Dimensions in Music: From Mambo to Salsa, Part Five, IP Hilton Ruiz—Learning with los Grandes—Plying New Terrain

On June 6, pianist and bandleader Hilton Ruiz settled the debt we all attend. Ruiz studied with Mary Lou Williams, then worked with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Jackie McLean, and Tito Puente; his originals graced the soundtracks of Crimes and Misdemeanors and American Beauty, and his chops dazzled at April’s Sábado de Gloria all-star jam in Brooklyn.

Elder aces have passed recently—bassist Victor Venegas, conguero Ray Barretto—and those losses are enormous. Ruiz, however, spent his fifty-fourth birthday comatose in a hospital in New Orleans, where he’d traveled to shoot video for a Katrina benefit CD. He’d been found outside a Bourbon Street club with skull fractured and face-bones smashed, which police attribute to a sidewalk fall—but Ruiz’s daughter has filed suit against the club, where, she claims, Ruiz was attacked by a patron and the club’s security workers “failed to intervene in any meaningful fashion.” NOPD officers reportedly moonlight as Utopia bouncers; city agencies won’t take up the investigation, and their autopsy kept Ruiz’s body from the wake at the West 51st Street church where he’d played organ as a boy.

Ruiz played on Barretto’s swinging swan song, Standards Rican-ditioned. Both men were celebrated at Dizzy’s Club this summer, while Larry Harlow played the Spiegeltent cabaret at South Street Seaport and Summerstage previewed PBS’s South Bronx doc, From Mambo to Hip Hop. Eddie Palmieri opened Lincoln Center Out of Doors, Celebrate Brooklyn! headlined Puerto Rico’s sleek Sonora Ponceña, and the JVC Jazz Festival returned bass great Cachao to Carnegie.

Cachao has had pianist Alfredo Valdés Jr. aboard since actor Andy Garcia spurred the mambo maestro’s pre–Buena Vista Social Club resurgence. Back from Cachao’s North Sea Jazz Fest gig, the pianist spoke of their first teaming on a recording in 1991 with Roberto Torres, the singer who’d founded the SAR label. Valdés had known Cachao in Havana: “Club Social Buena Vista was in my neighborhood and my mother, a guitarist with [the 1930’s all-female] Orquesta Anacaona, used to bring me to listen to the tres grandes: Melodias del 40, Arcaño y Sus Maravillas—the group that Cachao performed with—and Arsenio Rodriguez.” His father sang with son pioneers Sexteto Habanero, played Chicago’s 1933 World’s Fair with Septeto Nacional, then in 1956 moved the family to the Bronx’s Kelly Street. “Puerto Ricans were the majority, and it was rich in Cuban artists: Machito, [pianist/arranger] René Hernández, my uncle Vincentico [the famed bolero singer], who had an orchestra with percussionist Manny Oquendo. And Arsenio Rodriguez lived there. At Five Borough Club on Prospect Avenue, I used to perform Cuban classics like Ernesto Lecuona. Arsenio Rodriguez saw me and said he would like to try me out.” At age 18, Valdés began gigging with the godfather of mid-century Cuban popular music, cutting three records and soloing on “Yo Nacie en Africa” [I Was Born in Africa] from 1960’s Fiesta en Harlem, so named because “we’d do a lot of gigs in Harlem: the Cotton Club, the boat-rides from the 125 Street pier.”

In 1962, Puente vet Ray Barretto called Valdés for his first band. “Barretto wanted to play son montuno, the raw Afro Cuban music that Arsenio played at the Palladium.” Five albums followed, and Valdés credits Barretto’s influence “in everything that came after: in Fania Records, infusing Latin and jazz. He showed respect for a common denominator between Afro-Cuban and Afro-American music.” In the late seventies, Valdés was SAR’s musical director; touring Europe, playing Africa three times, the label’s All-Stars awakened interest in “the music that put Cuba on the map, like what Miguelito Valdés and Xavier Cugat played here. Cuba has dominated what happened in New York since the thirties, but no pre-Castro music was being played there, and the seventies influences here were Los Van Van, Ritmo Oriental, and the Mozambique [rhythm]. SAR specialized in music before Castro; in response, Cuba’s national label Egrem formed Estrellas de Areito—which led eventually to the Buena Vista Social Club.”

