“A graduate of Empire State College with a dual major in journalism and Latin American studies, Tomas Peña has spent years applying his knowledge and writing skills to the promotion of great musicians. A specialist in the crossroads between jazz and Latin music, Peña has written extensively on the subject. His writing has appeared throughout the internet while he worked as a contributing writer for All About Jazz, Jazz.com, and The Latin Jazz Network. Throughout his work, Peña has conducted over 100 interviews with artists, building connections and getting the true scoop on the music. He worked in radio as the host of Under the Radar on WFDU 89.1 FM and infused his local community with musical knowledge as a member of The New Jersey Performing Arts Center’s Advisory Board. Peña carries experience and insight into his work.” Chip Boaz – Editor, the Latin Jazz Corner
Tomas Peña is a contributing writer for Viva La Música NY Style….Y Más and has recently begun a blog, JAZZDELAPENA.COM.
Your father was an opera singer, a musician and a gambler. Is it true that he won your first set of timbales in a card game?
It’s true. He was also recruited by the Cuban government to be in charge of international flights from Havana to New York and Havana to Chicago, by Cubana de Aviacion (Cuban Airlines) and he taught me how to play the bongos. He was raised in the Cuban countryside, so he was coming from the Changüí side, a pre-son style. It was backwards compared to the way the bongos are played today. My father was my idol, even today when I have a problem I reach for the telephone to call him and realize that he is gone.
Your family moved from Camaguey, Cuba to New York when you were twelve. At first you weren’t thrilled with the idea of living in New York, then you saw Tito Puente play the timbales and it rocked your world. Where did you see Tito play?
Actually, my father introduced me to Tito. At the time Tito was interested in purchasing an airline ticket agency and my father helped him get a permit. I saw Tito at the Manhattan Center, backing up Beny More. Arsenio Rodriguez was there too.
The experience inspired you to take up the timbales.
I used to put a pair of bongos on a chair and pretend that they were timbales and play the conga drum with my left hand. I created a symbol by attaching the top of a tin cracker box to a wire hanger. Believe it or not, it made a nice crashing sound.
When are and when did you play your first gig?
My first “unofficial” gig was with Cuban Rhythm Boys. The group had two trumpets and a sax, which is the same configuration that I use today. I played my first professional gig with the Orquesta Oriental Cubana at New York’s Ateneo Cubana and Club Cubano Inter Americano del Bronx, an Afro Cuban social club where Arsenio Rodriguez and Belisario Lopez performed frequently. A lot of people don’t know that Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez was the conguero for Orquesta Oriental Cubana.
While reading your bio, I learned that Hector Zeno, an underrated and virtually unknown timbalero, had a big influence on you. Tell me about Hector.
Hector was one of the first guys to play the Charanga with the Cuban timbales, the bass drum and a little bell.
Is he still alive?
He passed away last year. Hector was also the founder of the group, Tipica Novel.
After Orquesta Oriental Cubana, you joined Belisario y su Charanga.
When Belisario came from Cuba he performed at the Ateneo. He liked the way I played and he asked me to join his band. He took me under his wing and offered to teach me a few things.
How old were you when you joined Belisario’s band?
I was sixteen.
What came next?
I joined flutist, José Fajardo’s band, which is how I met Israel López Cachao. My father used to pick him up at the airport and bring him to Fajardo’s rehearsals at a club called La Barranca. Playing with Fajardo and Cachao was a dream-come-true. Cachao stayed with Fajardo’s band for a while. Then he joined Tito Rodriguez’s band.
Another percussionist that had a big influence on you was Ray Barretto.
That was a really interesting time for me because Ray gave me the green light to do a lot of interesting things. When I joined Ray’s band the Charanga craze was on the way out. There was a significant amount of development when Ray switched from a Charanga to a Conjunto format. That was around the time that the tunes, Acid, Mirame de Frente and Arrepientete came out. I have said this before and I will say it again, Ray’s salsa band has yet to receive the credit it deserves.
Ray was always ahead of the curve.
He was a jazz guy and a studio musician. I used to sub [substitute] for him when he couldn’t make it to a session.
Through Ray, you performed with Lionel Hampton, Thad Jones and Mel Lewis among others. Did you record with them?
