By Fernando Gonzalez
Puerto Rican percussionist Sammy Figueroa is a versatile, resourceful player whose extraordinary career includes performing, recording and touring with a dizzying list of jazz, pop and rock stars and groups, including trumpeter Miles Davis, saxophonist Sonny Rollins (his current employer) and the Brecker Brothers but also David Bowie, David Lee Roth, Ruben Blades, Annie Lennox and Mariah Carey.
In 2001, Figueroa quietly settled in South Florida. He organized a band, when in town he played at places such the defunct Van Dyke on Lincoln Rd. in Miami Beach and recorded three albums that garnered him two Grammy nominations. He now also has his own “The Sammy Figueroa Show” every Monday morning on Miami’s WDNA 88.9 FM. Unassuming and with a puckish sense of humor, Figueroa is also an irrepressible storyteller. He doesn’t just answer questions, once he gets on a roll he playacts entire scenes, bringing to life characters and situations with the timing of a comedian.
Here is a (very) abridged version of a conversation at his Miami Beach place in which he discusses his beginnings in music as a salsa singer, Miles, Dali and his elephant and his latest project, Talisman, a set of original music recorded in Sao Paulo, Brazil with Brazilian singer Glaucia Nasser and a terrific band featuring guitarist Chico Pinheiro, pianist Bianca Gismonti and young pandeiro phenom Bernando Aguiar.
Fernando Gonzalez: You have spoken about first hearing jazz when you were 15. What were the circumstances?
Sammy Figueroa: Very simple: I lived an isolated life, I didn’t go out, I didn’t play with other kids, I had a big afro, was very skinny and they used to kick my ass at school. So I stayed home — and discovered jazz. The first record was Clare Fischer and his big band, and I thought it was amazing. Then I heard Sam Cooke, Herbie Hancock — and then I heard Miles and I thought “Oh yeah, I’m in.”
Any little money I made doing some horrible gig, I’d spend it on records. I was living with my mom, I wasn’t paying rent. So I locked myself in the room and listen to this stuff until three in the morning. My mother would bang on the door for me to go to bed. After listening to Clare Fischer, Herbie, Chick, all those guys, when The Beatles came out with “I Want To Hold Your Hand” it wasn’t that impressive.
FG: You were playing percussion at the time?
No, I wasn’t playing at all. I was singing with a quartet. I was doing gigs as a singer in hotels. And then Bobby Valentin, the great salsa bass player, heard me and said “ You sing pretty good. Do you ever sing salsa?’ “Nah, Not really.” “Why don’t you audition for me next week?” So I went home and listened to Joe Cuba and started imitating Cheo Feliciano and went back to Bobby and told him “ OK, I got it.” So he auditioned me. So the band starts playing, I start improvising and he goes “Damn, you are really good!” “Really?” So I joined the band and for five years I was the lead singer for Bobby Valentin. I didn’t play percussion, I was a salsa singer.
The congas came later. While I was with Bobby, Fania [the Motown of salsa] offered me a contract — and my mother went completely crazy. She said “What!? You are not going to do what your father did and blah, blah, blah.” My father was a singer and had died an alcoholic. And I’m glad she did stop me because then I turned to percussion. Nobody would teach me so I started practicing with a broken conga that my neighbor had. I had to learn by myself, invent my own exercises. But I did a little gig with Perico Ortiz, the great trumpeter and arranger, and … I became Perico’s percussionist for four years. He got me into the instrumental thing.
FG: You’ve worked with so many people, pick three artists you liked to work with the most.
On the road I loved working with the Brecker Brothers. I liked working with Miles. It was so much fun. It was so unpredictable. He was out of his mind — but that was what made it interesting to me, and we became very close friends. And, of course, I love Sonny Rollins. He’s unpredictable. I should also mention David Bowie and [Brazilian pianist]Tania Maria. Tania took me places that never, in my wildest dreams I thought I would go.
FG: Can you share a story with Miles Davis?
We could spend days on Miles — he lived in my apartment for almost a year and also almost burned it down cooking, but let me just tell you how we met.
I didn’t know Miles. I only knew him by his records. By the time I joined Miles [in 1980] I was a household name in New York. I had already done 50-something records and I was a well-known studio guy.