Every month’s first Wednesday finds Willie Rodriguez’s band at Willie’s Steakhouse in the Bronx. Rodriguez, pianist with Machito and Conjunto Libre, has Libre’s bassist Andy Gonzalez and Nicky Marrero, whose timbale technique landed him with Palmieri as a teen, then with the Fania All-Stars. Surprise visits abound: In April, Chocolate Armenteros trumpeted in his birthday, six decades after breaking ground with Arsenio’s Havana conjunto. And in early July, the thirty-fourth El Mamoncillo festival packed Astoria’s Bohemian Beer Garden, with Orquesta Broadway flaunting forty years as paragons of the elegant, incendiary charanga. Leader Eddy Zervigón was a Cuban meteorologist, and his passion for hurricanes is evident in his astonishing wood flute solos. In his Queens home, Zervigón spoke of charanga’s French salon origins: “Nineteenth-century danzones had a syncopated montuno—the montuno is the repetition that everybody enjoys—but only the timbale played different. Cachao and his brother Orestes started doing new things: first the flute, then the violin melody, then a montuno where the flute did free improvisation. They changed everything—several times, man.”

Zervigón presented Havana’s TV weather after live sets by Beny Moré and Orquesta Aragón. (He recalled a studio visit by Che Guevara, as musically dispassionate as Fidel Castro.) On reaching Miami in 1962—“at that time you left Cuba with three suits and one bag”—he and brothers Rudy and Kelvin played cabarets until Eddy took the bus to New York, covering on flute while Johnny Pacheco recuperated from a throat operation and then forming Orquesta Broadway with his brothers and singer Roberto Torres. “We were living at 135th and Broadway and the Palladium’s manager suggested the name. After our first LP, with ‘Como Camina Maria,’ the Village Gate had people around the corners to get in.” The heady post-mambo scene kept Broadway busy “in all the boroughs and the Taft Hotel at 50th and Seventh, at the Palladium, at Basin Street East at 48th and Lex—they had matinees every Sunday, and we alternated with Sonora Matancera, Barretto, Pacheco. We owe very much to the Puerto Rican audiences—we used to play sixteen dances a week, from 1977 to almost 1990: I had to hire a trumpet player, I couldn’t do the sets alone.”

In the late nineties, downtowners tapped the Latin tinge: Guitarist Marc Ribot scored with his Arsenio cover band, after clarinetist Don Byron recorded Music for Six Musicians with Fort Apache Band’s Jerry Gonzalez on congas. Byron had met his quicksilver pianist, Edsel Gomez, at school in Boston, and Gomez’s debut, Cubist Music, features Byron and reedmen David Sánchez and Miguel Zenón. At the Olive Tree on MacDougal, Gomez said of Byron’s Latin bent that “he grew up listening to that here; he knew the clave just like I did from Puerto Rico.” At home, Gomez played with salsa legend Roberto Roena: “I would spend my money on Eddie Palmieri, Larry Harlow, and Willie Colon records, then I saw Hilton Ruiz and [bassist] Eddie Gomez doing duets; Hilton played incredible stuff, but what caught my attention was Eddie—I didn’t know the instrument could be played like that!” Gomez also cites arrangers Jorge Millet and José Febles: “José had tapes from Venezuela to make arrangements for Dimensión Latina [wellspring for bassist Oscar D’León and vocalist Andy Montañez]. He would take the guitar and say ‘Listen to this⦒ When I got to Berkley, I had in my ear all these sounds, because these people write incredible harmony.”

Today, Latin energy resounds in jazz: Gonzalo Rubalcaba opened a recent Jazz Standard stint with solo piano nights, and at the Blue Note, Cuban drummer Francisco Mela fielded saxophonists Paquito D’Rivera, Joe Lovano and Mark Turner, and hot pianist Jason Moran for a late set as rich as his new CD. Dafnis Prieto garnered acclaim with Cuba’s piano titan Chucho Valdés, and has also drummed with Eddie Palmieri—and at Sábado de Gloria with Hilton Ruiz. Jazz Gallery staged Prieto’s CD release; his Absolute Quintet’s vivid colors and diabolic propulsion nod to the leader’s time with Henry Threadgill. Ethos Percussion Ensemble premiered “The Guiros Talk” at Scandinavia House, and he’s “writing for a grant from Chamber Music America, which I’ll present at the Jazz Gallery on September 22 and 23.”

PBS airs From Mambo to Hip Hop this month, and Henry Medina screens archival gems at the Stone on Sept. 20 with rumbero Eddie Bobe. October’s installment tracks timbale and trap drummers coming to the fore on the New York scene.

Contributor

Alan Lockwood

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