NEW YORK (Billboard) - The biggest compliment jazz drummer Bobby Sanabria received this year came when he was hanging out at an outdoor concert in the Nuyorican Fort Apache district of the South Bronx.
He noticed a street vendor had prominently displayed pirated copies of his fire-storming new album, "Big Band Urban Folktales."
"He kept telling me that this was some bad s--- and that I needed to buy a copy, until he recognized that it was me on the cover," the Bronx-based drummer/percussionist/bandleader recalled. "You know you've made it when someone in the 'hood is bootlegging your stuff."
Sanabria's Latin jazz CD, released this year through Jazzheads Records, an indie label specializing in improvised music, ranks as one of the most overlooked and underappreciated albums of 2007. In the liner notes, Yale University's Dr. Robert Farris Thompson underscores the album's importance by writing that "the mantle of Tito Puente now falls on (Sanabria's) broad, hardworking shoulders."
Indeed, the gusto of Sanabria's clave-driven music explodes with a Puente-like gusto, and launches into new rhythmic and harmonic territory. He not only pays homage to the Latin jazz tradition with new compositions by himself and band members, but he also expands the repertoire to include Brazilian tunes, including two by Hermeto Pascoal and even a brilliant rendition of Frank Zappa's "Grand Wazoo," humorously delivered with kazoos and turkey gobbles.
As for the Puente comparison, Sanabria is humbled. He recalls seeing the maestro play in front of his Melrose project in the Bronx for free and becoming smitten by the rhythm. "How could you not fall in love with this music?" he asked. "There was Tito, leading the band like he was Hannibal conquering Italy. It was a religious experience, and it still is. It's all about possession, an out-of-the-body experience."
Puente became a mentor and colleague. "Tito always supported everything I did, and we became close friends and colleagues," Sanabria said. They did a series of duets called "Two Generations" on Sanabria's debut 1993 album "NYC Ache!" (Flying Fish/Rounder), marking the first time the timbales elder performed with another percussionist.
"Tito inspired me in the sense that he proved to me that drummer/percussionists could be accomplished musicians. He was a total artist: a virtuoso player, an accomplished bandleader, composer, arranger and a good dancer," said Sanabria, whose resume includes a big-band stint with Mario Bauza, the Godfather of Afro-Cuban jazz, and a Grammy Award nomination in the best Latin jazz album category for his 2000 CD, "Afro-Cuban Dream . . . Live & In Clave" (Arabesque).
Inducted in 2006 into the Bronx Walk of Fame -- which includes such Latin jazz notables as Eddie Palmieri and Ray Barretto -- Sanabria serves as the Latin jazz big-band instructor at the Manhattan School of Music and New York's New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music.
On November 15, Sanabria directed the New School Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra in a rousing concert at Tishman Auditorium. "The music is demanding," he said. "I gave the students music beyond their capacity, but they didn't know that. So, it's gratifying to see how they mastered it."
Sanabria's commitment to the tradition in the classroom and on the bandstand is so unrelenting that "Folktales" trombonist Joe Fiedler told him he's the only guy he knows who's willing to get into a fistfight with someone to play the music right. Sanabria laughed and said, "Now, that was the second-biggest compliment I got in 2007."