Editor’s note: Organizers of this festival canceled it Jan. 6 because of the spike in coronavirus cases.
Percussionists are often an afterthought for band leaders who are putting together musicians for recording or live performance. From pop music to jazz, most think that having vocalists and a guitarist, bassist and drummer, plus perhaps a keyboardist and/or horn players, suffices.
Often it does. Unless, of course, a band leader wants the extra rhythm, energy, and visual element of a percussionist — who usually plays hand drums like congas and bongos, and stick instruments like bells, woodblocks and timbales. All employ eye-catching hand movements, and add rhythmic spice to any musical situation.
And one of the preeminent congueros of the past half-century resides in South Florida. Miami Beach-based Sammy Figueroa (sammyfigueroa.com) performs with his Latin Jazz Explosion band (also featuring saxophonist Troy Roberts, trumpeter Francisco Dimas, pianist Martin Bejerano, bassist Carlo DeRosa and drummer Ludwig Afonso) at Jazz Fest Pompano Beach, the city’s inaugural two-day jazz festival, on Jan. 29.
You may have heard of some of the artists Figueroa has recorded and/or toured with. The popular music stars include the Average White Band, David Bowie, Mariah Carey, Chic, Joe Cocker, Hall & Oates, Whitney Houston, Mick Jagger, Carole King, Diana Ross, and Luther Vandross.
In jazz, Figueroa’s credits include George Benson, Michel Camilo, Miles Davis, Joey DeFrancesco, Dave Grusin, Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Jordan, Earl Klugh, Bob Mintzer, Sonny Rollins, and John Scofield.
“The number of albums I’ve appeared on has to be over 400,” Figueroa says. “I don’t know the exact number in my head, because I’ve lost count. People come up to me to tell me about how much they like recordings I’m on, and I sometimes don’t even remember those sessions.”
Born in the Bronx, N.Y., and raised in Puerto Rico, Figueroa returned to New York before relocating briefly to Los Angeles in the late 1990s, and then to South Florida.
“I’ve been here close to 22 years now,” Figueroa says, “although I still go back an forth to New York. But I’m down here more than I’m up there. I’ve had different musicians in the Latin Jazz Explosion over the years, all from the great music schools in South Florida. This is a special place.”
Animated and gregarious, Figueroa has an aptly titled program called “Social Music” on Mixcloud Select streaming, and a self-titled radio show on WDNA 88.9 FM (also streaming at wdna.org). The percussionist — who’d only been playing the instrument for a short while after singing and playing guitar and piano — got his big break in music in New York City courtesy of yet another prominent jazz musician, flutist Herbie Mann, in a scene that sounds more cinematic than realistic.
“I was working at the record store Sam Goody’s,” Figueroa says, “and I met Herbie there, because he used to come into the store all the time. Eventually we went to lunch together, and he said, ‘Sammy, do you play anything?’ I told him I was a percussionist and played congas, and he said, ‘Great, come to the club where I’m playing tonight and jam with me.’
“So I did, and he asked if I wanted to join his band and play some gigs, as well as playing a tour of Europe. When I said yes, he came into Sam Goody’s the next day and talked to my manager. Everyone there admired him. So he tells the guy, ‘He doesn’t work for you anymore, he works for me now.’ And he took the vest I was wearing there, with my nametag on it, and folded it up and handed it to him. Herbie was a special sort of soul who came into my life and blessed me.”
Miami-based Steve Kornicks, another of South Florida’s preeminent percussionists, plays jazz styles from Brazilian to traditional to fusion in duos with area guitarists like Tom Lippincott and Cezar Santana. He remembers Figueroa’s work on recordings by artists not even listed among the scroll of stars above.
“Some of the Tania Maria recordings,” Kornicks says, citing 1980s and 1990s releases like Made in New York and No Comment. “And you can’t leave out the early Brecker Brothers. Sammy was on [the influential 1978 live album] ‘Heavy Metal Be-Bop.'”