So I was in my little apartment in New York, with my then wife, I was already in bed, I had came back from a session late and my phone rings at about 2:15 in the morning. I pick it up and I hear (imitating Miles’s rasp) “Hey man, what’s happenin’ motherf#@^&*” and I go “Click” and hang up. Who calls at that time? I thought he was [trumpeter] Lew Soloff my closest friend. He would be the one to do a stupid thing like that. Then the phone rings again. “Thank you for hanging up mother%$#” and I go “Who is this?!” “It’s Miles Davis” And I say , “Oh yeah, sure, Miles Davis,” and hung up. And then the phone rings again and I hear this other voice [formal] “Is this Sammy Figueroa? This is [Miles’ producer] Teo Macero.” Now my eyes are wide open … “You just hang up on Miles — twice. I’ll take care of him. But if you want the gig get your ass over here. Now!” … So I took a cab to the old Columbia Records studios and I walked in and saw this really black guy, I mean blacker than coal. He’s seating in a chair just looking at me, and I say “Miles, I’m so sorry I didn’t know” and without saying a word, he got up and punched me in the stomach! He punched me so hard that I fell on the floor. I couldn’t breathe. And I’m thinking “I got up at 2:30 in the morning to get punched in the stomach??” So I just reacted and I hit him. I hit him so hard he fell over the piano and I broke his lip. I saw this little thing falling, going over the piano like a crow. And Teo comes out the booth: “What the fuck happened here??!!” I’m looking at Miles and apologizing “I’m sorry Miles,” and he looks at the blood from his lip and says “”Damn, that’s a good right hook mother#@^%” And that was that.
FG: And then there is wah wah pedal incident …
Oh yes, the wah wha pedal. He was going ‘wah wah wah’ with the trumpet and I hated it. Then Miles has to leave the room and I’m looking at the thing, looking and looking, and Marcus [Miller] looks at me and says “Leave it alone Sammy.” But I was sick of it so I pulled it out to unplug it and because it was so old it broke and the springs came out — so I hid it, I threw it awy. So Miles comes back after 20 minutes and asks “Where’s the wah wah pedal?” and immediately looks at me ”Sammy!” “What are you looking at me for?” And he says “Who else would do such a crazy thing like that. These mother f@#% are nice. You are crazy.” And this is all happening in that first night.
He picked the trumpet and started playing. He didn’t sound good. It wasn’t until 5 in the morning that we kept one track where he sounded really good. That was ‘Man With The Horn.’ The rest of the album we did it over the next four days.
FG: Did you eventually establish a good relationship with Miles?
The best . He called me at my house 15, 20 times a day. Teo [Macero, his producer] would say “Hey I took care of him for 30 years, now it’s your turn. Bam.”
He became a dear friend. He lived in my apartment for about a year.
FG: Any one particular moment you recall?
There was this time when Miles was talking on the phone at the house and he goes “Yeah …yeah … yeah … yeah,” and I’m looking at him like “Who is that?” And he looks at me and shrugs so after 20 minute she hangs up. “Who the fuck was that?” He goes “It’s that mother#@^ Salvador Dali. He calls me every day and I don’t know what he’s saying.” And I go “Wait, that was Salvador Dali?.” That was life with Miles.
Miles painted and Salvador loved him and called him every day. Salvador was crazier than Miles. Crazier. A few weeks later we played Barcelona and he came to the show. … He ended up inviting me to his house and I ended up staying there for the day. The following day he had the opening of an exhibit and [his wife] Gala spent the whole time looking for an elephant, calling every zoo, the circus. And I´m seated there watching all this and thinking “These guys are nuts.’”
They did find the elephant, by the way. So for the opening Dali arrived riding the elephant. He made an incredible entrance. He was the king of self-promoters.
FG: You became a bandleader late in your career. What did you take from the different bandleaders you have worked with?
When I moved to Miami, actually [producer, friend and long time collaborator] Rachel Faro, jazz booker Don Wilner and [jazz producer] Ron Weber put a band together for me and I did my very first gig ever as a leader at the Hollywood Jazz Festival.
Rachel Faro: “It was funny because I had to force him to put his congas center stage,” she says.
Sammy Figueroa: It wasn’t fear, I was used to being onstage it’s just that I was so used to be in the background.
As for leading a group, my way out has always been joking around and having fun. I make them laugh, I make them comfortable they don’t want to go anywhere. But when you deal with difficult guys, I wasn’t really a leader I was too scared, really. A leader is strong and will fire you in a minute. Like Miles. I didn’t have that.
FG: How did you approach your work in Talisman? This is not a straight up Brazilian record. The grooves are Brazilian, obviously, but one can also hear Puerto Rican bomba, Afro-Uruguayan candombe, mambo rhythms even African grooves. What was the plan?
What I played in Talisman is part Brazilian and part Latin because I didn’t want to interfere with what they guys were doing . We had with us [pandeiro player] Bernardo Aguiar and he’s wonderful. So I wanted the guys to play the authentic stuff and I’d play bomba and plena or a really fast mambos for example — and it worked perfectly. If I had played Brazilian conga, which now I know how to play, it would’ve been too Brazilian. Then it wouldn’t have anything to do with what I wanted to do which was to bring the two approaches together. When you are mixing different styles you have to know where and when to put them. Is like a chef. If you put too much condiment you overpower the natural flavor of the food. You need to put the right amount and keep it simple.
EPK Sammy Figueroa and Glaucia Nasser