Hot Salsa

Percussionist Michito Sanchez heats up Mandarin Bar

If you haven’t treated yourself to the evening view of the Strip from Mandarin Oriental’s 23rd-floor Mandarin Bar, do it now, because there is serious (and free) live music going on. Four nights a week, the top jazz and salsa artists in Las Vegas are performing in this posh, secluded and acoustically first-rate hot spot. On Wednesdays, you get to hear drummer Brian Czach’s razor-sharp trio; Thursdays, you can catch trumpeter Chandler Judkins’ punchy quartet; on Fridays, there’s nothing better than hearing the suave jazz stylings of The Definitives. All of these bands are great.

But it’s Saturday night that has me seriously pumped, because that’s when Michito Sanchez and his salsa band, Trio Caribe, take the stage, delivering a couple of sets of Latin-infused jazz and standards from 9:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m.

Sanchez has toured or recorded in the studio with just about every musical legend you can think of—including John Denver, the Rolling Stones and Plácido Domingo. Heck, when I recently interviewed Elvis Costello, he told me to say hello to Sanchez. But the man’s credentials aren’t nearly as impeccable as his live performance, especially when he gets to banging those conga drums with his accomplices, bassist Geoff Newman and keyboard player Cocho Arbe, both now living in Vegas.

“When I was just 2 years old, my parents asked me what I wanted for Christmas, and I told them bongos!’” says Sanchez, a first-generation Cuban-American who grew up in New Jersey. “They got me all this other stuff—lots of great toys, you know—and I was like, ‘Where’s the bongos?’ I threw a huge hissy fit. The next day they bought me some bongos, and I’ve been playing ever since.”

For Sanchez, percussion is everything. Listeners can enjoy a solo piano performance, he says, but when you add percussion, suddenly the song comes to life. Percussion breathes air into a performance, brings an energy that makes people happy.

“My forté is Brazilian and Afro-Cuban percussion, and my approach comes from those places, those islands and countries that run on rhythm. Latin percussion is cheerful, as opposed to rock beats, which are great, but often too serious. Percussion ‘rounds out’ a song. I like to think of it as the icing on a cake. You have the song, you have the bass and drums, and percussion adds the sweet stuff on top.”

Sanchez is bringing the sweet stuff to Mandarin Bar. It’s a long way from the full orchestra he led at South Point hotel-casino last year—the Michito Sanchez Salsa Orchestra—but he thoroughly enjoys it. Before chatting with me at the bar, he’d just returned from rehearsal, which he insists sounds great.

“It’s cool what the Mandarin is doing,” he says. “Live musicians playing a hotel is a rarity these days in Vegas. It’s wonderful they’re letting musicians express their art.”

Being a bandleader has its rewards, but Sanchez admits there’s work involved.

“I was a side musician for 30 years, then I moved to Vegas and was asked to put a salsa band together. I think I always had it in me to do it, and I’d always toyed with the idea. And you know what? It is fun—doing charts, hiring the right guys, etc. At the end of the night, there’s a sense of satisfaction, like, ‘Hey, I put this together.’”

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