Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Latin music’ Category

Gato Barbieri 1932-2016

Gato Barbieri 2At some point in his career, Leandro “Gato” Barbieri became a sound. A great sound, for sure, its hoarse urgency bursting with Latin passion, but he learnt that he needed to do little more than apply it to the theme he wrote in 1972 for Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris to satisfy his large core audience.

Maybe that film was the watershed. He had arrived in New York from Buenos Aires in the mid-’60s as an unknown tenor saxophonist and plunged straight into the maelstrom of the avant-garde, bringing a voice as distinctive as that of another saxophone incomer, John Tchicai. Barbieri was heavily featured on Don Cherry’s first two brilliant albums for Blue Note, Complete Communion and Symphony for the Improvisers, quickly followed by his debut as a leader, In Search of the Mystery, recorded for ESP Disk’ with a quartet including the cellist Calo Scott. He was a featured soloist on Michael Mantler’s “Communications #8″from the seminal Jazz Composers Orchestra double-album in 1968, which meant equal billing with Cherry, Cecil Taylor, Pharaoh Sanders, Roswell Rudd and Larry Coryell. The following year he was a prominent contributor to Charlie Haden’s first Liberation Music Orchestra album, and was featured on Escalator Over the Hill, the epic “chronotransduction” by Carla Bley and Paul Haines, released in 1971.

He made an impression on all of them, with a powerfully vocalised tone and the sort of confident delivery necessary to hold his own in such strong company. Decades later we could hear how he sounded stretching out in a club environment back in 1966 on recordings made at the Café Montmartre in Copenhagen, featuring Cherry’s quintet with Karl Berger on vibes, Bo Stief on bass and Aldo Romano on drums, released in three volumes by the renascent ESP between 2007-09.

The special pungency of his playing also derived, consciously or not in the listener’s mind, from the knowledge of his South American background: this seemed to be the sound of liberation movements across the continent. Barbieri strengthened the connection with tune titles such as “Tupac Amaru”, named after the Inca leader murdered by the Spanish invaders and to be found on a 1971 Flying Dutchman album called Fenix, reissued a couple of years ago on BGP, and “Viva Emiliano Zapata”, from an excellent biggish-band album of the same name, released on Impulse in 1974.

I saw him live just once, at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1971, in a performance later released on Flying Dutchman as El Pampero, with Lonnie Liston Smith on keyboards, Chuck Rainey on bass guitar, Bernard Purdie on drums, and Nana Vasconcelos and Sonny Morgan on percussion. (Rainey and Purdie were present at the festival as members of King Curtis’s band, but played with several other artists.) It was a powerful set, but for me it lacked the profundity of the work he’d done with the free-formers.

A year later Last Tango was making him famous, and he took the fork in the road that leads to a more radio-friendly aesthetic. But then in 1982 I saw a film destined to be much less successful, Matthew Chapman’s Strangers Kiss, which starred Peter Coyote and Victoria Tennant and a Barbieri soundtrack that I liked much better. The music had the familiar backstreet-tango-bar vibe, but it felt as though it was playing a more organic part in the movie. It seems to have disappeared so completely that I might have imagined it.

He died on Saturday, aged 83. If you go to http://www.gatobarbierimusic.com, you’ll find a link to clips from his most recent album, New York Meeting, a quartet session recorded five years ago in a straight-ahead style. There had been health problems, but that sound was still there.

* The photograph of Gato Barbieri was taken by Francis Wolff at Don Cherry’s Complete Communion session on Christmas Eve, 1965. There’s another one from the same occasion in The Blue Note Years: The Jazz Photography of Francis Wolff, published by Rizzoli in 1995.

Brooklyn Latino

PelirojaOut of the blue, a package arrived from Brooklyn the other day, accompanied by a note from Jacob Plasse, the guiding spirit of Chulo Records, an independent label operating under the rubric “New York Latin Soul”. The three discs he sent — by Peliroja, Melaza and Los Hacheros — reminded me that the Latino vitamin has been missing from my musical diet this winter.

They’re all good and worth investigating for the way they update Latin styles, but Peliroja’s Injusticia turned out to be the one that’s been almost impossible to prise out of the CD player. The heart of the group, its songwriters, are the lead singer Jainardo Batista, the keyboardist Mike Eckroth, and Plasse, who plays guitar and produced the album. The remainder of the core band are bassist Nick Movshon, baritone saxophonist Morgan Price, Carlos Padron on congas, timbales and other percussion. Plenty of others are involved, the name most swiftly catching my eye being that of the drummer Homer Steinweiss, familiar from his work with the brilliant Dap-Kings, Brooklyn’s kings of the kind of retro-soul that doesn’t sound retro at all (and with whom Movshon has also played).

On the label’s website, Plasse says that the sound of the band, some of whose members have played together since their schooldays, is inspired by “the sounds of Ethiopia, Dominican Republic, Cuba and the Congo”. Peliroja play an updated, more globalised version of the kind of stuff I used to love from Hector Lavoe, Larry Harlow and Willie Colon, and the lead-off track, “Bohemio”, is a very fine example of their application of 21st century energy to a classically structured salsa groove. “Honor Enjendrade” tips its hat to Africa and “La Fobia” would bring any club in the world to the boil as the full band thunders back in after the breakdown.

