Before & After: Ray Barretto

Ray Barretto suggested we do the interview for this piece following his Kennedy Center gig back in 2004. We sat in his hotel room at the Watergate and stayed up until the early morning hours listening to music and sharing stories. When we finished and he was walking me to the door, I asked if there was anything he would have wanted me to play for him. He said yes, Duke Ellington.  Ray Barretto passed away 16 months later at the age of 76.


1. James Moody
“Tin Tin Deo,” from Chano Pozo: El Tambor de Cuba (Tumbao). James Moody, tenor sax; Ernie Henry, alto sax; Dave Burns, Elamn Wight, trumpet; Cecil Payne, baritone sax; James Forman, piano; Nelson Boyd, bass; Art Blakey, drums; Chano Pozo, conga, vocal. Recorded in 1948.

[immediately] That’s Chano. I know this record, that’s Moody’s record. I like that tune. Dizzy wrote the bridge, [listens] and here they’re just blowing on the blues. Chano was my first influence. He did not come out of jazz, he was placed there by Dizzy and it was not his natural element. But he brought to it the fact that he only played one drum, and it was pitched low enough so that it was unobtrusive and didn’t get in the way of the drummer. So the pulse worked from the bottom up. This is more Latin oriented so the drum is more prominent, but if they were playing straight ahead, dotted 8th’s and 16ths rather than straight 8ths, then you’d change the way you play. I did, but Chano never did because he came in with the real traditional Cuban style and that’s what he knew to do, even if the band was playing ding-a-ding, ding-a-ding, ding-a-ding. But of all the cats that were around at that time, he played in a way that I thought worked best with a trap drummer. Chano was a salty, earthy dude and he played like it.

2. Miguel Zenón
“Ya,” from Ceremonial (Marsalis Music). Miguel Zenón, alto sax; Luis Perdomo, piano; Hans Glawischnig, bass; Antonio Sanchez, drums. Recorded in 2003.

This is obviously light years removed from what we just heard. [after the first 30 seconds] That vibrato gives me a sense. Is that Miguel Zenón? Yeah, he played with me briefly. In fact, he did the Homage To Blakey record with me but his head was never into that. He was already thinking much more avant-garde, for lack of a better term.

What was it about his vibrato that gave it away?

His vibrato is almost like what Milt Jackson’s was on the vibraphone. [vocally imitates the vibrato] And he has a nice flighty way of getting around the horn. This is the generation of young Latino guys who sometimes think of guys like me as dinosaurs. You know, they gotta move on to new ideas.

Do you feel this kind of music?

No, I wish I did. It’s not grounded the way I like music to be. I guess that’s my time and place, you know? If I think of swing in jazz, I think of Art Blakey, Arthur Taylor or some of the younger guys who carry on that tradition that I can relate to. I’m sure it’s my shortcoming. I just haven’t evolved the way these guys have. They hear things that I guess I’m not completely comfortable with. I can’t do half the things that young kids can do today. They do cross-over, left-handed, right handed, all kinds of technical things. But I hear Chano and there’s a connection to the earth that I feel sometimes gets lost in the shuffle.

After: [Miguel is] an amazing young musician, amazing ears for time and chordal structures. But while I can listen to it and be amazed from a technical perspective, I’d rather hear Louis Armstrong and get my heart tugged at.

3. Noro Morales
“Serenata Ritmica,” from Recordando Los Exitos de Noro Morales (RCA). Noro Morales, piano; Mongo Santamaria, conga; Ignacio Reyes, timbales; Louis Richko, bass. Recorded in 1954.

[after the first 10 seconds, big smile] Noro Morales. Yeah, I grew up with this stuff, this is what I listened to when I was a kid.

How can a young musician recognize Noro Morales?

Well first they’d have to want to. Young musicians today start with John Coltrane and Herbie Hancock and all those guys. But if a young musician is serious, they‘ve got to go back and check these guys out, like Lester Young and Jo Jones and Fletcher Henderson. [listens some more] Even the guy that’s playing conga on that, it’s very low, very funky. Today, a kid would do this same session and you’d hear it two octaves higher and it wouldn’t have the same impact. Noro in his time was considered a very innovative pianist, and he influenced a lot of young pianists rhythmically and, for his time, he had good chops. He ran his octaves very cleanly. Now you have to take into consideration that these guys weren’t playing All The Things You Are or anything with a thousand [chord] changes. This is a modal minor theme that’s easy to play. But you can dance to it and listen to it and the time is great. My man Noro! I’m surprised and delighted that you played that record.

4. Clark Terry & Chico O’Farrell
“Spanish Rice,” from Spanish Rice (Impulse). Clark Terry, trumpet, vocal; Chico O”Farrell, arranger, conductor, vocals; Joe Newman, Ernie Royal, Snooky Young, trumpet, flugelhorn; Everett Barksdale, Barry Galbraith, guitars; George Duvivier, bass; Julio Cruz, Frank Malabe, Chino Pozo, Bobby Rosengarden, percussion; Grady Tate, drums. Recorded in 1966.