I made a video with Lionel Hampton but I’ve never seen it. The video was released on VHS or BETA.
If anyone reading this has information about the video, please come forward!
While we are on the subject of rare items, I have a friend who is an avid collector of Latin music. When I mentioned the fact that I was going to speak with you he asked me to mention a rare recording called, Raw.
I made that recording when I was with Santana’s band. At the time Santana was going on vacation and he said something like, “While I am away you guys can do whatever you want.” So the band got together and made a recording and a video. Sony records picked up the recording, however for reasons I would rather not discuss, the recording was taken off the market.
After eight-and-a-half years with Ray Barretto you joined Tipica ’73. To what do you attribute Tipica 73’s popularity?
Tipica ’73 was a very simple, organic group. We played sones and other Cuban tunes, but at the same time singer/trumpeter, Rene López was doing English language ballads. In addition to such an unusual level of versatility, we were very well connected throughout the Latin music scene and Johnny Rodriguez was very good at getting work. Not only did we work at nightclubs, but also we were booked by all kinds of people.
After a good run with Tipica ’73, you formed Los Kimbos with singer Adalberto Santiago. The group recorded four albums prior to disbanding in the late 70s. Then you packed your bags and relocated to the West Coast.
In 1975, Santana called me and offered me a gig. His band had changed managers and things were a bit shaky. At the time I was under contract with Fania to record three more albums with Los Kimbos. I told Carlos that I was under contract and that I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go into Latin Rock. To be honest, I didn’t think he was ever going to call me again, but in 1980 he called and invited me to participate in the making of the album, Zebop! And invited me to tour with his band. At the end of the tour he invited me to become a permanent member of his band and I expressed some concerns about the fact that my family lived on the East Coast and I would not be able to see them. To make a long story short, he moved my cars and my family to California, all expenses paid.
Was making the transition from Salsa to Latin Rock difficult?
It wasn’t easy. It was like going from Spanish to Japanese. I had to find a way to fit in with the band without disturbing my concept (style). As a matter of fact, and I have never told this to anyone, after a few years I was actually thinking of leaving the band, then a strange thing happened. I received a cassette tape from Luis Quintana AKA Changuito, who must have some kind of spiritual powers, he told me that this was not a good time to leave the band and that I shouldn’t worry about compromising my sound and that it would always come through. I stayed with Santana’s band for another four years. Around the same time I received a letter from Marty Cohen, the founder of Latin Percussion. He saw the band perform in New York and he congratulated me on my ability to approach Santana’s music without compromising my style. That meant a lot to me.
In the end you succeeded on two fronts: You conquered the world of Latin Rock without compromising your sound and you demonstrated that there is life after Santana.
I heard a lot of people say that when I was with Santana and it stayed with me. Actually, there was life after Santana! I recorded with Linda Ronstadt and Cachao. Also, I participated in a lot of recordings that received Grammy nominations: Ritmo y Candela – Rhythm at the Crossroads (Volumes 1 and 2) with Carlos Patato Valdes and Changuito, which won a Grammy Award.
Rhythm at the Crossroads is a personal favorite of mine.
Do you know how that recording was made? We went into the studio with no preconceived ideas of what we were going to do. We laid down the percussion tracks and later, flutist John Calloway added the arrangements.
Congratulations to John on a job well done. You also have a long-standing relationship with John Santos and the Machete Ensemble.
I call the new group “Machetico” because it’s a small version of the Machete Ensemble. John is a great guy. He’s like family. I started recording with the Machete Ensemble when I was with Santana’s band. Over the years John and I have made quite a few recordings and we have done a considerable amount of touring. When John scaled down the Machete Ensemble we started performing at colleges, doing clinics and recorded the album, Papa Mambo.
In my opinion, Papa Mambo is one of John’s best recordings.
I agree. I enjoyed working with John and I am sure that we will work together again in the future.
Before we talk about your new recording, what have you been doing since you left John’s group?
I am writing an autobiography with the help of pianist, educator Rebeca Mauleon.
It’s important for artists to document their lives, in their own words.
It’s going to take some time, but we are doing it. I don’t know if you know who Miguel Anga Diaz was, but he was a genius who died too young and never got a chance to tell his story.
