From sideman to frontman, Figueroa’s transition complete

What do Miles Davis, Mariah Carey, Sonny Rollins, the Brecker Brothers and David Bowie have in common? The percussion stylings of Sammy Figueroa.

A conga player and sideman since the early 1960s, Figueroa has been leading his band, the Latin Jazz Explosion, for almost a decade, earning two Grammy nominations for best Latin jazz album …And Sammy Walked In and The Magician, in 2005 and 2007.

Looking back on his decades-long emergence as a sideman and now as a bandleader, Figueroa declines to name any favorites.

“They all were unique in their own way. I had a great time with Miles Davis. I had a great time with Tony Williams and Lifetime, who was one of my heroes,” he says. “I played with the Brecker Brothers, which is another type of experience, an unbelievable, exhilarating experience. I played with Freddie Hubbard and Jaco Pastorius, and they were all different, man. They all gave me a schooling, a whole different style and emotion of music. They were all different and all exciting in their own way.”

The late percussionist Tito Puente used to complain that his music shouldn’t be called salsa, as that referred to food, not music. Figueroa doesn’t share this concern.

“I didn’t really get to play salsa until the latter years of my life. I was playing more jazz and pop and Brazilian,” he says. “I didn’t get into the real heavy Latin stuff until I started playing with Ruben Blades and (pianist) Eddie Palmieri.”

Being a bandleader is a whole different job. “People think it’s easy and glamorous, but it’s not,” he says. “It’s a huge responsibility. You’re responsible for the musicians, you’re responsible for the payment — it’s like being the super of a building — everybody calls you when the lights are out.”

Figueroa is writing a new record, but Friday’s concert will draw on material from his first two recordings.
“This band that I lead now is a band of musicians, and (the) music is a very easy music to hear, even for those people who never heard Latin jazz in their life,” he says. “I made sure that the music that I play is easy to understand, but very exciting.”  

Playing in a college setting carries its own set of differences, he says, but he notices the similarities with club shows.

“Playing a college is just more people, more instructional, more educational, but the vibe is the same — they both capture the emotion of the people.” He is happy to be coming to Louisville, “because it is such a music town, it will be fun to be surrounded by people (here) who love jazz.”

The Magician features the working members of the Latin Jazz Explosion: John Michalak, saxophone; Alexander Pope Norris, trumpet; Silvano Monasterios, piano; Gabriel Vivas, bass; and Goetz Kujack, drums.

The excitement this band creates on The Magician is palpable, especially on the Hubert Laws composition “Together,” and original songs by Monasterios, including the title track, as well as Vivas.

This concert is the last of the revamped and expanded Jazz Week program, which began its season with the Dave Brubeck Quartet last November.

Contact the writer at [email protected]

Sammy Figueroa
Friday, April 4
Comstock Concert Hall
University of Louisville Belknap Campus
$10-$20, 8 p.m.