I am convinced that humanity has a few activities that represent the apex of its genius and sophistication: astrophysics, the Japanese tea ceremony and Latin jazz. I don’t know a supernova from a Chevy Nova, I can’t fit in one of those little houses for the cha-no-yu – but Latin jazz I understand on a deep level, having played it professionally for many years.
Watching the movie Calle 54 the other day with my children made me think of how mystical this incredible music was for a super-gringo from Vermont – and how I should write a primer on why you too should become ravenous for this most important of musical styles. Let’s cut to the chase and check out eight straight minutes of ass-kicking from El Rey del Timbal, the king of the timbales himself, Maestro Tito Puente. This video from 2000 features a crew of musicians so heavyweight, they must have located the studio on substrates of bedrock: the late Hilton Ruiz on piano, Joe Santiago on the Ampeg Baby Bass, the masterful Dave Valentín on flute, the late Mario Rivera on tenor sax, and on the tumbadora, the congas, the Michael Jordan of his instrument, Giovanni Hidalgo.
Analysis to follow.
What is Latin jazz?
You may be asking, what is Latin jazz, as opposed to bluegrass or polka? The term Latin jazz refers to music that is improvised over a harmonic and rhythmic form (like regular American jazz) though usually with instruments and rhythms that are particular to the Caribbean islands (primarily Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic) or to a lesser extent South America (Colombia, Venezuela and Perú). Thus, Latin jazz is usually performed with percussion – timbales, congas, bongos, maracas, cowbells – rather than a drum kit, and performs music based on classic Caribbean rhythms – son montuno, mambo, rumba, cha-cha-cha, bolero, among others.
Like all jazz, a melody is stated up front over a specific set of chord changes, and the musicians then comment on that form through improvisations – playing solos based on the chords. The length of the song is usually determined by the musicians – if one player is really smokin’ and has a lot to say, you might let him or her take extra choruses. Then the original theme is restated and the song ends.
Normally, the musicians will then proceed to other songs until the end of the “set,” at which time they will attempt to put drinks on another musician’s bar tab and/or make conversations with attractive patrons with whom they were attempting to make sultry eye contact during the performance.
Analysis of “New Arrival” by Hilton Ruíz, composer
El Rey takes the band through an original track composed by the pianist, Hilton Ruíz entitled “New Arrival.” This tune is truly a masterful example of Latin jazz for the way it includes the most sophisticated characteristics of both idioms.
0:00 – 0:16 – The piano opens the tune with a solo riff in a loose clave pattern, eight bars long.
0:17 – 0:25 – In the next eight bars, the flute and sax state the melody over a 2-3 rumba clave rhythm (clave is literally “key” in Spanish, the rhythmic figure around which the other instruments play)
0:25 – 0:31 – Oh snap! The next six bars go to swing time, where the backbeat is on the two and four as in American jazz.
0:31 – 0:38 – The melody continues as the rhythm section goes back to the original Latin pattern. They will be switching like this a lot.
0:39 – 1:00 – Restatement of the first theme, switching between Latin and swing time.
1:01 – 1:44 – Two choruses of solo from Mario Rivera. Note how his phrasing shifts perceptibly yet effortlessly between Latin and swing rhythms, implying the angularity of rumba or bebop language depending on what the rhythm section is giving him. It’s so smooth the casual listener cannot tell that this represents a complete mastery of both catalogs of music.
1:45 – 2:28 – Two choruses of solo from Dave Valentín. He’s on the same level of bilingualism as Rivera – matching the syncopations of Latin with the sheets of sound of bebop from bar to bar like it ain’t no thang. And this is of course extremely difficult – something that is always evident when a bebopper sits in with a Latin combo and slouches his or her phrasing all over the tune, expecting swung eighth notes where there is actually strict adherence to the straight eighths in all clave rhythms.
2:29 – 3:12 – Hilton Ruíz takes two choruses, and like Rivera and Valentín, has a complete mastery of Latin and swing phrasing. He even keeps building a musical statement between the sections, only changing his approach to the time – unbelievably slick. Most musicians would finish a phrase at the end of Latin and start back up in bebop, but like anybody brought up in a bilingual home, he can go between the two languages mid-sentence – not unlike the Spanglish that many of these guys actually speak after growing up in the Bronx or Spanish Harlem.
3:13 – 3:59 – Two full reiterations of the intro theme and melody, with stronger unison from the horns and more energy from the rhythm section, building up to…
4:00 – 4:08 – MONTUNO. This is the section where the piano plays alone, dropping all vestiges of jazz and banging out the syncopated backbone of guaracha, son montuno, or mambo. Artistically, this is where Latin musicians announce that they are leaving New York definitely and headed straight for Havana, Cuba, do not pass go, do not collect $200. The band is dropping from fifth to fourth gear, slugging back a shot of rum, and hitting the gas pedal on this bad boy. Note – Tito is headed from the timbales to the vibraphone.
4:09 – 4:34 – This is Tito’s band, baby – did you not understand this was Tito’s band? Yeah, he’s a virtuoso on the timbales and on the vibraphones, which is like being a race car driver and a commercial jet pilot. Vibes are like a piano that you hit with mallets – Tito has mastered literally every angle of this music and can solo melodically and harmonically with the same power as his timbales. And Mario Rivera drops effortlessly from sax to timbales, since he can play about anything.
4:35 – 5:35 – Tito throws the ball to Giovanni Hidalgo, the greatest single player of the instrument alive today. You almost feel sorry for his congas. Almost.
Please note the lack of obligatory bass solo. As a bassist myself, I can tell you that the primary role of the bass is in support. It is not, for most tunes, a compelling solo voice, and Latin music often wisely leaves the bass in a supportive role. If this gives you the vapors, stick to bebop. I find it hypnotic.
5:36 – 6:30 – Tito Puente was not crowned The King of the Timbales by accident, mis amigos. Maybe the key to his success is all of those awesome faces he makes. Even fifty years into the business, he just looks amazed at how cool everything sounds. He’s not working his instruments, he’s playing them. Playing with them. Playing with your ear, playing with phrasing. Just having an amazing time – that’s how all music should be approached.
6:31 – Restatement of the original theme and outro.
What is not to adore in this music? If you are a musician, you need to investigate the roots of this artform, from Cuban son and rumba to Dizzy Gillespie’s collaborations with Chano Pozo, to the Palmieri Brothers, to the coalescence of salsa pop music. This is culture at its pinnacle.