Saturday, September 13, 2008

pick yourself up

I didn't stop playing and more important I didn't stop dreaming. I was living on West 171 St. almost all the way to the Hudson River in a 6-story prewar apartment house, rumored to have been designed by Stanford White (who designed the original Madison Square Garden).  I was on the roof practicing, looking over the sea of roofs of Washington Heights. when I had the idea. 

I loved playing on the roof. I would play free for hours, space out and think of stoned-out ideas like getting all the Dominican ex-farmers in the neighborhood to grow fresh vegetables on their roofs (actually solar panels on those roofs still seems like great idea). I loved playing and looking over the city. It seemed to me I was playing for everyone, throwing my sound across the buildings, bouncing high notes off of the gigantic tower blocks on Haven Avenue. But it was all an illusion. My first recorded effort had fallen flat and in reality I was playing for nobody. Playing in the park, on beaches, on roofs, pretending that my music was being heard was not enough. I decided to make a real record. It all fell into place in my head.

I had sent the flute tape to my oldest friend in the business Larry Harlow and asked him about making a connect for me to present it to Fania records (I had written Larry's first records for Fania and I had been on a number of Fania recordings on trombone). He said absolutely not to, and suggested instead that I send them a copy of my trombone album, Cuban Roots. I guess anyone who is reading this blog knows about my infamous 1967 recording Cuban Roots, and the idea that hit me playing on the roof that day was to redo Cuban Roots as a flute album. That would take some rethinking, since Cuban Roots was 3 horns (trombone and alto and baritone sax) and a 6 person rhythm section including Chick Corea playing piano and some of the greatest Cuban drummers from the 60's. I could never do that again. But maybe I could build on it. One of the great drummers of that or any era, Steve Berrios, had not been on Cuban Roots, something that I knew he would have loved to have done, so I figured I might be able to get him interested in a related project. But get him interested in what? I needed to do something that would be spectacularly different, something that would let me make an end-run around the business and get me back to where I had been in one shot. It was clear, however, that no matter how good I felt about my flute playing, others found it lacking so I had to find a way of presenting the flute that would enable people to get past whatever was keeping them from seeing what I saw in my music.

I had been playing with some good guitar players. The best experience I had so far was with a classical guitarist Steve Palitz. I had met Steve on a ferry to Fire Island. He was carrying a guitar in a very impressive case and was pale as a ghost, obviously from sitting indoors and practicing. I struck up a conversation and we played that day and every day for that weekend. The music felt easy and natural. Steve played his own compositions as the basis for my improvisation. They had form and swing and interesting harmonies. It was as free as playing by myself, except there was clear structure and the beautiful sound of a fine classical guitar; we were making music that people could relate to. At one point while we were playing, I became overwhelmed with gratitude and tears started running down my cheeks. We played for my friends and his friends, everyone said we sounded great.

It was the sunny weekend on Fire Album, against the darkness of my mood that gave me the concept that day on the roof: light and dark, sunlight and the dark of night. I would play bright and beautiful songs against Cuban drums with Steve Palitz and get singers to sing the darkly beautiful music of the Santeria religion. Steve Berrios might be willing to hook me up with drummers and singers. But that might prove to be a problem. Cuban Roots was the first record to ever play jazz with authentic Cuban folk music and a number of the songs on the album were the prayer melodies sung to Orishas, the deities in the religion. That took some doing when I first tried it. The original drummers I picked to do Cuban Roots thought I was being sacrilegious and stopped playing during the first rehearsal as soon as they realized what melodies the horns were playing. But thanks to Julito Collazo, a master of Santeria drumming, who gave the OK, I was able to get some of those same drummers to record Cuban Roots with its instrumental versions of the sacred music. But could I go the next step, actually record the prayers as sung in religious settings and play jazz to them? I would call Steve Berrios, who I knew was close to Julito.

