By Marilyn Lester . . . 

When percussionist, composer, educator and multi-Grammy Award nominee Bobby Sanabria appears on a bandstand, what’s guaranteed is a bona fide happening—an experience of high-energy performance that’s not only an extravaganza of rhythm, but a subtle learning experience and a visit to “church.” The stage is a sacred space, he says, and develops the thought with serious humor to indicate that we, the audience, are now in church. And because a Sanabria concert is also interactive, and he relishes giving the audience instructions to stand, dance, and so on, the call to rise and get up comes with a reminder that, yes, we’re in church. Who could fail to respond to this combination of music and theatrics plus lots of smiles and gleeful participation.

Antoinette Montague

With his 21-piece Multiverse Big Band, the sound is powerful, with the rhythm flowing out from the bandstand in waves of Latin zeal. Added to the standard jazz configuration was a flute and violin, which provided texture to several of the numbers throughout the evening. That Latin multiverse is actually a universe of Latin styles, originating from many sources in the Caribbean as well as Central and South America. The unifying driver of all styles, though, is the African rhythms brought to the New World by the enslaved. Sanabria’s musical choices reflected this concept with a variety of Latin arrangements.

Leading with Juan Tizol’s “Caravan,” made popular by the Duke Ellington Orchestra, of which Tizol was a member, and arranged by Jeremy Fletcher, the melody emerged in riffs during an opening segment of the piece. Following this explosion of rhythm, the full familiarity of “Caravan” announced itself with an all-out melodic thrust, driving to a conclusion with Sanabria getting the audience to go interactive with movement and clapping. 

Janis Siegel

With that mood set, the remainder of the concert featured the “vox humana” of special guests Janis Siegel, Antoinette Montague and Jennifer Jade Ledesna. Ledesna, with a deep and rich vocal tone, began this portion of the evening with a rousing rendition of Eddie Palmieri’s “Puerto Rico,” backed by Siegel and Montague—and occasionally the band vocalizing. More willing audience participation included clapping and dancing and plenty of swaying and toe-tapping. Ledesna is an energetic singer, adept at dance as well as vocalizing, who kept the audience engaged during band portions of the tune. Latin specialist Ledesna also performed an especially animated Brazilian samba number, complete with a call and response with the band and literally lots of bells and whistles.

Blues specialist Montague kept the energy way up with a blazing version of Louis Jordan’s “Let the Good Times Roll.” The opening lyric of “Hey, everybody, let’s have some fun.You only live but once, And when you’re dead you’re done, so Let the good times roll,” was not only a prescription and a prayer, but voiced the overarching sentiment of the entire evening. A song by pianist, educator and record producer, Randy Klein, “Who Taught You That?” a swinging, country-tinged blues number, was delivered with a nod to those who persist in bad behavior, such as hating. The tune is one of Klein’s trunk songs provided for the evening—a catchy “fun” tune with a deep meaning.

Jennifer Jade Ledesna

As a founding member of Manhattan Transfer, of course Siegel’s vocals were swinging jazz numbers, heavily influenced by scat and vocalese. After visiting her jazz roots and a trip to Brazil via João Gilberto, Siegel led the finale—and a grand one it was—in a Latinized “Spooky” (originally an instrumental song by saxophonist Mike Sharpe and Harry Middlebrooks Jr, with lyrics added by J.R. Cobb and Buddy Buie). Turning the number into a swinging story song, Siegel was joined by Montague and Ledesna a few choruses in, with Sanabria urging the audience to get up and dance. Thus, with the entire room swinging, swaying and moving, the concert came to a boffo close, capping a set that will eventually find its way onto a new CD (a total of six sets were recorded to produce what will be a “live at” album in the next months ahead). It was the kind of night that left “church members” filled with the healing power of music, thanks to Sanabria, the high-priest of aché—endless energy.

Bobby Sanabria played Dizzy’s Club June 17-19 at the Shops at Columbus Circle (10 Columbus Circle, NYC). 

Photos: Jeremy Fletcher