Sunday, December 14, 2008

a hit record

If you click on the picture on top to make it full-size you will see my record, Con Alma, #1, on the charts for 22 weeks. I stayed on the charts for another month, crossing over to the jazz chart where it hit #2. I had a little help from National Public Radio. After my asking him for years, Felix Contreras, gave me a shot on the Weekend Edition with Scott Simon. You can hear the interview online click here. NPR is syndicated nationwide so that week I got an enormous number of plays and went right to the top of the ranking.

My 'hit,' Con Alma, was recorded about year after O Nosso Amor, so the blog is back in chronological order (the Berlin date with Omar Sosa that I discussed in my second blog entry was recorded in between O Nosso Amor and Algo Más and should be released in 2009). O Nosso Amor got much better radio play than Algo Más, which was my old formula of Cuban folkloric music and innovative jazz. The innovations, Jean Paul Bourelly's guitar and that multi-tracked flutes really impressed some musicians and a number of reviewers, but few DJ's played it with any regularity. It got about as much airplay as Cuban Roots Revisited. The 'heavy' DJ's played it, but it never got the continuing play that is needed to make the charts. A Nosso Amor made it to the charts and hung on for number of weeks in the 30's (Jazzweeks charts the 50 jazz and world albums that get the most airplay for any given week). As important WBGO, the major New York area jazz station, picked it up and played it about 50 times, a major coup in terms of local exposure. Jazzheads was very happy with both records, Randy Klein, the president of the company has been amazingly supportive, based on his appreciation of the music. He had real confidence in me. I needed to do something to capitalize on having a record company behind me. I had to think of something that would build my growing presence on the scene. I had tried Afro-Cuban music, Jewish music, Brazilian music and straight-ahead. What I had never recorded was what had become the most frequent approach to Latin jazz, what I often referred to, snob that I am, as 'bebop with a cha cha beat.' Mongo and Cal Tjader, had started it off (although Bird and Machito got there first) and Tito Puente, Andy and Jerry Gonzalez and Paquito de Rivera had turned it into the new standard for the genre. 

Mark Levine, the legendary pianist and jazz educator who is the piano player on Con Alma, goes all the way back in my history. He came to New York in the mid-60's playing valve trombone. Since I was a trombone player on the scene and about the same age we got together a few times. Most memorable was that he gave me the correct changes to Stella by Starlight, a tune that was just coming to the attention of young jazz musicians and that had a few key harmonic moments that characterized the harmonic direction towards which the boundary of jazz was pushing. I remember sitting at the piano in amazement. The chords sounded so good, but they made no sense in terms of my understanding of 2-5 progressions. Instead of Cmin7, F7 to prepare Bbmaj, the tune  uses Eb7, Ab7. It made no sense to me, although it now makes common sense to any jazz musicians (since the chords are an extension up the higher partial of the underlying diminished chord). He also had the hots for my wife at the time, something else I couldn't get me head around. 

I hadn't been in touch with Mark for years, but I had been playing with him without his knowing it. Mark is a frequent pianist on Jamey Aebersold play along records, and he plays on many of my favorite ones to practice with. I had made a connect with Mark when I was in San Francisco at an American Philosophical Association meeting. My son (who is also a philosopher) and I had a pleasant dinner with him, talking about old times and etc. Mark has had a wonderful career, playing with all of the giants of Latin jazz including Cal Tjader, Poncho Sanchez, Moacir Santos and Mongo Santamaria. He was a brilliant harmonist, writing influential books on jazz harmony and, probably because he started piano as a second instrument, plays with great delicacy and taste. Plus, he had won a Grammy nomination for his own recording, Isla, with his quartet the Latin Tinge. I listened to his record, and sure enough, it was classic bebop with a cha cha beat. Mark Levine was just the person to call if I wanted to move into the mainstream of Latin jazz. I put in a call to Mark in Oakland where he was living and asked him to come to New York and co-produce a record with me.

But the very centrality of Mark's conception created a problem, for I was known as an 'edgy' player. Algo Más was as radical in its innovation as had been Cuban Roots Revisited and Cuban Roots before it. I had always relied on drummers to give my records their characteristic edge, and so I turned to Pedrito Martinez to give this new project an innovative spin. He was the key to the mix of musicians that made Con Alma a hit.  Pedrito had lead the drummers on Algo Más and did the singing and his reputation as a conga drummer is as good as it gets (he had, after all, won the Thelonious Monk award on hand drums). He was playing a gig at the Blue Note with trombonist Conrad Herwig. I went down and caught a set. I had met Conrad who knew of my trombone playing and he graciously announced my presence as one of the most important sources of his own conception. It was especially gratifying since another old friend, Ronnie Cuber, who I hadn't seen in decades was playing baritone sax in the band. Pedrito sounded amazing. I had never heard a conga drummer playing with a trap drummer that swung more or took more risks with the time and he had amazing technique. During the break I asked Pedrito to do a record with me and to get a trap drummer of his choice. Mark Levine meanwhile, was taking the co-producing role very seriously, sending me great recordings with tunes that he thought would be perfect for a flute quintet. But I needed a bridge between the extreme drumming I knew I would get from Pedrito and Mark's centrist concept. Santi Debriano had played magnificently on Algo Más and had recorded two extended tunes out of the 6 that constituted Jazz World Trios along with drummer Cindy Blackman, and Santi could swing. So there it was-- a centrist jazz piano player, a jazz bass player of exceptional breadth and ability and drummers at the cutting edge of Cuban music. It was a recipe for disaster unless it jelled perfectly. But there was reason for it to jell. All of the musicians had enormous respect for the music and the highest integrity as individual musicians. And they all played their asses off.