If those tracks gives a hint of the creativity Eckroth brings to the arrangements, a gorgeous ballad called “Se Equivoco” realises all the potential: the gruff baritone solo, a swooning dirge-dance from the guest strings, the steady sway of the bass, the slow ticking of the percussion and Batista’s expressive vocal make it a track I know I’ll be listening to for many years to come.

* The photograph is from the cover of Peliroja’s album. The website is chulorecords.com.

A staircase on 86th St

CorsoRay Barretto’s “El Watusi” was one of my favourite 45s of 1963, a sudden blast of exoticism amid the green shoots of Mersey Beat and New Wave R&B (as the emergent soul music was briefly known). Hispanic voices harangued each other over a basic Latin piano vamp and strategic handclaps. Eventually the rest of the band joined in: riffing violins, jaunty flute, the scrape of a guiro, a rattle of timbales and, of course, Barretto’s congas. There was no song, no lead vocal. The record faded out with the music stripped back again to piano and handclaps and the verbal exchanges still in full spate. I hadn’t a clue what the voices were saying, but it didn’t matter. To a 16-year-old in England it represented a slice of Spanish Harlem street life, two and a half minutes of riveting authenticity.

It was released in the UK on the Columbia label, EMI having picked up the rights via a deal with Roulette, on whose Tico imprint it was issued in the US, and it became an enduring Mod favourite. Roulette was Morris Levy’s company, and Tico was run by George Goldner. Both men were notorious for their connections, but between them they were responsible for a fair proportion of the great pop music that came out of New York in the pre-Beatles era. Teddy Reig, who had produced Charlie Parker’s Savoy sessions for the equally notorious Herman Lubinsky and Count Basie for Roulette, got the producer’s credit for “El Watusi”, which was recorded in October 1962 in the ballroom of New York’s Riverside Plaza Hotel, a very ornate bulding on West 73rd Street which had originally been a Masonic club. Now the record has been very nicely reissued by the Malanga label on a CD coupling two LPs by Ray Barretto y su Orquesta: Charanga Moderna and La Moderna de Siempre, both recorded in the same year and at the same venue.

This gives me an excuse to write about the first time I saw Barretto in person, at a club called the Corso at 205 East 86th Street, off the corner of 3rd Avenue, half a dozen blocks below East Harlem, also known as Spanish Harlem, or El Barrio. From 1970 to 1985, a period encompassing the start and the flowering of the salsa era, the Corso was perhaps New York’s principal rendezvous for lovers of Latin music, as the Palladium had been in the 1960s. Its owner, a restaurateur and club owner named Tony Raimone, had bought it in 1968 and was soon persuaded by Pete Bonet, one of Barretto’s singers (and one of the voices on “El Watusi”), to institute a musical policy appealing to the city’s Cuban and Puerto Rican expatriates.

It was a great success. By the time I got there in 1974 the club — up a steep flight of steps, above a restaurant — was featuring three bands nightly, five nights a week, and was packed with dancers from the Latin community, the sort of people who hadn’t needed to take lessons in order to dance to a clave rhythm.

I was in New York on assignment from Island Records’  Chris Blackwell, who had made a deal with Jerry Masucci of Fania Records, the hot new salsa label. Blackwell wanted me to scope out the possibilities for UK releases and tours. I was there for a week, and just about every night I ended up at the Corso, leaning against the long bar at the back of the dance floor and absorbing some wonderful music while marvelling at the fluency and inventiveness of the dancers, young and old. Among the bands I saw there were that of the young pianist Larry Harlow and two excellent charanga outfits, Tipica ’73 and Tipica Ideal. Among the clearest memories is that of one of the speciality acts who performed between the sets: a tall, lithe woman wearing a top-to-toe catsuit in black lace who performed sinuous dance routines in partnership with what I think was a  boa constrictor, at least 10ft long. I’m not sure you’d be able to find that sort of entertainment very easily now.

Good times at the Corso came to an end in the spring of 1985, the night the NYPD completed a sting and nabbed Tony Raimone, along with his son and his nephew. Over the preceding months an undercover agent had been buying heroin from them — about $5m of the stuff at street prices — in transactions made at another of Raimone’s establishments, further along 86th St. The final deal took place in the restaurant downstairs from the Corso.  The cops pounced, and that was that. The dancers had to find another home.

I kept the handbill above as a souvenir of a wonderful experience, one we came close to replicating in West London the following year when Hector Lavoe and his brilliant orchestra played a one-off gig at the old Nashville Rooms on North End Road, with the marvellous Professor Jose Torres on piano. It was a sensational night, and a few months later Ray Barretto himself arrived with Celia Cruz, Johnny Pacheco and the rest of the Fania All Stars to play at the Lyceum, a much bigger gig, with Steve Winwood as a special guest.

It would be another 10 years before salsa found its place in UK dance culture. But if you’re browsing a second-hand vinyl store and you see a copy of one of the compilations I put together for Island’s budget-price HELP label at that time, Salsa! and Salsa Live!, don’t hesitate: just snap it up.