That is Mauricio Herrera with a guiro at a percussion overdub for my latest project, Todo Corazon, an album of tangos and danzones. "Why a picture with a guiro?" you may ask. Well oddly enough the guiro is the soul of the swing in charanga music, the flute and violin based music that began with danzones in Cuba in the 1950's and morphed into a truncated NY version that was extremely popular with dancers in the 60's and 70's. This is a project that I have wanted to do for 30 years. In the late 70's, after I recorded the Orisha Suites I contacted both Eddie and Charlie Palmieri in hopes that they would be impressed with the music and help me back into the business. Eddie met with me and we had a drink. I gave him a tape of the music and never heard from him again. Charlie, on the other hand, invited me to his house and listened to the tape (his son had recorded the first session of drums and voices). He was very complimentary and I proposed a project, that we record a modern charanga based on the classic compositions that Cachao wrote for Arcaño y Sus Maravillas, an amazing charanga of the 50's in Cuba. He said to send him a tape of the material. It had recently been rereleased on an LP but he hadn't heard it. I got it to him and never heard anything further. The project went into the deep freeze.
Last year I went through an amazing period of recording, two and a half albums. Timbasa, out after the first of the year, Jazz Brasil with Kenny Barron, hopefully out next spring or Fall 2010 and half a tango album. The tango album was prompted by a remark to me by Jochan Becker of Zoho records, that the way to get a Latin Grammy was to make a tango album. He suggested that I contact Pablo Aslan, a jazz bass player from Argentina, who records for Zoho to do a joint project. I called Pablo who was quite interested and we met in his house. Amazingly he lived only a few blocks from where I lived my teenage years at 640 East 2nd Street in Brooklyn. A 'fetid tomb' as I described it in one of my early and rare attempts at poetry, where my earliest angst over sex and women set the stage for my later life. I remember practicing the trombone near an open window in my mother's bedroom looking out at the house next door, where my neighbor Carol once stood naked to the waist near the window while I was practicing (only once). I played by the window for weeks hoping for a repeat (no luck). And where I waited my turn to neck with Irene next door. She went further with her favorites (not me), but she was an equal opportunity kisser at age 14. Such fond memories of the 50's! No wonder I got married as soon as I could. But nostalgia aside, going back to 64o and eating in a Russian restaurant on Ditmas Avenue was a blast. As was working with Pablo who wrote some beautiful settings and got top tango musicians including importing a pianist from Buenos Aires.
As lovely as the tangos were, I felt the format, flute, piano, bandeleon (button accordion), guitar and bass was too restrictive for a whole album. I thought to contrast the tangos with half an album of baiaõ, music from the Northeast of Brasil that uses a button accordion as well. But between my unhappiness with the Brazilian musicians who were completely unforthcoming as far as any kind of payback for the many recordings we did together, and the fact that I had three completed records coming out (Tales From the Earth, Timbasa and Jazz Brasil) over the next couple of years, the half album of tangos remained unfinished.
About four months ago I received (along with a number of other musicians) an email from Aruan Ortiz introducing himself as a composer and arranger available for projects. Aruan included his resume, conservatory trained in Cuba and Spain as well as Berklee, where he studied and later taught. He had been a violist but moved to piano. He currently plays with Wallace Roney and when I asked him, during our recent recording session, whether Wallace was playing Latin jazz he looked me with a twinkle in his eye and said "Don't stereotype me." He is one hell of a jazz piano player.
After I recorded Tales From the Earth with Omar Sosa, I proposed to him and his manager that Omar write me a modern charanga album. I held on to the idea of using the Arcaño recordings as a basis, but I knew that Omar's harmonic sense and approach to music would permit a transformation of the classic compositions while retaining their musical integrity. They were both excited enough about the project that we even came up with a budget. But Omar's busy performance schedule made it impossible for him to do a serious writing project and it never came to pass. Aruan's resume opened the door. Tangos are deeply romantic music and so are danzones. They both exemplify a total lack of musical embarrassment, an unabashed romanticism. Danzones would be the perfect compliment to the tangos, the richness of the strings setting off the sparse instrumentation of the tangos, and with Cuban percussion to spice things up against the suave swing of the tango, driven by bowed acoustic bass and piano. I contacted Aruan by return email and we arranged for me to send him the material (now on CD). We set the parameters for the project in terms of money and personnel and after some weeks (he had been in Europe with Wallace) he called me to play some sketches of material. I grew up in Fort Green Projects in Brooklyn and when I map quested his address I was amazed to discover that getting to his house would take me through the projects (on Navy Street) and up past Fort Green Park and the stores that I remembered from my boyhood. On the corner of North Oxford and Myrtle Avenue was Sarjay's where I had my first ice cream sundae, a pineapple temptation with chocolate ice cream, courtesy of my big sister June. It was still a candy store. The line of stores built when the project was built looked just the same, as did the people on the street. Driving home, I passed Cumberland Hospital where I got my flu shot at 7 or 8, standing in line in an over-heated corridor with kids screaming and my mother terrified that I might get the flu right then and there. And I ended up in Junior's where I had corn beef and pastrami on twin onion rolls and a piece of cheese cake. Ah the musicians life!
