Tuesday, September 23, 2008

my afro-cuban soul

I love Shifra Tanzt. I got to play the music live a few times and it is wonderful to present, but there were few takers. The Jewish music business is focused on tradition or novelty, shul gigs, weddings or world music festivals. Jazz is no longer a novelty and the the tradition the record  fits into is the tradition I'm inventing as a jazz musician. Where do I get such chutzpah from? I was blessed! We had just moved into Fort Green projects I was not quite six and I walked down the six flights of concrete and steel steps to go outside for the first time with my sister June. I remember it as a cold day. June started talking to some of the girls her age (she's six years older than me) and a beautiful African-American girl put her hand on my head and said, 'you are blessed!' She did it for me. I believe it with all my heart and soul.

Jean Paul Bourelly had heard Cuban Roots Revisited. He called to congratulate me on the music and asked whether I could get him in the studio with drummers like that. My records were out but  my career was in the doldrums. So I figured I'd do it again, rerecord Cuban Roots and Jean Paul had given me the ticket to ride. I called up Bobby Sanabria and asked him to recommend a drummer who knew the tradition but had an open-mind. Bobby is a great musician and an historian of Latin music. He knew just what I meant and gave me Pedrito Martinez's phone number. He told me that Pedrito played a rumbón (a gathering of drummers, singers and dancers playing traditional rumba) in Union City on Sundays. For those of us who would love to go to Cuba, La Esquina Habanera in Union City on Sundays offered a rare glimpse of the real deal. A doctoral student, Pablo, from Ecuador who was staying with me wanted to go so I had some moral support. The club was crowded when we arrived, about a half hour before the scheduled start. Even at the door, the heat from the club could be felt carried by the sound of the the great Cuban records they were playing. The women at the door sized me up and spoke Spanish anyway. Working with recent Cuban emigre musicians from Cuban in the 60's have given me a small but effective Spanish working vocabulary. Her attitude seemed to me that along with the $5 door charge, Spanish was required. I asked, in Nuyorican Spanish whether Pedrito would be playing that night. I must have done OK since she led us to a small table bordering the stage (gringo of merit, perhaps). We ordered some Cuban style fried chicken and a few beers. Pablo was psyched. The room just kept on getting more and more crowded, we had a great table and the food was on the money. I was getting really nervous. I had found out about Pedrito. He had come to the states with the Canadian flutist Jane Bunnett and had made a rapid move through the ranks of drummers once he settled in the New York area. He had won the most prestigious award in jazz the Thelonious Monk prize playing bata and conga a few years back and was generally considered among the very best drummers around. He didn't know me from Adam. My history was well known to New York Latin musicians but it was highly unlikely that Pedrito had ever heard of me. After about an hour wait five drummers starting setting up Conga drums on the stage. Microphones were set up for the singers and dancers dressed in traditional Cuban fashion came out onto the small dance floor and begun to make themselves noticed by joking with customers they knew. I was trying to figure out which drummer was Pedrito. Nobody seemed to stand out. The performance began. It was incredible. Hearing rumba live is to hearing it on record as sex is to pornography. There is no comparison. The show had a really authentic flavor,  great drummers and singers, and dancers dominating the small dance floor area, trying to outdo each other for audience approval including pulling people out of their chairs and onto the dance floor, getting an extra round of applause when a member of the audience was made to look good. One of the male dancers had been teasing Pablo, who looks all the world like a young Latino intellectual and tried to pull him onto the floor.  Pablo panicked. I had other worries. There was no chance I would be asked to dance, white, middle-aged and overweight, but I was of two minds, anxiety over how to approach Pedrito and a bit bummed out. I was pretty sure by the vibe on the stage the Pedrito was not there. 

After the show was well on its way there was a buzz by the door, someone special had come in. An exceptionally good looking young man in a well-tailored white suit came through the crowd that had formed between the door and the dance floor. He stepped up the two feet onto the stage in the middle of the singers and started singing lead, improvising with poetry and music on the theme that the other singers were singing (the call and response pattern found in all African based music from gospel to salsa). There was no doubt in my mind that was Pedrito. He just sang, the star of the show, and never touched a drum. 