My point exactly, it’s unfortunate that Ray Barretto did not live to tell his story. He was in the process of telling his story to Professor and author Juan Flores just prior to his death.
If a book is ever written about Ray, I would like to be a part of it. He was like my uncle and big brother. In fact, his wife Annette once told me that he and I were like Batman and Robin. When I was a teenager he took me to see Thad Jones and Mel Lewis among others. Ray was the person who told me that I should listen to all kinds of music. That always stayed with me.
Tell me about the recording, It’s About Time.
The concept is very simple. It is all of those things we just spoke about, things that stayed in my mind, pieces of melodies, remembering all the bands I played with and some of the tunes I heard when I was a kid. I think it sounds very fresh. The roots are there but the material does not sound dated.
The tune, Remembering Ray, does an uncanny job of capturing his sound.
I had Joey de Leon on congas. He happens to be the son of the conga player for Bobby Rodriguez y La Compañia, and he heard Ray as a kid. He even tuned his congas like Ray.
The tune Las Boinas de Cachao (for Israel “Cachao” López) is an obscure tune that was not even registered. Carlito de Puerto transcribed Cachao’s solo (on the bass) and added his own arrangement. Bringing the tune back to life was like receiving Cachao’s blessing.
Do you have plans to tour with the band?
Everyone in the band is a star in his own right so it’s going to be difficult, however if there is a possibility, of course.
You are a strong believer in the premise that less is more, which reminds me of a story that percussionist Steven Kroon shared with me. According to Steven, percussionist Tommy López Sr. told him that (some) extended conga solos remind him of a garbage can rolling down a flight of stairs!
Johnny Rodriguez used to say that (some) extended conga solo’s sound like a popcorn machine, and they do! When I started out there were a lot of great players: Orlando Marin, Kako, Willie Rosario and many others. At the time the competition was very intense and I was young and into being flashy, but now it has just become too much. The timbales don’t even sound like timbales anymore.
You have a name for flashy players and technical wizards: “Billy the Kids.”
[Laughs] Billy the Kid was the fastest gun in the West and he was killed, so he didn’t get anywhere!
Good point! Your influence extends far and wide. I understand that Changuito pointed out the fact that Isaac Delgado’s band, NG La Banda and many of today’s Timba bands, are playing your licks.
It has been well documented that I did it before.
In your view, where is the Latin music scene headed?
When I was five years old I listened to more advanced music that I hear today. When people don’t understand what they are listening to the music has a tendency to go backwards. Also, there are a lot of people who have never received the credit they deserve, like Mario Bauzá, who was an absolute genius.
Your music continues to swing and inspire. Thank you for speaking with me, Maestro.
Thank you, Tomas.
John Santos Quintet – Papa Mambo (Machete, 2007)
Ritmo y Candela: Rhythm at the Crossroads (1994)
Changuito y Orestes (Redwood, 1995 – Grammy Award Nominee) Carlos Santana
Grandes Exitos de Orestes Vilató (Titan Music, Inc.)
From the Archives of JAZZDELAPENA.COM
Interview with Pianist, Composer, Arranger,
Gilberto Colon Jr. AKA Pulpo
Originally Published by Latin Jazz Network In June of 2008
By Tomas Peña
Tomas Peña: Congratulations on the release of HOT BREAD. The recording strikes a nice balance between Salsa and Latin Jazz.
Gilberto Colon Jr.: Thank you, I appreciate that!
Also, compliments to producer, Chris Soto.How did you come to be known as Pulpo?
In 1976 I was playing at The Corso with Hector Lavoe’s band and I took an extended piano solo. When I finished Hector announced, “On the piano, Gilberto Colon Jr. Pulpo!” Initially, I took offense to it, I thought he was disrespecting me. Later, percussionist, Eddie Montalvo latched on to the name however, he explained that it was a compliment, that it meant that I was “all over the piano” like an octopus. Eddie took the name to another level and it stuck.
You took up the piano at the age of fourteen.
I understand that you studied under the late, great Charlie Palmieri, among others.
