Latin Music

I have been playing what is commonly called “Latin Music” for about 20 years. My interest in it started in New York where I grew up. New York has a very large Puerto Rican and Cuban community that supported a huge music scene. Most of the music, called “Salsa”, was a blend of Afro-Cuban music and American Jazz, and the players were a mixture of Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and Americans. I heard a lot of it growing up in NY. A big influence on me was the album “Patato and Totico”. I was fascinated by the interlocking rhythmic patterns of clavés, congas, and cowbells, and used to sit up trying to follow each part through a tune. (I met Patato years later with Tito Puente in NY). After I heard Eddie Palmieri play live in 1970, I was really hooked.

I started playing the music in Chicago in 1979 with a band called Cheveré, a slang word to describe something that’s “happening”. The band, founded by Costa Rican drummer/percussionist Alejo Poveda, started as a percussion ensemble and gradually added other instruments. I joined as a sub, became a member, and started writing and arranging a lot of tunes for the band. It was an unusual group- the band (sax/flute, trumpet, guitar, electric keyboards-mostly Hammond B3, bass, drums, 2 percussionists, and me on piano, harmonica, and mandolin) played a combination of Afro-Cuban, Brasilian, and American styles. The musicians came from Costa Rica, Brasil, Cuba, and America, and that diversity was naturally reflected in the music, which also included a lot of exhuberance and humor.

The band played a lot, mostly around Chicago, and had a large following.There were a few studio recordings made, but none were ever released commercially. We couldn’t find a label that was interested (which seems absurd now) and we never put it out ourselves because we kept thinking that someone else eventually would.

Another band that I played in was Som Brasil. Led by Brasilian pianist Breno Sauer and his wife, Neusa, they performed a lot of the best Brasilian music by Jobim, Milton Nasciemento, Gilberto Gil, Joao Bosco, etc. I used to sit in with the band on harmonica, and when Breno needed a heart bypass, I became the pianist for a few months and learned a lot of great tunes. The band included Brasilians Luis Ewerling on drums and Paulinho Garcia, bass and vocals, and some fine American players- saxophonists Ron DeWar and Steve Eisen, and guitarist/composer Ernie Denov. Steve and Ernie were also members of Cheveré.

Through Geraldo DeOliveira, a percussionist in both of these bands, I got to play and record with the great Brasilian guitarist/composer Toninho Horta. We recorded 5 of his tunes, with Kelly Sill, bass, and Steve Eisen on flute. I treasure the cassette copy that I have and will always remember the session as a magical experience.

I also developed an interest in the style of Brasilian music called “Choro”, and especially in the music of mandolinist Jacob de Bandolim. I learned several of his compositions and played some of them in Cheveré on mandolin.

Around 1984 played my first “name” gig in the Latin music world. I subbed for Jorgé D’Alto on piano for 2 nights with The Tito Puente Latin-Jazz Allstars, which included Jerry Gonzalez and Paquito D’Rivera. This was an honor and a thrill. Paquito was impressed with my piano and harmonica playing, and after I sat in on his next gig in Chicago, he started to hire me to play with him when he toured the midwest. This led to more US and European tours, (including a gig with Giovanni Hidalgo and sitting in with Arturo Sandoval) and to recording with him in 1986 on the CBS album “Explosion”, on the cuts “Christmas Without You” and “The Lady and the Tramp”. Those were the first tunes to showcase my harmonica playing on a major label.

One of the best things about playing with Paquito was playing with the great Brasilian trumpeter Claudio Roditi. I played with him for several week-long engagements at Chicago’s Jazz Showcase in the 90’s.

I have continued to play Latin music, with many other collaborations along the way. Through Alejo Poveda, I met the late Manfredo Fest, with whom I composed “Seresta”, recorded by Paquito (twice) and The Flecktones (UFOTOFU). I also recorded my 11/16 Bulgarian-style arrangement of his signature tune, “Brasilian Dorian Dream” on Trio Globo.

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