Before: I hate this stuff. Somebody’s going for a hit. I know those voices. Wait a minute. That’s Clark Terry. Awwww. You know, this is like going for the funky bugalu type thing so that maybe some dj will pick it up and play it on the radio. I can’t tell who the Latin cat is. No, it’s not my cup of tea. I made one or two records in this genre.

When you made those kind of records, was it your idea or some producer’s?

It was my idea. I was hoping for a hit myself. I wasn’t beyond trying to get a hit record, cause I had a hit record and I liked the feeling.

After: I love these guys dearly and have the highest regard for them. These two guys are geniuses in their own right but they got together and said why don’t we dumb it down a little bit and go for the hit and see if we can get to the masses.

Is it possible to go for the masses and still maintain artistic integrity?

No. Absolutely not. It’s an oxymoron. Those are contrasting and conflicting concepts. The popular is by definition mediocre. The inclination is to think of yourself as an artist and try to create art, until you make a conscious decision that art, for the most part, doesn’t sell.

So how do you not sell-out?

Guys get hits or good paying gigs and royalties and stuff,  it’s easy to sell out. I mean, we’re made of flesh and blood you know? The idealist sits in his one-room flat with a loaf of bread and jug of wine, that guy don’t exist anymore. That’s just a romantic notion. If you do what you want to do and lo and behold you have a hit, then your conscience is clean.

What about your hit El Watusi?

[laughs] I was trying for a hit. Watusi was born out of a dance I saw kids doing in the Palladium. It was a novelty thing. Symphony Sid got some calls on it and went to Morris Levy and said you may have something here.

5. Nat King Cole
“Laugh! Cool Clown,” from The Best of the Nat King Cole Trio (Capitol). Nat King Cole, piano; Irving Ashby, guitar; Joe Comfort, bass; Jack Costanza, congas, bongos. Recorded in 1949.

You know, two things happen when you get older. Your memory starts to go, and I can’t remember the second thing [laughter]. So, I know this tune [starts to sing along with the arrangement]. Ah, Nat Cole with Jack Costanza. OK, alright. I had to stir what’s left of the gray matter. I remember this, big time. After Chano, Jack kind of became the next guy to achieve some notoriety, with Nat Cole and Kenton, although he wasn’t the percussionist that Chano was. I enjoyed his playing as well. He was unobtrusive and didn’t get in the way. Nice, bare bones, kept good time. Jack was a little more sensitive to what he was accompanying. Maybe it was because he wasn’t Latin. He didn’t carry that concept into his jazz playing and it worked better to my ears than a lot of other guys who were Latin. His inflections changed according to where the tune was at and I thought that was the right way to play music.

6. Eddie Palmieri
“Shékere Agent Man,” from La Perfecta II (Concord Picante). Eddie Palmieri, piano; Joe Santiago, bass; Bryan Lynch, trumpet, Conrad Herwig, trombone; Mario Rivera, baritone sax; Ivan Renta, tenor sax; Yosvany Terry Cabrera, alto sax, shékere; Dafnis Prieto, drums; Richie Flores, congas, John Rodriguez, bongos; Bryan Lynch, arranger. Recorded in 2002.

Before: Sounds like something that Ray Charles would do. [segues into the montuno] Uh oh. All right, you threw me a monkey wrench. But I like it, I like the transition. It’s interesting. It just went from Ray Charles to Machito. Did [Michael] Mossman do this? [during conga solo] Is that Giovanni Hidalgo? Richie Flores? Yeah, he’s Giovanni Jr. Giovanni’s probably a little slicker and has a little bit more precision in his playing. I don’t know who this band is. I probably wouldn’t buy this record. It’s not that I’m not enjoying it, but once you played it I wouldn’t put it on my must hear list. [back to the Ray Charles feel] Cute. On certain levels I find it entertaining. The solos were ok. And it had a very traditional Cuban ending. That’s not the Chico O’Farrell band is it?

After: Ah, my man Eddie. I’m paying the price for not checking him out as much as I should. It’s alright, he doesn’t check me out either. [examines the personnel] These are the cats, I often work with these guys myself. Somebody wrote well for the band but it was a little generic. Eddie, for what he does, is a monster. He’ll take a tumbao or a vamp and put a fire under it. But I’ve played I-IV-V’s [chord progressions] and C-7s [chords] as long as Eddie has and I’ve moved on in my life. I think the difference is that I’m not a pianist, so as a drummer I can do what I want. Eddie and I used to play stickball together as kids. He’s larger than life.

