[JPL] Ray Barretto: A Final Hit From a Conga Master Wall Street
Journal September 19, 2006
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Wall Street Journal
September 19, 2006
A Final Hit From a Conga Master
By LARRY BLUMENFELD
September 19, 2006; Page D6
Ray Barretto scat-sings stirring rhythms on "Strange Music," the final track
of the just-released "Standards Rican-ditioned" (Zoho Music). But that vocal
was never meant for our ears.
Mr. Barretto, who helped define the role of the conga drum in both jazz and
Latin music, sang merely as a marker for the percussion part he'd intended
to overdub. But he suffered a heart attack the very January day he was to
return to the studio. He died on Feb. 17, of heart failure, at age 76.
Mr. Barretto's youngest son, Chris, who plays alto saxophone on two of the
album's songs, was charged with completing the project. He added a conga
part to that final track and decided to keep his father's vocal in the mix.
"I'd never known him to do that in the studio, to sing like that," Chris
said between sets during a July musical tribute to his father at Jazz at
Lincoln Center. "But it sounded great, and it expresses the joy and
precision he was known for. So we left it in."
Beyond his son, Mr. Barretto gathered an extended musical family for
"Standards Rican-ditioned," with a clear mission: a straight-ahead jazz
session reminiscent of 1950s Blue Note and Riverside recordings, featuring
top-rank musicians of Puerto Rican descent.
"This was a dream of my father's," Chris says, "and an important statement
for him. He wanted to prove that Puerto Rican musicians could play more than
just Latin jazz, that they could play in an authentic straight-ahead style."
Mr. Barretto proved that during a career that spanned more than 50 years. In
the 1950s, he was the house percussionist for the Blue Note, Riverside and
Prestige labels, at a time when the conga was still gaining currency in jazz
circles. Mr. Barretto's achievements trace the intertwined evolution of jazz
and Latin music through the second half of the 20th century, highlighting
the role New York's Puerto Rican community played in that process.
"Ray was a quintessential Nuyorican," said Bobby Sanabria, a percussionist
and educator with whom Chris Barretto has studied at the Manhattan School of
Music. "He was musically bilingual."
Born in Brooklyn in 1929 to Puerto Rican parents and raised primarily in the
South Bronx, Ray Barretto absorbed jazz and Latin sounds at an early age. He
stayed up late with an ear pinned to the radio, soaking in the music of Duke
Ellington and Count Basie along with that of Cuban bandleaders Frank
"Machito" Grillo and Arsenio Rodriguez. After joining the Army at age 17,
while stationed in Munich, he heard music that synthesized his passions: the
groundbreaking Afro-Cuban jazz tune "Manteca," by Dizzy Gillespie's big band
with conga player Chano Pozo.
After returning to the U.S., Mr. Barretto bought a drum he'd eyed in the
window of a Harlem bakery; he was soon sitting in at jam session with key
figures of the bebop revolution. Chris Barretto recalls the story his father
used to tell him: A group of musicians including his dad ended their jam
session once saxophonist Charlie Parker showed up at a Harlem club; Mr.
Parker tapped Mr. Barretto on the shoulder and said, "You stay."
Acceptance came quickly among leading Latin bandleaders too. Mr. Barretto
replaced Mongo Santamaria in Tito Puente's band in time to record Mr.
Puente's 1958 classic, "Dance Mania" (RCA). He changed both the sound and
commercial potential of modern Latin music. His earliest groups featured
trumpet and trombone soloists within the violin-and-flute sound of Cuban
charanga. His 1962 version of the song "El Watusi" was the first Latin
recording to enter the Billboard Top 20 chart.
When the Fania label became the definitive home for a new music dubbed
"salsa," Mr. Barretto was at the center of that movement: He churned out
innovative albums, often with lyrics referencing the period's social
ferment, and anchored the popular Fania All-Stars. The Miami-based Emusica
label recently reissued Mr. Barretto's 1967 label debut, "Acid," and "Ray
Barretto: Que Viva la Musica (Long Live the Music)," a two-disc summary
statement of his Fania career.
Mr. Barretto's 1990 duet with singer Celia Cruz, "Ritmo en el Corazón,"
earned a Grammy Award for Best Tropical Latin Performance. But a decade
earlier, he had already turned his attention mostly to jazz. The new CD
turns out to be Mr. Barretto's final accomplishment and among his strongest
expressions on that front. The tunes are neatly arranged and the solos
dynamic, all of it swinging with a crisp snap, accented by Mr. Barretto's
"Ray knew just what he wanted on this project," said Zoho Music's president,
Jochen Becker. "He intended to capture the sound and spirit of his
beginnings in jazz, enriched with the benefit of all of his experience."
Mr. Barretto's band shared not just common ancestry but also similar
distinction: pianist Hilton Ruiz, saxophonist David Sanchez, trombonist Papo
Vazquez, bassist John Benitez and drummer Adam Cruz are all first-rank
players with impressive résumés. (Mr. Ruiz died on June 6, at age 54, after
a tragic accident in New Orleans.) Mr. Barretto picked his repertoire from
among his earliest favorites. For one selection, "Suddenly It's Spring," Mr.
Ruiz, who did the arrangements, worked from a rare recording of a Frank
Sinatra radio performance, drawn from Mr. Barretto's collection.
Mr. Sanchez, who is 38, and who moved to the U.S. from Puerto Rico in his
teens, recalls hearing Mr. Barretto's music on the radio as a child. "I
could hear the Afro-Caribbean roots of his music, but also what I like to
call the New York experience," he said. "He opened my eyes to the
possibilities for my music."
Throughout his career, Mr. Barretto derided the term "Latin jazz." He
demanded notice as a full-fledged jazz musician. A capstone to such
recognition came when the National Endowment for the Arts gave him its Jazz
Masters Award, just two days before the heart attack that ultimately took
"For my dad, it was a perfect, complete moment," recalls Chris Barretto. You
can see it yourself, in Ray's expression: The cover photo of "Standards
Rican-ditioned" was taken from the wings of a Hilton Hotel ballroom stage,
seconds after Mr. Barretto accepted his final honor.
Mr. Blumenfeld is a Katrina Media Fellow with the Open Society Institute,
documenting the experiences of musicians in New Orleans. He writes about
jazz for the Journal.
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