Tuesday, July 28, 2015

high hopes

That's Aruán Ortiz and me after we recorded El Cumbanchero (the hot link takes you to the title track). The picture was from a photo shoot, Aruán's idea. Aruán had great hopes for El Cumbanchero. I had given him the opportunity to created a modern charanga sound, that was both consistent with the tradition and uniquely creative. The album included classic compositions by such notables as Rafael Hernandez, Isreal Lopez (Cachao) and Cesar Portillo and reflected the original settings of a number of recordings by Arcaño y Sus Maravillas, the most progressive Cuban charanga ensemble in history. Reimagining the charanga tradition in his terms gave Aruán a unique vehicle for his creative talents and he saw great possibilities for performing with the ensemble. The photo shoot was the beginning of what Aruán saw as our connecting to move the music forward. That sadly was not to be. 

There were a number of reasons, a reflection of my entire career as an aspiring jazz flutist. There was the existential issue. I was 72 years old, financially comfortable, but with no money to spare after the expense of recording (musicians, studio, mixing, promotion, purchases of discs). And the money stream from my previous CD's was minimal in terms of my real life requirements. I am a college professor, tenured in a department of education (not music) have a nice house with a big mortgage in New Jersey and the usual obligations of middle class living. Music was my creative outlet, but was irrelevant, except as a drain on resources, to the practical exigencies of my life. Then there is the psychological issue, over the twenty odd years that I have tried to be a jazz musician I made a number of attempts to perform. And local clubs like Cecil's gave me a chance to play with from time to time.

Playing at Cecil's was always great, especially when Aruán was free to take the gig, but the gigs ended up costing me money. And many of the gigs I played in other clubs were a total drag. The local club that replaced Cecil's after it closed, the Hat City Kitchen, was noisy and unappreciative, and my long time local venue, Trumpets, was always a hassle, times changed, gigs cancelled and very little money. I could never figure out how to ramp up my performances and get gigs in the city. I didn't have a following to speak of and at my age didn't give the impression of being able to generate one. But the truth is I hadn't put any real effort into getting gigs in recent years and so I was not geared up mentally to join with a young hungry Cuban musician who was getting noticed both internationally and on the New York creative music scene. Despite the real warmth between us as is clear from the picture, my spirit was not strong enough to join with Aruán's. I did the photo shoot, would have been open to anything Aruán presented, but did not get involved with his musical life. Had I been younger, hungrier and especially braver I would have gone to his gigs, sat in, get to the meet the guys etc. Been there, done that! And it didn't do much good when I has in my fifties, nor did the albums I recorded when I was in my sixties lead to the kind of performance opportunities that would sustain a career.  And so I didn't do it; I didn't follow up on his initiative. But Aruán was motivated. He was convinced that our CD would get recognition in Cuba (it had hit the top of the Jazz and world radio play charts). But there were practical problems as well. There was no realistic way to recreate El Cumbanchero as a working ensemble.

We had recorded the CD in four sessions. We played through half of the tunes with just the rhythm section. Mauricio Herrera, playing timbales, Yunior Terry on bass and Aruán and me. That was a great time, magical, musical and full of rewarding moments,. Aruan's changes were exquisite to play on and although difficult in spots, the music flowed easily. Here are the guys.

But the center of the arrangements, the raison d'etre of the album, was the string writing that would extend the classic charanga tradition using a string quartet. And Aruan's interest was in classical string quartet writing rather than the more simple string writing associated with the Cuban dance bands. I had left town, when he recorded the string quartet, but was in touch with Aruán by phone. I called when the session was in its third hour and they hadn't finished one song. The strings finally managed to record two credible version of each of the tunes we had recorded, but none were adequate as they stood and so a job of picking and choosing, editing and pro-tools machinations was clearly in the cards. The same was true with the second half of the album. The session with me and the rhythm sections went well, but the strings were a slog. This of course impacted on Aruán's dreams of performance. There was no way we could perform this live without enormous amounts of rehearsal, and even then, the likelihood of getting it together to  meet the demanding standards of even modest venues in New York was nil. To perform the music we would need three percussion players (Mauricio did multiple overdubs) and a string quartet, eleven musicians in total. The whole thing was prohibitively expensive and Aruán had a classical string and flute project that he was moving ahead with. And so, like the rest of my dream of being a jazz flutist, what I had to show for my efforts was a CD. But Aruán didn't give up on me. Jazzheads, the company I recorded for, was having a small festival and Aruán had an idea for another album. 

His idea fit with a long-time wish I had. When I was just beginning to play flute in the early 1970's, I would walk by Sam River's loft on the lower east side, but although I was making jam sessions and playing small gigs, I never had the nerve to go in. But I had touched that scene when I was a trombone player, playing at jam sessions where that music was being defined and I now had the flute chops to make a contribution to the music that I missed in the free jazz scene of the 1970's. Music, that to me, was the epitome of what it meant to play jazz. Sam Rivers had just died as had Andrew Hill. Aruán's idea was to make a tribute album to the 70's jazz scene, mixing heavy Afro-Cuban drums with free jazz. We put a group together and did the Jazzheads festival. By the time we got to play the room was almost empty except for the musicians from Bobby Sanabria's band that played before us and the general sense was that we were doing something different. The drummer on the date, Francisco Mora- Catlett, couldn't make the recording, so we went into the studio with another drummer, Gerald Cleaver, and recorded Latin Jazz Underground.

Now the practical problems associated with the large ensemble needed to perform El Cumbanchero disappeared. A quintet was easily booked, we were close, but as it turned out, still no cigar. The music Aruán brought to the date the was frightfully difficult. The tunes were complex and the concept of playing Afro-Cuban percussion, which is always rooted in a pulse, with a free drummer had never been tried before. And as always in my recordings, there was no real rehearsal. Instead we had to work things out in the studio. The solution we came up with was for Aruán to play all heads on piano in unison with me so that the heads would not cause problems as I tried to lock in with him on the intricate and technically demanding music. That way, as in all my previous recording we could focus on the rhythm section and the groove and relying on my isolation to permit over-dubbing where required. But even that was not enough. The lines were so difficult that even Aruán had to first play with the section and then overdub the lines in order to articulate them adequately. Laying the heads against the complex pulse that was both in the arrangements and in the concrete musical realization was a real challenge. Gerald Cleaver was playing free. Román Diaz was playing just about everything he could think of and Rashaan Carter was holding them together while playing free himself. Just to give you an idea what the music looked like, check out one of Aruán's originals.

Now imagine that played against a clave, at double time. It works, check out the album. Aruán is a genius. Needless to say Latin Jazz Underground required significant overdubbing on my part. Could I reproduce it without the studio 'do-overs' not to mention pro-tools? I'll never know. Aruán's career is marching ahead. The concept of the album give birth to a band called Afro-horn that is making the circuit. The rhythm section is from my Jazzheads festival gig, but with three monster sax players including one of my local favorites, Bruce Williams playing alto. No 75 year old flute player required.

Latin Jazz Undrground was picked up by Zoho records and it has received strong reviews as you can see by going to the link. Zoho required a CD release party. But I never had the nerve to try to set one up. I just don't think I can play that music live. The record company understood and accepted another album from me, 'In Jerusalem.' But that is a story for another time.

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