When I got to Aruan's place he played some of the music on the piano. It sounded just right, modern harmonies, but with beauty and transparency. We confirmed the project and he was off, back to Europe. About another month past and he contacted me, we set two dates. The first day to record piano, bass, percussion and flute. A second day to record a string quartet. The idea was that I would play through the tunes including solos with the rhythm section and then after the strings were recorded reconsider what I should redo in light of the rich string environment. Aruan called Yunior Terry on bass and Mauricio to play timbales during the date and then add guiro and conga afterwards. The date went perfectly. The music was difficult. I had told Aruan that I didn't want to solo on simple repetitive montuno changes. I didn't know what I was asking for. He wrote amazing chords, and amazing harmonies in general. It was a real treat and a challenge to read his music and the solos were very strong all around, including Mauricio who played his usual mind blowing solos, and without any other drummers to hold the time. The four of us were very happy with the results. There was no time for Mauricio to put in guiro and conga and the strings were scheduled for the following Friday. I was off to Miami in search of an old love that beckoned. A disaster as it turned out. Never commit to spend a romantic weekend with someone you haven't seen in 30 years. The trip worked out musically though, since I really wanted to stay our of Aruan's hair and let him record the strings without my interference. I was sure the parts were difficult and although Aruan hand-picked the string players I figured it would be rough enough without me looking over their shoulders. As it turned out it took 3 hours to do the first tune and over 9 hours for the five tunes. Two reworking of Arcaño recordings, two originals by Aruan and a gorgeous bolero which sums up my love life completely, Contigo En La Distancia (with you far away). I heard the strings for the first time a week after I got back from Miami, when Mauricio did his overdubs. I was totally knocked out!
The picture is Aruan with the strings checking out a chart. Aruan is another of the Cuban musicians that reflect what might be among the greatest successes of Castro's Cuba. Whatever else the revolution did it turned Cuba into a music powerhouse. The young Cuban musicians I have been given the privilege of recording with are certainly among the best musicians I have ever encountered. Omar Sosa, Axel Laugart, Aruan Ortiz, Pedrito Martinez, Yunior Terry and Maurico Herrera are consummate musicians (check out Mauricio in the picture, when did you ever see a guiro player reading a chart?). They are classically trained, deeply rooted in Cuban folkloric forms and consummate jazz musicians. Music education is supported by the government but resources are limited and the competition is fierce. The result is that the best musicians are fantastic, and luckily for me they often come to live in New York. So I have at my disposal a level of musicianship that transcends anything I experienced in the 60's and, in my opinion, moves Latin jazz to a level beyond which American born or raised Latin jazz musicians of whatever ethnic background have to offer. But only time will tell. When the records are released I'll get some sense of the realities, and hopefully get some reprieve from the anxieties that my constant quest for recognition loads me down with. Meanwhile playing with the Cubans is a completely different experience from my recent experience recording with the Brazilians. I feel totally accepted, am completely relaxed in the studio and feel that there is a mutuality of musical aspiration that gives me the support I need for my vision of where to take the music. I'm already thinking of my next project based on the availability of a great tresero (one who plays the six string Cuban guitar that is tuned in double strings and with a characteristic tuning) in New York. Mauricio who is from Oriente, grew up playing bongos on Son and Changui, and so another folkloric avenue has been opened up to me. Maybe I'll do half an album of Cuban music and for the other half return to Brazilian forms and record Baioã as I originally intended. I'm a sucker for punishment, but I do love Brazilian music.