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Bobby Sanabria

Bobby Sanabria and
Quarteto Ache


In the world of Caribbean based music--especially when speaking about instrumentation and implementation of such music--even as understood by those that are more familiar with the intricacies of Afro-Cuban rhythm--the drumset, conga drum and/or percussion instruments are a pivotal element in the proliferation and establishment of Latin Jazz. Essentially, the percussive polyrhythmic side of Latin Jazz can be considered both simplistic in nature and complex in its application. This is especially apparent in the musical work of New York based drummer Bobby Sanabria and his affinity toward Latin rhythm.

Sanabria is a highly intellectual musician both as a player and educator. His depth of understanding of Afro-Cuban rhythm--in particular, as applied to the drumset--is very commendable. Born and raised in the South Bronx, New York City of Puerto Rican parents, Bobby Sanabria felt an inclination toward music at an early age. Some early musical influences included drummers Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa and Louis Bellson. As a teen, he would be expose to a booming culture in which Latin music was still evolving trying to find an identity in mainstream America.

Later, young Sanabria would earn a B.M. in Applied music in 1979 from the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Since then, he would go on to perform with some of the top names in Jazz including Mongo Santamaria, Tito Puente, Dizzy Gillespie, Larry Harlow and Mario Bauza. Bobby would also lead his own ensemble called Ascensions releasing his first CD in 1993 titled "NYC Ache." His more recent work includes a CD titled "Afro-Cuban Dream - Live & In Clave" recorded live at the famous Birdland which earned him a Grammy nomination.

Currently, Sanabria is on the faculties of The New School and The Manhattan School of Music, as well as continuing to perform and conduct Latin Jazz workshops throughout the United States and abroad. Recently, Bobby performed at the Dominican Republic Jazz Festival, and the Havana Jazz Festival in Cuba. His latest self-titled studio recording with his "Quarteto Ache" is a far departure from his previous work with the big band. Even so, Sanabria is accompanied by his regular core of talented sidemen including Jay Collins on saxes and flutes, John di Martino on piano and vocals and Boris Kozlov on acoustic bass.

Bobby and his musicians embark on a mission of exploration touching on past and mainstream Jazz rhythm. This CD contains 9 songs, including two classic Dizzy Gillespie compositions titled "Shaw 'Nuff" and "Bebop", both representing a time and place in the development of Afro-Cuban Jazz in the 1940's. Bobby also presents three original compositions including "Blue", "Child's Walk" and "El Trane." Other songs include "Ebb & Flow" by saxman Jay Collins and pianist John Di Martino's "Aum."

There's no question Sanabria and his Jazzmen are high caliber musicians. However, as a group, Quarteto Ache is a prime example of conflicting individual styles. Like Jazz, the application of music either through melody or improvisation to Latin rhythm is one that requires authentic interpretation, specific nuances and interaction from all musicians involved--the core principals that makes Latin Jazz a style of its own.

Saxophonist Jay Collins has ample technique on his instrument. However, when performing Latin Jazz, Collins suffers from the Parker/Coltrane syndrome: plenty of chops but no sense of authenticity in his interpretation of Latin Jazz. Even his sense of harmonic rhythm is very predictable attempting to integrate cliché licks within a style of music that requires a more organic African-based rhythmic approach.

Boris Kazlov demonstrates some good skill on the bass. He does his best to keep up with Sanabria's driving style but he's easily left behind and most often almost buried by the drums. On the first track "Shaw 'Nuff", Sanabria goes in one direction and he goes the opposite never really establishing a steady groove. Another section of this tune, Sanabria drops out and the bass and piano are left alone in what appears to be the beginning of a piano solo amid a swing groove. Everything is grooving nicely until Bobby comes back in at an even faster tempo, leaving the bass and piano scrambling to catch up. Needless to say, the groove goes out the door.

Not easily swayed by his surroundings, pianist John di Martino maintains a lyrical approach throughout. It is apperent that he's a formidable musician capable of performing in a variety of Jazz settings. His touch on the piano is soft and immaculate. Although he tries to cut loose on a solo on track 7; but to no avail, Sanabria is right on top of every note he plays with his loud and ponderous ride symbal--a lack of sensitivity toward the soloist.

Bobby Sanabria's playing style is fluid. However, there's a clear lack of compatibility between Sanabria's style and his musicians especially when performing Latin Jazz, oftentimes sounding overpowering. Also, prominent in Sanabria's playing style is his compulsion to over accentuate a multitude of hits and rim shots and over usage of symbals, most often not allowing the other musicians to breath within the composition and taking away from the groove. This may explain in part why the individual contributions of the other musicians accompanying Sanabria on this CD in many instances sound remote and secluded. His pyrotechnics on the drums are so overbearing that it is constantly overshadowing what the other musicians are doing. Part of the reason for this is that the overall final mix of this CD has the drums too much in the forefront; for the most part, drowning out the bass and piano; and as a result, forgetting that the piano and bass are also part of the "rhythm" section and play an integral part in the mechanics and creation of Latin Jazz.

The most effective use of Afro-Cuban rhythms within the construct of Jazz is when they are felt (not heard) as part of an interactive unification of all instruments involved, creating an equal balance with the harmonic elements. Moreover, when speaking about the relationship between the drums, piano and bass, these instruments have very specific roles in Latin Jazz--different parts but working together, accentuating its unique interpretation and idiosyncrasies that define the style (clave). In other words, since all of these instruments essentially emphasize the rhythm in some form or another, it is always advantageous to apply the golden rule when performing Latin Jazz--especially within a Jazz quartet lineup: less is more.

In today's music scene, Sanabria's drum style would probably be considered a good example of how widely misplaced the drumset can become in Latin Jazz. For one thing, today's drumset musician has much more equipment to hit on (multiple tumb tombs, an array of crash and splash symbals, etc.). As a result, drummers tend to overplay; in many instances, the rhythm section becomes a blur whipping out what the other musicians are doing. Also, there is the tendency, especially in the studio, to put a microphone on every single part of the drumset. This can come back to haunt the recording--as is the case with this CD--if the drums are not properly mixed down with the rest of the music. But, when it comes to this CD, it seems that in general, Sanabria makes very poor choices as to where and when to use certain rhythms on the drums whether it is swing or Latin Jazz. It seems that the CD was recorded on the run.

No doubt, Bobby Sanabria's aggressive style especially when it comes to Latin Jazz would benefit greatly with the company of other musicians more compatible with his excessive technical prowess. Otherwise, he might consider toning down the drum fireworks and attempt to blend better with these musicians. Another option would be to scale down his drumset to the most essential parts: snare, one ride symbal, highhat and a cow bell.

review by John Davis
Contributing writer Magazine

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