Based in New York City but originally from northern California, Sylvia Cuenca is a skillful, hard-swinging post-bop/hard bop drummer who is best known for her associations with veteran trumpeter/flügelhornist Clark Terry (who she played with extensively in the '90s and early 2000s) and the late tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson (who she toured Europe and the United States with on more than one occasion).
Cuenca has been employed on several of Terry's CDs (including The Hymn on Candid, Top and Bottom Brass on Chiaroscuro, and Herr Ober: Live at Birdland Neuburg on Nagel-Heyer), and the other major artists who have used her on their albums range from veteran tenor saxophonist/Count Basie alumni Frank Foster (as in "Shiny Stockings") to trumpeter Eddie Henderson. Cuenca has also played with the Vienna Art Orchestra, a big band based in Vienna, Austria.
Cuenca was born and raised in San Jose, CA, where the Mexican-American drummer's interest in music was enthusiastically encouraged by her parents -- especially her father, a guitarist/singer who had a huge collection of jazz and Latin LPs. One of the records in her dad's collection was Max Roach and Clifford Brown's Live at Basin Street; she fell in love with Roach's drumming, and he became an early influence on Cuenca (whose other influences have included, among others, Art Blakey, Billy Higgins, and Philly Joe Jones). After graduating from high school in the mid-'80s, Cuenca attended San Jose City College, where she performed with the City College Big Band under the direction of Dave Eshelman. Cuenca was still living in northern California when she studied with drummer Victor Lewis, who encouraged her to move to New York City -- and at the age of 21, Cuenca followed his advice.
Not long after her arrival in the Big Apple, Cuenca saw Joe Henderson performing at the famous Village Vanguard and said hi to the post-bop tenor man; he remembered Cuenca from a visit to San Jose (where he had been a featured guest of the City College Big Band) and ended up hiring her to tour with him. Cuenca (who became a semi-finalist in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Drum Competition in 1992) went on to play with many other well-known improvisers, who have ranged from tenor man Michael Brecker (who she toured Japan with) to pianist Marian McPartland to violinist Regina Carter. New York City was also where Cuenca met Clark Terry -- an association that lasted more than a decade. As a leader or co-leader, Cuenca has released some CDs on her own label, Etoile Records; the first was The Crossing, which boasted Eddie Henderson on trumpet. That album was followed by the 2003 release Exit 13, a trio date with organist Kyle Koehler and guitarist Dave Stryker. ~ Alex Henderson, Rovi