At the first break I walked up to Pedrito who was sitting at a table in the back of the room with a group of friends and musicians. I introduced myself, saying that Bobby Sanabria had suggested that I talk to him about a recording project. The music was loud and we walked outside. I told him what I had in mind, an experimental recording of rumba and toques de santo and asked him if he would get me three other drummers to do the date. It's hard to know why he said yes, he had a young daughter and it is tough making a living as a musician no matter how good you are and a record date pays money (and it is in town). But I wasn't just asking him to play conga, I was asking him to organize the drums for the most important music that he plays (his religion and the basis for all conga drumming, la rumba). Maybe it was my willingness to talk really rotten Spanish, rather than make him speak English, maybe it is my sweet Jewish face, or alternatively, my almost scary intense Jewish face (at least my students think it is scary). Or maybe my sincerity shown through in those few minutes of preliminary conversation. Or maybe he just liked the idea of getting drummers together and making an experimental folkloric record. I called him the next day and worked out the arrangements for the date with his wife who speaks perfect English. I would pay him for all of the drummers (a big selling point since it would give him the discretion to decide on who gets what). He told me I should record in a studio on Jersey City where the engineer know how to record drums (the world famous Cuban drum ensemble Los Muñoquitos recorded there when they recorded in the states). I got dates when Jean Paul would be in town, called Santi Debriano (who understands the drums) and set up two days. First day bata and second day congas. I decided I wouldn't do any planing for the date. 

The studio was a rabbit's warren of small booths with no sight lines in the basement of a three story brownstone. The three bata drummers and Pedrito went into the largest booth to the left with a window looking into the control booth with the recording equipment. Directly across from the control booth were two small booths each just large enough for one musician, both had windows that faced the engineer and the booth with the drummers, but you couldn't see from one of the booths to the other. Santi went into the one closest to the drummers, Jean Paul went into the other. There was no place for me to play except in a front room with no sight lines except for a small TV monitor. The first day was to be for toques de Santo and Pedrito was going to sing. The singer leads the drummers through the progression of rhythms based on what is sung. Cuban religious music is highly stylized and the drummers have fixed interactive patterns that they move through as the song requires and as the spirit moves them. The patterns are like chord changes in bebop, except you can vary them, it is a lot like improvising in ragas in North Indian music, selection from pre-determined set of elements that are selected from with a open-ended set of sequencing choices. This is not music to fool around with. I decided I wouldn't play, and hoped that Jean Paul and Pedrito would come to a meeting of the minds. I had confidence the Santi could respond to whatever the two of the came up with. Everything hung on Pedrito and Jean Paul and they couldn't even see each other.

Pedrito walked into Jean Paul's booth and sang a version of the toque for Ellegua that I had never heard before, beautiful with just a hint of rhythm and blues. Jean Paul called Santi in and went through the simple sequence of chords. Pedro was singing in E major.  I told Jean Paul to 'put something up front' to set the mood of the date. He played some totally macho Jimi Hendrix sounding stuff, powerful and full of technical display. I could see Pedrito looking down at the floor slowly shaking his head, 'No!' Jean Paul had no idea how Pedrito was responding, he was just doing his thing. Jean Paul played for a while waiting for something to happen, when nothing did, he stopped. I walked into his booth. We were old friends but this was very tricky. I looked at him and said, "Why are you show-boating?" That is, why are you playing unmusically and showing off. He looked at me. Jean Paul was quite famous by then, the Jimi Hendrix foundation had featured him in a memorial concert to Jimi in Town Hall in New York, he was well known throughout Europe, and had succeeded beyond my wildest dreams for the few years he was playing jazz in New York, playing with Elvin Jones and recording with McCoy Tyner. Jean Paul had three choices, he could punch me out for the level of my disrespect, he could pack up his guitar and leave or he could take it. He took it!.

I left the booth and he improvised that beautiful limpid minute and and half of unaccompanied guitar that Algo Más begins with. He played in a Spanish mode Emajor against F major, the one note he didn't play was C#, that's the first note Pedrito sings. When the voice comes in it is in harmonic contrast gently nudging the key into the mode of the song. They played toque Ellegua top to bottom without a hitch. When things got going. I stood up in the control booth in full sight of the drummers and did a shuffling dance while they played. I danced through every number that day, as is required. Drum, dance and voice is how one reaches the Orishas. Pedrito still was not convinced by Jean Paul's playing, but he is a professional, he sang the toques and got fine performances out of the drummers. I had told Pedrito to leave spaces for me to solo and Jean Paul and Santi had played some decent solos, but the music was very much unfinished when the day ended. Tomorrow was rumba. I decided that would be all instrumental to give me, Jean Paul and Santi a chance to stretch out. Pedrito and the drummers still had not heard me play a note. As we packed up Pedrito came up to me and said that we needed a 'better guitar player.'