It was a complicated date to organize. Mark was in Oakland, Santi had a full-time college teaching gig in Massachusetts and Pedrito was working all of the time. I had no idea who Pedrito would bring to play drums, but, as always, I relied on the musicians I respected to make the decision that would enable them to play their best. I had worked through Mark's suggestions for material and had made some of my own. Santi asked if he could include an original. I decided that each of us, Mark, Santi and myself would contribute one original and then I would pick jazz classics as well as some less familiar tunes. Mark had suggested a great funk tune by Mulgrew Miller, 'Sol-Leo' and a Bobby Hutcherson tune, 'Gotcha,' that was perfect for bass flute. He also suggested a tune, 'Monte Adentro,' by the great Cuban flutist Maraca, that I played on alto flute giving it a very different treatment than Maraca had. Santi's tune had basic harmonies but an interesting overlay of two ways of playing 6/8 (the vamp with a 1,2,3; 4,5,6  and the melody in 3/4 time over the 6/8, 1,2; 3,4; 5,6) a concept often found in Peruvian music. The tune, 'Afrokaleidescope,' lived up to its name, time-shifting as the listener could move from one perspective on the 6/8 to another. As a contrast, I included my original 'Broadway Local,' which I had recorded years before on Three Deuces with Vic Juris. It was as harmonically complex as Santi's tune was rhythmically. It is based on the chords to Coltrane's signature composition 'Giant Steps,' but rather than return back to B major at the top of the chorus, I transpose the changes into G major and then Eb major, replicating the internal structure in a 3 chorus sequence. Despite the apparent complexity, it is quite natural to play and the guys played it down without a hitch. Years ago, Jerry Gonzalez had recorded Monk's 'Evidence' as a Latin jazz tune. I decided to do it against a fast double-time drum rhythm and then double-time my solo as Coltrane did in the recently rediscovered Town Hall recording with Thelonous Monk. I added three classic jazz composition, Dizzy's 'Con Alma,' Coltrane's 'Crescent' and Wayne Shorter's funky Fee 'Fi Fo Dum.' I had the material, now to organize the date.

Mark could come in for 3 days, one to rehearse and two to record. I set it up with Pedrito and Santi and booked the studio for Friday and Saturday since I was teaching Monday and Wednesday. The Tuesday before the date Pedrito called my all flustered and told me he had a problem with the date. He could record Friday but not Saturday, but he was available on Sunday. Mark was flying back to Oakland Sunday morning. Then Santi called. He had a teaching conflict on Thursday and could not get down until late Thursday night. I had no options, there was no point in calling a late rehearsal and then recording the next day; it would be better to do the date cold. Mark, Santi and myself would look through the material on Thursday, we would record the quintet on Friday, record without Pedrito on Saturday and Pedrito would overdub the congas on Sunday. This was not a promising scenario for a record date. When Santi showed up he was exhausted. The three of us went out to dinner and forgot about looking at the material and crashed in my house. We had to be in the studio at noon.

When Mark, Santi and myself arrived at the studio Friday Pedrito was already there and introduced me to the drummer, a boyhood friend of his in Cuba, who had recently come to the states, Mauricio Herrerra. Pedrito and Mauricio played together all of the time, but this was their first commercial recording together. They were very excited. While the mikes were being set up we talked about the music. Santi played the vamp for his tune, with the melody laid contrary to the pattern. Pedrito immediately laid down the drums in a further contrast playing the 6/8 double time under the two patterns. It was amazing! And it swung! The tune went like clock-work, solos by all. The date continued with the same pattern. Mark or Santi would establish a pattern; the drummers would come up with some amazing contrasting rhythm. After Santi had sight-read 'Broadway Local' perfectly, Mark came over to me and said, "That is the best bass player I ever played with.' After we played 'Evidence' and the drummers came up with some amazing shit, Santi came over to me and said, 'Man, those are great drummers.' It was jelling all right. It was killing!

We had booked the studio for 8 hours. We were into the 6th hour of the session and had recorded 5 tunes, each one unique and played superbly. I was getting tired and the nagging migraine that had accompanied my last recording was back (it turned out to be serious glaucoma). I was in my booth and Pedro came to my door. He was on fire! 'Please' he asked me, 'can't we finish the date tonight? We can never get the same swing with me overdubbing the drums on Sunday.' I asked Phil, my engineer, if he would stay with us. He agreed. I took two Advils. We ordered dinner. We continue to work while we waited for the food to be delivered. We had been in the studio for almost twelve hours and had completed 10 tunes. No one wanted to leave, but we were out of material. Mark said 'let's play Stella,' the tune whose changes he had taught me 4o years before. Mark showed Santi some interesting chromatic additions to the end of the chorus and some figures that gave the performance a tightly arranged feel. We played it top to bottom, solos all around, with the drummers sounding as fresh as they did on the first tune. The recording was done. Mark and I took Sunday off and visited with Lois Gilbert, the web-mistress of Jazz Corner and a old friend of both of ours and had a great Indian dinner.

Con Alma exceeded all of my expectations. Randy Klein of Jazzheads loved it, it got great reviews and took off on on radio, staying on the charts and hitting the top. I got my NPR interview and I had achieved a milestone in my career. Instead of playing radical alternative Afro-Cuban jazz I had a record of Latin jazz that was right in the pocket. People could relate to it and understand what I was doing. Instead of playing music on the margins, I was addressing the center of Latin jazz and doing it with respect for the genre, referencing the great contributors to the music, while adding a mix of elements that was characteristically my own. If this was the 60's I would be on my way. But it was 2008 and no one was making room at the top for Mark Weinstein. The record was a hit, but very little changed in my ability to get work, particularly at festivals, where my reputation would have to be made. I was succeeding musically but my career still sucked.  

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