In addition to the expected influence of seminal Afro-Cuban hand drummers like Mongo Santamaria and Willie Bobo, Figueroa mentions another prominent, if lesser-known, percussionist.
“The guy who really inspired me wasn’t even Latin,” he says. “Bill Fitch was an African-American percussionist who played with Cal Tjader. Bill was a graduate from the Berklee College of Music, and also an incredible composer. When I heard him on Cal’s album ‘Sona Libre,’ especially his conga solo on his own composition ‘Insight,’ I knew that was what I wanted to do. That solo changed my life.”
With a handful of recordings as a leader since he moved to Miami, Figueroa’s next recording will take on special significance.
“My father’s name was Charlie Figueroa, and I was only seven years old when he passed away at age 27,” says Figueroa. “So I barely remember him, but he was an amazing singer. So my next project will be to transform his romantic ballads into hip, new Latin jazz harmonic structures. I’m working with [pianist] Gonzalo Rubalcaba, one of the only people who could do that.
“He’s a genius, and he teaches at the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami. Trumpeter John Daversa, who also teaches there, is involved too. They’ll both be arrangers on the project, and we’ll go into the studio at UM in March. I may even try to sing one of the tracks.”
The 73-year-old Figueroa isn’t the only star appearing at Jazz Fest Pompano Beach. Ten-time Grammy-winning trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, who opens the festival on Jan. 28, was portrayed by actor Andy Garcia in the 2000 film For Love or Country: The Arturo Sandoval Story. The movie depicts the Cuba native’s friendship with fellow trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, who helped him defect to the United States while both were part of the United Nations Orchestra.
The festival’s opening concert also features flutist and master of ceremonies Nestor Torres, whose recording and touring credits include Sandoval, Herbie Hancock, and Paquito D’Rivera as well as pop stars Dave Matthews, Gloria Estefan, and Kenny Loggins. The show will also feature Miami-based guest vocalist Ashley Pezzotti, just 21, who’s already collaborated with Sandoval, Chick Corea, Keith Urban, and Vampire Weekend.
Jan. 29 afternoon sets, from noon to 6 p.m., feature young Afro-Cuban vocalist and flutist Magela Herrera, and Grammy-winning trumpeter and University of Miami professor Brian Lynch, before sets by Pezzotti and Figueroa. Another Grammy winner, saxophonist Ed Calle, leads his Miami-Dade College student ensembles throughout those same afternoon hours on a separate stage.
Figueroa, of course, has shared studios and stages with some of the festival’s other principals.
“Brian is an old friend of mine from New York, so we’ve worked together for years,” Figueroa says. “Arturo, of course, as well. And Nestor and I did a live gig together only a couple months ago.”
Grammy-winning vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater, who headlines the indoor finale, has the rare distinction of also being a Tony Award winner — for her role as Glenda the Good Witch in The Wiz. Born in Memphis and raised in Flint, Mich., Bridgewater started her original, tribute, and Broadway recording career in the mid-1970s, at the same time as she launched an acting career that’s included television, film, and such award-winning stage performances.
If You Go
Jazz Fest Pompano Beach features Arturo Sandoval at 8 p.m. Jan. 28 at the downtown beachfront Great Lawn. On Jan. 29, Magela Herrera (noon), Brian Lynch (1:30 p.m.), Ashley Pezzotti (3 p.m.), and Sammy Figueroa (4:30 p.m.) perform at the Cultural Center ArtsPlaza, saxophonist Dr. Ed Calle directs his Miami Dade College student ensembles from noon-6 p.m. at the Cultural Center Campus, and Dee Dee Bridgewater takes the stage inside the Cultural Center Theater at 8 p.m.
Tickets: $65 for limited VIP to Sandoval’s performance; $65 for Bridgewater’s closing concert, and otherwise free general admission for Sandoval’s and all other Jan. 29 outdoor headliner and student sets.