I called Steve Berrios and he told me about a wonderful singer, Olympia Alfara, who had never recorded and who was looking for professional opportunities (after she recorded with me she went on to record with Mongo Santamaria). He said he would call Julito and try to get him to set it up for me. Julito was more than willing to help. I raised money to pay for the musicians and studio from two dear friends Jerry Kriss and David Komar (there was to be a big tax right-off, which never materialized-- sorry guys). Before I knew it I was in a studio with three drummers with bata drums (two headed drums that are played in Cuban religious music) and chekeres (large gourds of various sizes with beads around them, that are hit on the bottom and shaken) and 4 singers, two men and two women.  The idea was that they would record a number of prayers. And then, in addition, the drummers would lay down about 20 minutes of rhythm for me and Steve Palitz to play over sometime later. The drummers and singers were playing music that was second nature to them. It was their religion and I didn't want to get in there way. So I just let them do their thing. The recording went quickly and easily. I dimmed the lights in the studio and held a note on the studio B3 organ to make sure the singers would be in standard tuning (so that there would be no problems over-dubbing) and they started recording. A few hours later I had about 40 minutes of magic on tape. And even more amazing, I had their trust. They knew that I was going to record over what they had performed and had the confidence that I would do the music justice. It was their religion after all. Somehow my sincerity and the fact of Cuban Roots had opened the door for me.

I played the tracks for Steve Palitz and he picked some material and we recorded over chekeres, light bright and pretty. There was another very fast piece with bata drums that Steve didn't fell comfortable with, so we did a long flute and guitar duet instead.  I took the result to an old friend, Andy Kaufman, who had always appreciated my music. He liked the concept, but it was clear that I needed to do more. I was out of money. Andy suggested that I get in touch with a recording engineer Bob Blank who might be willing to help me. I played what I had recorded so far for Bob and he made me a deal. He was doing a lot of recording for a new Latin label and they wanted to put out a Latin disco single. If I would write the charts and produce the disco record he would let me use his studio for a cut of both projects. I was in business.

Now that I had free studio time I could think bigger. I listened to what Steve Palitz and I had done and heard cellos playing lush backgrounds.. So I wrote for 3 cellos and had a young classical cellist add them to what we had recorded. I did a similar thing with the flute and guitar duet, getting a fine young French horn player to add 4 horn parts playing rich and emotional chords. I was getting the studio time for free, but musicians cost money and I was just scraping by. I redid the flute solos to fit the new settings. I still had the fast piece with bata drums. I listened closely and heard the individual parts of each drum. That gave me an idea. I rented a concert marimba and played along on the marimba with each of three bata drums (low, high and medium). Bata drums have two heads so I played with two sticks following along with the drum patterns. I had written out a sequence of chord changes and moved each marimba part through the sequence. I then recorded three tracks of flute on top of that rich texture of drums and marimba. And added some marimba to the other guitar/cello piece as a bass line. 

The instrumentals were finished. But what about the prayers. So far there were voices and drums. Short of money as always, I thought of using various keyboard instruments (all available in the studio) to give harmonic and rhythmic structure. All I would need is to find the right keyboard player. The great Columbian pianist Edy Martinez had played on a demo of the material for Cuban Roots that got me the record date and was understandably disappointed when the record was made with Chick Corea instead. So when I told him of my new project and who had recorded the drums and voices he was happy to work with me. Edy and I went into the studio and Edy recorded multiple tracks of keyboards over the prayers (piano, organ, Fender Rhodes and synthesizer). Although he was doing the playing we worked out the keyboard concept together. One of the prayers was for Ochun, it has a difficult shift in rhythm in the middle and Edy and I took turns playing bass lines on a synthesizer until we found one that worked and than Edy recorded it. I added flute parts for one of the prayers, a three flute ensemble supporting and accentuating the voices and keyboards. I was in heaven. I was a musician again! 

I played the result, the 'Orisha Suite,' for a few record companies and sent it around to musicians. I was sure I was on my way.


Reza said...

Most interesting life story
And what an album Cuban Roots is !!So many thanks

mark weinstein, jazz flutist said...

Reza, thank you for the comment. Cuban Roots has made more of an impact than anything I have done before or since. But it took almost ten years before it happened. I can only hope for as much for my flute records.