Dangerous Rhythms: T.J. English and His Latin Jazz Explosion
We are thrilled to have as an opening act for Dangerous Rhythms: T.J. English and His Latin Jazz Explosion the multi-Grammy nominee Bobby Sanabria & Sexteto Ibiano. Recently, T.J. caught up with Bobby to discuss his upcoming show at Zinc in Greenwich Village.
T.J. English: Who is Sexteto Ibiano? Who are these musicians and how did they wind up together?
Bobby Sanabria: Ibiano is the Yoruba word for soul. So, I have various groups. Querteto Aché, which is positive energy. Ascención, which is my nonet. And the Multiverse Big Band, which ranges anywhere from 19 to 21 musicians depending on the music we’re playing. This group is a happy medium btwn all of them. It will be myself on drums, vocals and percussion, Oreste Abrantes on congas, Andy Eulau on the bass, Darwin Noguera on piano. Peter Brannen on sax, he also doubles on flutes. Also, another horn player, Shareef Clayton, on trumpet.
All the musicians are incredible soloists. We do arrangements, but we also get to stretch out a lot. Anybody who works with me knows, the caveat is that when I go on stage, everything is subject to change. That can happen instantaneously at any moment. And the musicians have to be willing to respond instantaneously as well.
What’s the theory behind that: keeping it fresh?
Yeah, keeping it fresh. And my brain, the way it works, is just a constant stream of consciousness. It can even happen when I’m talking to the audience, sometimes I’ll comment on what’s happening socio-politically.
And that effects your mood, which may lead you to make a musical decision based on that?
Sure. Most definitely. When you’re playing in a jazz context, that’s the beauty of the art form. What you play is a reflection of that. And you play according to your personality. My personality is pretty complex, as all of our personalities are. But it becomes even more heightened in the context of the stage.
Give me an assessment of where Latin Jazz is at right now, both creatively, in terms of the music, and the business side of things.
From a creative standpoint, I think the most creative time for the music was the 90s. There was an explosion of groups happening, music happening. It’s similar to what jazz went through in the 70s when the fusion movement started, and people started using instruments like the Fender Rhodes piano, and the synthesizer, the electric guitar, using the sounds that were created by Jimmy Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and others, those sounds became part of the jazz vocabulary. Those rhythms from the worlds of rock and funk became part of the jazz vocabulary in a big way. It was reflected in the size of the drum sets the players were using. Groups like Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Reports, Larry Coryell and the Eleventh House. That was also reflected in Latin Jazz. There was an explosion of recording. And that was a reflection of the ethnic backgrounds of the musicians. It wasn’t just Cuban and Puerto Ricans playing Afro Cuban rhythms. It was Puerto Ricans playing their own rhythms, like bomba y plena. It was Colombians playing cumbia and incorporating that. You always had Brazilian musicians dealing with jazz, that was always part of the vocabulary. There was a great explosion of people drawing on their own cultures and playing it that way.
I have to say, we deserve some credit for that. With my nonet Ascención we were doing that back in the 70s, when I was in college. We were the only group doing that kind of stuff. We were playing Venezuelan joropo rhythms, stuff like that. Nobody was doing that.
What’s happening now, unfortunately, because the way the business is, jazz radio has ceased to exist except for a few major cities. Of course, there’s jazz on college radio, but the audience is limited. What’s happening now is a reflection of what’s happening in society. Things are becoming more racially polarized. Latinos and their contributions to music, and historically, never gets talked about. So, we’re in a battle, whether the musicians know it or not, for our own existence and own worth as a musical art form.
And you can’t judge what’s happening in the music by what’s happening in New York. Because New York is a special place. It’s a bubble. Just like Cuba is a bubble. Brazil is a bubble. When you go outside of New York, that’s when you see what’s happening. It’s an interesting conundrum, because at the same time more people on the educational front are getting interested in Latin Jazz, at the college level and the high school level, with band directors that want to get involved in the music. And, of course, it’s a chic thing to go to Cuba. I’ve met many music students on the college level who have already been to Cuba, even some high school musicians too.
But in terms of the music and its deepest fountain of authenticity and source of energy, I still think its New York. Even for Brazilian-oriented jazz and Afro Cuban jazz.
But what you’re saying is that this can be misleading. Here in New York, it looks like it’s happening, but outside of NYC the audience just isn’t there.
