World & Latin

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Poncho Live At USC

21 APR 08 ANNE FARNSWORTH

During a recent performance, East L.A. favorite son Poncho Sanchez and his Latin Jazz Band turned USC's Bovard Auditorium into a tropical oasis. Hometown fans filled the theater, energizing the band with their shouts of approval as the octet pumped out their sultry Afro-Cuban grooves.

After an opening set by Chicano sketch comedy troupe Culture Clash, the band took the stage. Wearing his trademark Kangol hat and Grizzly Adams beard, Sanchez led the band into "Tropic Blue," slapping a solid rhythm on his flame-painted drums. I was a bit concerned when smoke began curling out from backstage, only to realize it was part of the act when the trippy Fillmore-style light show began, throwing geometric patterns across the stage floor.

Floating across a scrim behind the band were photos of either stalks of green bananas or extremely choice buds of sinsemilla. Apparently what led Sanchez to devote his most recent recording, Raise Your Hand, a tribute to the R&B of the '60s, isn't merely musical interest but a lifestyle. One can't help but wonder if Cheech and Chong might have been a more appropriate opening act.

Sanchez plays comfortably with his long-time associates, bassist Tony Banda and pianist David Torres. Seeding the old guard with young-guns in the horn section and on timbales creates the perfect blend of a high-energy yet solidly professional sound. Trombonist Francisco Torres, a talented young writer/arranger, and trumpeter Ron Blake are recent USC Thornton school alumni, adding another layer to the homecoming vibe that pervaded the event.

Starting this year, Sanchez is funding an annual scholarship for USC music students through the Mexican-American Alumni Association. His music alone is enough to inspire young players, but this gift will go a long way in helping some to realize their potential. Behind the big beard is a big-hearted guy.