My first music teacher was Mr. Luigi Letizia, an Italian professor who studied at the Julliard School of Music. He was a multi-talented musician and his main instruments were the piano and the organ. I studied with him for about a year and a half.
One evening in 1971 I went to The Corso with my sister and Charlie Palmieri was there. I introduced myself to him and he gave me his business card and informed me that he gave private lessons. Mr. Letizia taught me classical music and technique. Charlie opened up my ears to other aspects of the music and taught me the art of playing with finesse.
After Charlie, I studied with George Gould. He was a great pianist who studied under Larry Harlow but he had some bad habits so I left him for Nicolas Rodriguez, who was a graduate of Julliard and performed with Louis Armstrong in the 1940s. Some of the students who studied under Nicolas were: Oscar Hernandez, Dr. William Rodriguez, Nelson Sanchez, the great Alfredo Rodriguez, may he rest in peace, Lino Frias, Joe Mannozzi and Elvis Cabrera among others.
You were in your early twenties when you replaced pianist, Professor Joe Torres as the Musical Director for Hector Lavoe’s band. As the Director of his band you worked closely with him, traveled with him and shared many personal moments. There is such a mystique around Hector, what was he like?
I was very close to Hector. Even before I became his musical director and pianist I idolized him and worshipped the ground he walked on. There were two sides to Hector’s personality. I am not trying to denigrate him, what I mean is, Hector reinvented himself as this hardcore, mischievous, dark street character for the benefit of the public, but he was none of that. He was a very humble person with principals and morals. Hector only had a seventh grade education but he was intelligent and he dominated the Spanish language. When he was in the public eye he was “El Malo” (the Bad Boy), but in private he was another person. It took me a long time to penetrate his inner circle and learn that about him.
What’s your take on the film, El Cantante?
The film wasn’t bad but they could have concentrated more on other areas of Hector’s life. If they had done their homework and done the right thing they could have balanced out the negativity.
I couldn’t agree more. You hold the distinction of performing with three of the most renowned bands in the history of Latin music: Machito and his Afro Cubans and the orchestras of Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez.
I also played with Tito Rodriguez Jr.!
And, I might add, the legendary Carlos “Patato” Valdes and trumpeter, Alfredo “Chocolate” Armenteros.
That was before I played with Hector. I played with Patato’s quintet throughout my career. Bass player Joe Santiago was the musical director for Patato’s group. He loved me on the piano and took me everywhere with the band. At the time Patato’s quartet consisted of, a percussionist, Patato, me, Nicky Marrero, Joe Santiago and flutist Dave Valentin. That was before anybody even knew who Dave was. Few people know that Dave came into prominence with Richie Marrero’s group and vocalist, Angie Bofill.
Before we talk about Hot Bread, I am curious to know why it has taken you this long to record an album as a leader.
Some years ago there was a person who was interested in financing my career. Unfortunately he passed away. Suffice it say I wasn’t living right and I wasn’t motivated. About ten years ago I got sober and put a group together, which became the house band for Tito Puente’s restaurant in City Island. The rest is history.
What prompted you to make the leap?
I first met producer, Chris Soto when he interviewed me for his magazine, La Voz. Later, he approached me about participating in a tribute to Tommy Olivencia but it didn’t pan out. Then he approached me about making a recording. Initially, I wasn’t interested but he was so persistent that I finally agreed. We started making the preparations in 2007 and on January 9th, 2008 we did it!
Tell me about the repertoire. Let’s begin with the title track, Hot Bread.
Twenty years ago I asked Jose Feebles to compose a Latin jazz tune for a small group with two trombones. At first he was a bit reluctant because he usually works with big bands and big instrumentation but with some coaxing he finally agreed to do it. The next day he called me and played the tune over the telephone and I went crazy. I paid him for the score and forgot about, until know.
How about Cross Body Groove?
Composed by Oscar Hernandez. By the way, Oscar is the reason I am playing the piano today. We started out playing the trumpet in high school. Oscar also played the piano by ear. At some point I switched to the piano, figuring it would be easier than the trumpet.
Was your theory correct?