7. Patato Valdes
“Descarga en Faux,” from The Legend of Cuban Percussion (Six Degrees Records). Carlos “Patato” Valdes, congas; Joe Santiago, bass; Rebecca Mauleon-Santana, piano; Orestes Vilato, timbales; Jose Luis “Changuito” Quintana, drums; Enrique FErnandez, saxophones. Recorded in 1995.

Before: Patato? He does certain things, certain licks that I’ve heard him do a million times. It’s like the way Gene Krupa used to play his triplets, it’s just a signature way of playing that makes him identifiable. I hate Latin with a backbeat. It’s not where it belongs. This is just a descarga record, you know, a jam session record.

After: Patato is an elf. He’s a pixie. He’s a little guy, weighs about 78 lbs soaking wet. I heard Patato in his prime, just like I heard Mongo in his prime, and nobody knows how really marvelous these guys were. I heard him when I was with Puente and he was with Machito. He had an accident with his left hand and you notice one finger is bent crooked. After that he never really got the sound from a drum that he got before the accident. At any rate, Patato was a very inventive, creative, melodic drummer. He was a joy to watch and listen to. Mongo was more of a power drummer. Patato was more a finesse drummer.

8.  Michel Camilo
“Tequila,” from Live At The Blue Note (Telarc). Michel Camilo, piano; Charles Flores, bass; Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez, drums. Recorded in 2003.

Before: Turn it up a little bit. Boy, you can’t do much to Tequila. There’s something in the way that tune lays out harmonically and melodically. No matter how you do it there’s always something that grabs you, you know? Is that Chucho? It’s cute. It’s challenging to play it in another time signature.

After: Ah, ok the time master. He likes to mess with odd meters. This is not my cup of tea. I mean it takes great skill, and I have great respect for being able to do this. But sometimes it’s just an exercise, like trying to play the blues in 5/4.  This is in either 5 or 7, I’m not sure. He got the essence of the funkiness of the tune while playing it in an odd meter, which is interesting in itself and I respect it very much.

Did it work? Was it funky?

Not for me. But why should I judge things? By whether they become an important part of my collection, whether I’ll go back and listen to it again and again? I don’t even do that with my own recordings, most of them, so why should I do that ? My time is in the rear-view mirror.

What records do you keep going back to?

I go back to Bird, early Machito, certain versions of works by Ravel, Debussy, certain works by Art Tatum, Clifford. To the masters, the definitive things. Blakey for his bringing the Earth to the drum.

9. Roberto Juan Rodriguez
“The Shvitz,” from El Danzon de Moises (Tzadik). Roberto Juan Rodriguez, percussion; Mark Feldman, violin; Matt Darriau, clarinet; Jane Scarpantoni, cello; Ted Reichman, accordian; Brad Jones, bass; Susie Ibarra, percussion. Released in 2002.

Before: [grimaces at the start, then listens to the whole piece straight through with eyes closed and foot tapping] Bravo! Completely enchanting, delightful, different for my ears. I don’t encounter this kind of thing too much. The clave is keeping the beat and the melody they’re playing goes in and out of the clave, but the fact that it always winds up falling on the clave beat is really fascinating to me. I have no idea who this is. But I found it mesmerizing and it’s something that I’d refer back to from time to time if I want to get into another kind of thing. It pulled me in. I started to think who might have played the violin solo, maybe Regina Carter or somebody, but I think this violinist was far superior. This was an excellent violinist.  I also got a Peruvian vibe, though the clave tells me Cuba. I don’t know, I’m stumped.

After: Bravo, bravo, bravo. I enjoyed this very much.

Could you see yourself playing music like this?

I wouldn’t know where to begin.

10. Dizzy Gillespie
“Caravan,” from Afro (Verve). Dizzy Gillespie, trumpet; Gilbert Valdez, flute; Rene Hernandez, paino; Robert Rodriguez, bass; Jose Mangual, Candido Camero, Luis Miranda, Ubaldo Nieto, one unknown, percussion. Recorded in 1954

[immediately] Caravan. Dizzy. Love this record. Dizzy was at the height of his power making this record. Candy, Luis Miranda, Mangual, Bobby Rodriguez. Awww, Tambo! I wore this record out.

How is this different from a hundred other guys trying to play like this?

Dizzy! His chops are up, he’s playing precise, he’s playing creatively. As he got older he got a little sloppier, you know, although he was always the most soulful trumpeter. But here he is soulful and articulate and in command of his instrument and obviously enjoying the company that he’s surrounded with. None of these guys are jazz guys except Dizzy. But when Dizzy takes over it becomes jazz. I think this is one of his superb efforts on record. [sings along with the trumpet solo] Genius! When you ask what I go back to listen to, this is one of those things on every level: the rhythm section is cooking, that’s Machito’s rhythm section. And Dizzy’s on fire. [Barretto plays the final percussion break on his knees]. Beautiful.


This article originally appeared in JazzTimes, 2004 Vol 34, No. 9.

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