That night  I taught Jean Paul a few classic rumba melodies that I loved including one that I had never recorded, Consuelete Como Yo, one of the best loved of all of the rumbas. Pedrito had had problems with the first day's music. Although the toques got recorded, Jean Paul's approach didn't sit easily with Pedrito's expectations. Jean Paul used a wide vocabulary in supporting the toques, he played in styles that range from rock and soul to afro-pop. The one thing he never did was play anything remotely Cuban. I had complete trust in Jean Paul's musical instincts. Pedrito did what was required. The stylized drum parts were flawless and he sang the appropriate melodies  and left room for me to play responses. Part of the deal with Pedrito was that he would come back and record additional voices and percussion. Jean Paul was isolated so it would have been no problem to replace him. But that didn't help me with the next day when we were going to record rumba without voices. Both Jean Paul and Pedrito were still not really in sync and rumba is highly interactive, drummers freely improvise and pass figures back and forth in a free-wheeling and swinging conversations. Unless the drums and Jean Paul found a meeting of the minds the session would be a failure. I decided to begin with Consuelete Como Yo a medium rumba with a beautiful melody. But music was not the only problem. I had to deal with the studio There was no place for me to play except the control booth or the front room. I choose the front room since I needed to concentrate. I stood in the living room and looked at the small video screen. I could see the drummers and no one else. Somehow I had to communicate with music alone. My reality was the shared head phone mix. I had to do it all with sound. I closed my eyes and said, 'empiece el ritmo.' The drums began and I entered with a vocalistic phrase in the style of rumba singers when they begin a poetical solo introduction, an extended section that prepares for the statement of the melody. I laid a spare diatonic phrase in half time across the rhythm of the drums. Jean Paul played an equally understated chord, just slightly dissonant against the diatonic phrase. It was the perfect response. Lot's of space for the drums, completely relaxed and in perfect command of the time. 8 minutes later I stopped playing, Jean Paul hadn't played a solo but he and I had had one of the best conversations I have ever had with another musician. Mis Consuelos, as it is called on the album, is my favorite track of Algo Más and one of my all time favorite recordings from among the albums I have recorded, before or since. The rest of the date went off without a hitch. Pedrito taught me a beautiful and engaging tune, that, as Mamita Baila became one of the more popular tunes on the album, getting a lion's share of the radio play. Jean Paul and Santi got to play some amazing solos and Jean Paul played a free 4 minute guitar improvisation on top of killing drums that is worth the price of the album by itself. But I still had to deal with the toques and redeem the music and the faith that Pedrito had in me.

I walked around listening to the tracks of the toques and tried to figure out what to do.  The only model I had was what I had done with Edy Martinez on the toques for the Orisha Suites (that was the name I gave to my truncated recording of 1977 discussed in an earlier blog). There I had used layered keyboards. I decided to build a flute ensemble with layered flutes. I went back to the studio and put in responses on alto flute to the toque for Ellegua. The harmonic context that Jean Paul had laid down felt good, and his spare rhythmic style left plenty of rooms for the drums to be heard, rather then competing for the same rhythmic space that a Cuban approach would have done. After my solos were finished I played the track and experimented with background figures. After an endless series of false tries and increasing frustration I hit on a pattern that worked for part of the tune. Juan Wust, the engineer, was an angel from heaven. I kept me calm and never tired of replaying the same section as I floundered around looking for something that worked. Once I found a line, I improvised a second line until I had a mini Eddie Palmieri trombone section, one voice laying down a pattern and the other harmonizing and extending it with counter-melodies. I did this for days, always improvising, looking for a key musical idea and then building on it. I constructed flute ensembles of as many as 6 flutes in places, playing the roles I had learned so well playing straight-man to Barry Rogers' amazing extensions of the basic trombone line that was the high point of the live performances of Eddie's first band, La Perfecta. I also drew on my years of experience as an arranger with Larry Harlow and the many bands I recorded with and heard in the years I played trombone. Chris Washburne gets it just right in the liner notes, 'He is an orchestra of flutes.'

After I finished recording the flutes I called Pedrito and set up a time for him to do additional voices and percussion. He came into the studio and I played what I had done with Ellegua. He sat quietly listening to the complex texture of the overdubbed flutes against the spare lines that Jean Paul had played. He looked at me and said, 'I'm sorry I said that bullshit about the guitar player.' The gate was open. He went on to record all of the additional voices and crucial drum parts to strengthen the basic rhythm and even added another layer of drum solos in a few crucial places. Algo Más was finished. Now I had to figure out how to sell it to a record company. I had basically self-produced all of my previous records and that was pointless. I needed a record company behind me.

Bobby Sanabria was playing a gig with Chris Washburne's band. I went down and thanked him for putting me in touch with Pedrito I told Bobby the project was finished and he, in turn, introduced me to a record company owner who was in the club. I had a brief conversation with the owner and he agreed to listen to the CD. He called me back and said he would put it out. Two days later he called me again and asked me if I could remove the vocals since he didn't think the people who bought his records would appreciate the folkloric singing. Of course I refused. Even had it been technically possible, to remove the voices from the toques would have been a sacrilege, both metaphorically and literally. I knew the Chris Washburne recorded for Jazzheads and asked him about the label. 'You get what you see,' was his response, high phrase from a jazz musician about a recording label. I called Randy Klein the owner of Jazzheads and he agreed to listen to the record. He loved it and we signed a contract, beginning the most productive relationship with a record company any artist could hope for. It had worked again, recording Cuban Roots, now for the fourth time (including the Orisha Suites), was the way forward. 

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