Yes. And, of course, it’s a process of exposure and education. I tend to look at everything from a historical perspective. If you look back at the 1950s, the number one rated TV show in the U.S. was the I Love Lucy Show. The premise was a Cuban bandleader married to a white, Irish woman, living in NYC, who is not only the band leader, but he owns the freakin’ nightclub that he works in. And where have we gone from there? Have you seen any Latin talent in the popular mainstream? And I’m not talking about Bruno Mars or any of these pop stars who happen to be of Latin extraction. I’m talking about the music that I perform. Do we ever see Latin jazz in any of its forms – be it Afro Cuban, Afro Venezuelan, Puerto Rican, whatever – on TV. You don’t see it on any of the shows like Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, any of these shows that provide outlets for musicians to perform. But the same thing is true about jazz in general; it isn’t represented at all.
It doesn’t penetrate the mainstream.
Which is a sad thing to me because it’s like having this treasure buried in your back yard and you don’t know it’s there. So our job, I’ve always been in the position of being an advocate not only for the music but for the culture as well. When I get a platform to speak, like now, I speak on it. But the musicians themselves, they don’t realize it. They’re advocates for their art form as soon as they get on the stage, whether they know it or not.
Hopefully, with this upcoming concert series that you have at Zinc Bar, and also with the West Side Story Reimagined concert I’m doing with my big band [August 10 at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, Manhattan], that will help change perceptions.
Yes, the point of the series is to call attention to the music, because the music is so infectious that when people hear it, they relate to it. But the thing you said is also so important about the cultural part of it. Jazz in general, and most especially Latin jazz, is informed by the cultural aspects of the music. And the more you know about that – the more you’re aware of it – the more you have the opportunity to really feel the music and embrace it. It will have meaning to you other than just nice music you can listen to in the background.
Right. And it’s part of the DNA of New York. It’s sad now, because when I was growing up everyone knew who Tito Puente was, from the farthest reaches of Long Island to the deepest part of the South Bronx or Brooklyn. And today that’s not the case, especially with our youth.
So what’s the solution? Well, one of the solutions to this is advocacy. We need advocates like yourself. Ned Sublette, who’s always been an advocate for the music and the culture, especially from the Afro Cuban perspective. But Ned has a worldview, as well. So, we need more of that.
I have a unique perspective. I’m 60 years old. I grew up in the heyday when salsa was the ubiquitous gospel of the streets in New York. There wasn’t a place in the city where you could escape hearing that music. It was coming out of the bodega. You go into department stores you would hear it. You’d hear guys with timbales and congas in the park jamming. It was like being in New Orleans and Cuba at the same time, through the lens of the Bronx or Brooklyn and Manhattan. And then, on August 24, 1973, you had 50,000 people at Yankee Stadium for the Fania All-Stars, the first mega salsa concert.
A person like myself who grew up with that and remembers that, to see what’s happened with the culture and the music, it’s been disenfranchised. It’s sad. But at the same time, the flip side is that where the dominant Latino group in the city has been Puerto Ricans, now you have Colombians and Dominicans and Ecuadorans, Brazilians, Hondureños. Every nation in Latin America exists here now. And they’re bringing their own cultural backgrounds to the music.
So live performance is where this all takes place, it’s where the fire gets lit?
Yes. And hopefully young people will come to your series. Young people really need to hear and see this music. It’s transformative. It always happens. It’s like fine wine. You don’t acquire a taste for fine wine overnight. You have to be exposed to it, you have to nurture it. But unfortunately, in this cookie-cutter, instant gratification society that we live in, it’s harder for young people of today. They don’t have the patience, in many ways. But one thing I’ve found that the human organism responds to instantaneously, without fail, is rhythm. And nobody’s got more rhythm than our culture, collectively. We just own that, hands down. Because of our ties to Africa. So once young people come in the door, I know we will get them involved in the music. And they will love it.
Well, what everyone needs to know, and one of the many things we hope to communicate with the series, is that this is American music. Latin jazz is American music. Yes, it has rhythmic roots in the Caribbean and in Africa, but the primary practitioners, the venues where it was fostered, the pot that it was stewed in was New York City, Miami, the United States. It’s our music as Americans.
Oh, definitely. I tell my students that. I tell them, ‘You need to understand: this is your cultural inheritance. You just haven’t been exposed to it.’ Which is the old divide and conquer thing. Keep the good stuff away from the masses, so they don’t realize that we’re all related somehow. That we have more things in common than we have differences. Knowing that gives you power.
Getting the proper exposure for the music, it’s a constant battle. But I’m still fighting the good fight. We all are: anyone who loves the music and loves the culture is doing that. That’s why I’m so glad you’re doing this series. It’s a great opportunity to promote the best that we have to offer, musically and culturally.
(See and hear the great Bobby Sanabria & Sexteto Ibiano at Zinc Jazz Bar, 83 W. 3rd Street in Greenwich Village, NYC on April 5, two sets 7 and 8:30 pm.)