Not true! The piano is less physical but there is more to learn. Anyway, one day Oscar called to invite me to dinner and I heard his music in the background. I asked him what it was and he told me that it was a Latin jazz tune called “Mambo Rhapsody,” that he was thinking about using for a new recording. I asked him to give me the tune as a gift and he did. That was twenty years ago. I put the tune away and didn’t see it until we recorded Hot Bread. Chris came up with the idea of changing the title and dedicating it to the dancers. By the way, Oscar has no recollection of composing the tune or giving it to me as a gift!
Did he approve of your version?
He loved it!
You also tip your hat to Willie Colon and Hector Lavoe (La Murga), Eddie Palmieri (Tirandote Flores) and your Puerto Rican roots (Soñando con Puerto Rico, Dreaming of Puerto Rico).
I love that tune. Chris did not want to include it in the repertoire; he felt that it wouldn’t fit in with the style of the recording. I thought the album needed a ballad and I insisted on including it. To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever recorded Soñando con Puerto Rico as a duet with a piano and trombone. Everyone who has heard my version loves it!
You and I grew up listening to our parents play boleros and ballads on the radio. Chris’s experience was different.
I had to remind Chris that there is a big difference between listeners and dancers. Dancers do just that, dance!
Speaking of the younger generation, my compliments to vocalist, Hector “Papote” Jimenez on a job well done.
Papo is an extra-added attraction. The original concept was to record ten instrumentals. Again, Chris came up with the idea of adding a vocalist on two tracks and I agreed. Why? Invariably you wind up paying for suggestions that you don’t take. So we did Sonero Mayor and I had this tune, Aparencia, that Jose Feebles gave me as a gift many years ago.
I predict that Hot Bread is going to appear on a lot of Top Ten lists.
Many of the “greats” have passed away and the Latin music scene is undergoing radical changes. In your opinion, where is Latin music headed?
If we didn’t have Oscar Hernandez and the Spanish Harlem Orchestra I don’t think the music would be headed in the direction it is going in now. There are some important players who are trying to keep the “old-school” mentality going: Bobby Allende y Ocho y Mas, Jimmy Bosch and Chino Nuñez, all of who came up through the la escuela (School) of Oscar Hernandez. They are musicians who respect the tradition of Salsa “dura” (Hard, authentic Salsa).
You just returned from Puerto Rico. What’s your take on the music scene there?
GC: The tide is turning and the public is starting to embrace Salsa again. The pendulum is swinging in our direction.
I too just returned from Puerto Rico, where I covered the Puerto Rico Heineken Jazz Festival. Puerto Rico’s music scene is buzzing and yes, the flow seems to be leaning more towards salsa and less towards “the other.”
Please introduce the members of your working band.
Bassist, Ray Martinez, percussionists Wilson “Chembo” Corniel and Little Johnny Rivero, Ralphie Lopez Jr. on the timbales, Marco “Ito” Arguinzoni and Danny Mendez on the bongos, trombonists, Jose Davila and Joe De Jesus, and vocalists Eddie Rosado, Alex Rodriguez, Johnny Ortiz and Hector “Papote” Jimenez.
Before we wrap up our conversation, is there anything more you would like to add?
Thank you for taking the time to introduce me to your readers. Also, thank you to producer and radio show host, Vicki Sola for perpetuating the music and allowing me to grow on her show. I am very grateful to her for everything she has done for me and I want her to know that. Also, I want to thank her for introducing me to you, a very knowledgeable and conscientious jazz aficionado.
We both owe a debt of gratitude to Vicki. Vicki, if you are reading this, Thank you! And thanks Gilberto, for speaking with me. It was a history lesson and a pleasure.
In addition to his own band, Pulpo continues to play and tour with the Big 3 Palladium Orchestra. Most recently, Pulpo has become the musical director of Orquesta De La Gente (ODLG), a group dedicated to the memory of Héctor Lavoe in which they perform original tunes from the vocalist's repertoire. As musical director for ODLG and various other projects, Pulpo is widely considered one of the Latin industry's most accomplished pianists.
Tomas Peña’s January 2014 interview, “In Conversation with Radio Host, Journalist And Author Vicki Solá” as it appears in JazzDeLaPena – The Blog of Tomas Peña: http://jazzdelapena.com/interviews/in-conversation-with-radio-host-journalist-and-author-vicki-sola/
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