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Poncho Sanchez brings a lively mix of latin jazz and R&B mix to the Smith Center

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Conga player and percussionist Poncho Sanchez.
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You don’t go to a Poncho Sanchez concert to sit around like a limp potato. His grooves bring your feet to life. “I want to invite the public to have a good time,” Sanchez says about his upcoming Smith Center performances. “We’re going to jump, shout and shimmy.”

The 66-year-old Texas native grew up listening to the soul and R&B of Otis Redding, Motown and the Four Tops, along with salsa. “So I put all those things in my show,” says the conga player and singer. The result is a melting pot of joyous sounds known as Latin soul music. “Jazz, doo-wop, Latin jazz, salsa, soul music, rhythm and blues—that’s the music I love,” Sanchez says.

Sanchez is jolly and enthusiastic, with a big beard and a ritual of wrapping his fingers like a boxer to prevent them from suffering damage when they hit the drums. He’s a storyteller and a born entertainer. He’s the uncle you want at your family gathering because he’s guaranteed to make it fun. He’s also a stellar musician who collects rare James Brown records.

After 47 years of performing, Sanchez has more than earned his awards, which include a Grammy, multiple Grammy nominations and a Latin Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Lesser musicians might consider retirement, but the bandleader remains passionate. “I still enjoy playing the drums,” Sanchez says. “I do feel blessed and still love it. After the show’s over, you know you’ve done a good show, people are excited, and I think, ‘Wow, it still works.’”

Airplane travel is another story. After traveling the world, Sanchez has grown sick of long flights. He sticks to performing in the region around his Whittier, California, home.

Fortunately, Las Vegas is close enough to make the cut. A Poncho Sanchez concert is a must-see, partly because it’s always new. Before each show, the band gathers backstage, cracks beers and plans a setlist, drawing from Sanchez’s deep catalog of 27 albums. That sequence can also change mid-concert, and the group further twists the kaleidoscope through jazz improvisation. “We never play the same music,” Sanchez says. “We like to mix our set so it’ll be a bunch of different songs, although a show cannot go by without people asking for ‘Watermelon Man’ or ‘Besame Mama’—the hits, so to speak. Gotta keep the people happy.”

In early December, Sanchez and his band will enter the studio to record album No. 28—a tribute to late saxophone great John Coltrane. It will be a mix of Coltrane-penned songs and Sanchez’s own material, including some older salsa music. “Nowadays we have so many techniques, a lot of recordings have just one guy recording at a time. But when you hear [them], they sound good but calculated,” Sanchez says. “We go in like we’re playing a live show.”

PONCHO SANCHEZ December 1, 7 p.m.; December 2, 6 & 8:30 p.m.; $37-$59. Cabaret Jazz, 702-749-2000.

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