Musician Bobby Sanabria is a New York institution and a musical polymath. In addition to his considerable rhythmic skills, he is also a bandleader, composer, arranger, conductor, producer, educator, and documentary filmmaker. He is one in a long line of Nuyorican (New Yorkers of Puerto Rican descent) musical innovators that brought the city's Latin jazz scene to an international audience. Sanabria is a seven-time Grammy nominee for albums such as 2004's big-band outing 50 Years of Mambo: A Tribute to Perez Prado and Big Band Urban Folktales in 2007 -- the first Latin jazz CD to chart at number one on the Jazz Weekly National Chart -- followed by 2009's Kenya Revisited Live!!! and 2011's Tito Puente Masterworks Live!!! Sanabria set the modern standard for hard-swinging, Latin progressive jazz, and along with has band has proven influential with younger generations of jazzheads. Sanabria has also appeared as a soloist with the WDR Big Band, the Airmen of Note, the U.S. Jazz Ambassadors, and the University of Calgary Big Band, among others. His polyrhythmic approach to swing has brought him opportunities to record and tour with a who's who of jazz stars, including Dizzy Gillespie, Candido, Chico O'Farrill, Henry Threadgill, Roswell Rudd, and Michelle Shocked, to name a scant few.
The multi-talented Sanabria grew up in the tough South Bronx. While attending a Tito Puente concert at age 17, he slipped backstage and asked the legendary percussionist if he could sit in. He did, and this experience spurred him on to make Latin jazz his career. He attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston, graduating in 1979. Shortly after graduation, Sanabria formed his group Ascensión. Ascensión was honored with a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1983 while working with Mongo Santamaria. He was a featured performer on the Mambo Kings movie soundtrack, and recorded with Tito Puente and with Mario Bauzá & His Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra on two Grammy-nominated recordings, including the classic Tanga album.
In November 1993, Flying Fish Records released his debut as a leader, New York City Ache!, an album of percussion duets with Puente and featuring a guest appearance by Paquito d'Rivera. The label included a glossary of Latin jazz terms in the liner notes. Over the next seven years, Sanabria taught, toured, and worked with his own bands and also as an in-demand session player on recordings by Carola Grey, Mario Bauza, Yomo Toro, Frank London, Charles McPherson, and Larry Harlow. Released in 2000, Afro-Cuban Dream: Live and in Clave! marked his next official solo album, which showcased his exotic rhythmic jazz in its finest form; it was nominated for a Grammy. He followed it with Bobby Sanabria & Quarteto Ache in 2002, wherein he established his reputation as "the Buddy Rich of the Latin jazz percussive arena" among critics. After touring, the drummer worked as a sideman on albums by saxman Lou Caputo, Joe Chambers, Hilary Noble, and Chris Washburne.
He returned to the leader's chair for 2007's Big Band Urban Folktales, followed by 2009's Grammy-nominated Kenya Revisited, on which he first conducted the Manhattan School of Music Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra. His 2011 offering, Tito Puente Masterworks Live!!!, was also nominated for a Grammy. In addition to his work in Latin jazz education and recording, he continued to perform at clubs and festivals across the world -- including a stint as a guest soloist with the Michael Gibbs big band. In 2012, he formed a new big band and issued Multiverse, featuring La Bruja and Chareneè Wade; it was nominated for two Grammy Awards. Sanabria conducted the Manhattan School of Music Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra once more on ¡Qué Viva Harlem! in 2014, and played in numerous sessions including Ben Lapidus' Ochosi Blues, Eugene Marlow's Changes and Obrigado Brasil, and Eli Fountain's Percussion Discussion on Masterpiece.
While continuing his teaching, drum/percussion clinics, and touring, Sanabria also performed and lectured for thousands of New York City public school students, teachers, and families as part of the city-run Arts Exposure Program, and penned several articles for Modern Drummer magazine. In the summer of 2018, he and his Multiverse Big Band issued West Side Story: Reimagined as a celebration of the show's 60th anniversary and composer Leonard Bernstein's centennial. Partial proceeds from the sale of the recording benefited the Jazz Foundation of America's Puerto Rico Relief Fund.
© Richard Skelly /TiVo