ahmad Jamal, Tito Puente, The Three Mambo Kings, Machito, Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez, Count Basie, James Brown. When he brought Sex Machine home as a 45, I looked at him and I go in Spanish, “Hey, Pa, you like this?” He goes, “Yeah, it’s funky. You don’t like it?” That's the way he was and he exposed me to Brazilian music and everything else. The album reflects that.

We're going to do a quick round. I'm going to name a few people and you tell me the first things that come to your mind.

Tito Puente


Keith Copeland

Changed my life. I'm the drummer that I am today because of him.

Max Roach

Another genius. Loved the way I played. He saw me many times with Mario Bauza and he used to compliment me constantly, which I was very taken to get that from a genius like him. Can't beat that with a broken timbale stick.

Mario Bauza

Another genius. One of my musical godfathers. I'm so privileged that I got to work with the man who really created the first form of Latin jazz, Afro Cuban Jazz, and be his drummer for 10 years.

Buddy Rich

Another genius, an SOB (Son of Brooklyn), New York City. Often imitated, but never can be duplicated.

Sonny Payne

Another fabulous drummer, a contemporary in many ways of Buddy Rich. He was the first to show me how you could create drama visually on the drum set, not only with the virtuosity, but the ways he would do tricks sometimes with the sticks and things like that.

Billy Cobham

One of my main influences, my main man from Panama. Another SOB in Southern Brooklyn, New York City. A lot of people don't know this. I got to play with his father, Manny or Manuel Cobham who was a fabulous piano player. Billy's one of my heroes. Sometimes you'll hear a lick that I do, and if you are very knowledgeable about drums, you'll say, “He copped that from BC.”

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Born of Ukrainian Jewish and African-American descent in Brooklyn, NY, Monifa Brown's (formerly Carson, happily married and the proud mother of a wonderful son – who can be heard in some of Brown’s WBGO show promos) affinity for music began at an early age. "I am blessed that my parents were determined to expose me to the arts and jazz in particular. They would take me with them everywhere. The first time an irrepressible mark was made was when they took me to hear Miles Davis. His presence and sound were mesmerizing. Miles was magical and I was instantly hooked."