Thursday, April 23, 2015

Players: Sammy Figueroa - DownBeat

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Sammy Figueroa: Leader Satisfaction

From the mid 1970s until the late 1980s, Sammy Figueroa was the go-to man when pop radio needed a Latin percussionist. His upbeat thump propelled hits for Whitney Houston, Chic, Sister Sledge and David Bowie. Twenty years ago, after hundreds of recording sessions, he left New York, the city of his birth, for Miami, a city close to his Puerto Rican roots. He set out to relax and breathe in the ocean air. What he didn’t realize was his attempt at retirement would turn into the busiest and most personally satisfying years of his career, with his first foray into band-leading, two Grammy nominations and a weekly radio show on Miami’s jazz station WDNA. But it was behind the counter of a record store that Figueroa got his first break.

Figueroa worked at the Sam Goody near Rockefeller Center where he flexed his jazz knowledge for any customer looking for something new. “I met Herbie Mann while I was working there. He would come in once a week and he took a liking to me cause I was always turning him on to new stuff. Herbie one day, after like the ninth visit said ‘hey kid, do you play anything?’” Figueroa’s confident answer became the turning point in his life. 

After a jam session that night, Mann immediately hired him, personally informed Sam Goody management that Figueroa would not be returning and whisked him off to Montreux. Over two weeks, he performed with Mann, guitarist John McLaughlin and the Average White Band, all of whom employed him for studio and road work but it was a late night phone call back in the US that put him touch with one of his biggest idols.

“I get a call at 2 in the morning in New York at my apartment. This guy calls me up and says ‘hey! It’s Miles Davis’ and I go ‘who the fuck is this?’ ‘Motherfucker, this is Miles Davis.” I said “fuck you” and I hung up and went back to bed. The phone rings ten minutes later and he goes ‘if you hang up on me again I’m going to find you and I’m going to kick your ass.’ I said ‘I gotta get up in the morning’ and I hung up again. Fifteen minutes later a voice comes on and says “Sammy. I’m sorry to wake you up. This is Teo Macero and you just hung up twice on Miles.” It was the first time everything in my body cringed. I couldn’t even breathe.”

Quickly convinced, Figueroa got dressed and headed down to the studio. “I said ‘Mr. Davis, I’m so sorry’ and he punched me in the stomach. He punched me so hard I nearly fell on the floor. I reacted to it so I punched him. My adrenaline went up to my brain and I lost it for a moment. I was still half asleep. He fell down and he had a little blood trickling from his lip. What did I just do? Is this a nightmare? The only thing that came to mind was that I’ll go home and this never happened.” 

Much to Figueroa’s surprise, Davis was impressed by his punch. They opted not to record that night and went to the movies in the wee hours of the morning. “From that day on, I did the record Man With The Horn, I went on tour with him. I was with Miles for 8 years.”

Not long after Davis’ passing, Figueroa made the move south but the lure of the stage was too much for him and he began to play regularly, eventually putting together his aptly-named band the Latin Jazz Explosion with help from his producer Rachel Faro. Their partnership has resulted in four albums including the most recent release Talisman, a collaboration with Brazilian vocalist Glaucia Nasser and featuring guitarist Chico Pinheiro. The result is a departure from his more party-driven previous records, relying on the mellower vibes that meet somewhere off the coast of the Southwestern shores of the Atlantic Ocean.

“When I was living in New York, there were a couple stations that kept asking when are you going to do your record? I didn’t feel I was ready to do an album on my own,” says Figueroa. “I didn’t know what the responsibility was in becoming a leader. I feel like I became a superintendent of a building. When something broke, I had to fix it and I hated it. I got so used to being the musician with no responsibility in that sense. I would get paid and leave. It took awhile to get used to it but I’ve become a leader. Now I don’t want to go back to the way it was.”

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