A Conversation with the inventive bassist Rubén Rodríguez.
I just plug in and play...
a conversation with bassist Rubén Rodríguez
by David Barton and John Child
photos by Bruce Polin
Descarga.com's transatlantic twosome speak with the innovative bass player Rubén Rodríguez,
the heartbeat of many recent hit recordings by the likes of Marc Anthony, Tito Puente,
Victor Manuelle, DLG, Tito Nieves, India and Africando. Along with his producer/friend, Sergio George, he has revolutionised the sound of contemporary popular
salsa. The conversation begins with Rubén talking about his musical evolution and
his influences, which include Tito Puente's long-standing bassist, Bobby Rodríguez,
Sal Cuevas, the bassist of choice on many Fania sessions, and his teacher Victor Venegas.
A more detailed, though not exhaustive, discography of Rubén's Latin work is provided
at the end of the piece.
When you were born and where did you grow up?
Born in El Barrio, New York City, Metropolitan Hospital 97th and First Avenue, March
6th 1964, and where I live to this day just up the street. I'm two minutes older
than my twin sister, who's a great dancer, which is something that I didn't inherit.
Shit, I got two left feet, spinning around in circles! I can move to the groove; but dancing,
the way that NewYoricans and Puerto Ricans dance, is totally different to how they
dance in Cuba. In Cuba, I can dance 'cause you don't have to follow a pattern, anybody can do that. Here it's steps, mambo dancing, which my wife can do because she's
also a great dancer who knows the steps and the routines. Me? Sorry, I need to go
to Eddie Torres!
Have you ever been a permanent member with any band?
No. I played steady for a couple of months with people here and there, but never steady
in a band, no. I played with Mongo for about a year; Machito maybe a year; with Tito,
on and off for 18 years. I played my first gig with him in 1982. Then I was with
Roberta Flack for about two and a half years. That was probably the steadiest I've
been with anybody, you know, with any band!
Was Roberta a definite move away from Afro-Cuban music?
No. It was just a work opportunity. Growing up here in East Harlem, I listened to
a lot of different musics. At my grandma's house they would play TP records, La Lupe,
Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz, that boogaloo stuff, Joe Cuba. But they would also play
Motown and Roberta's stuff like "Killing Me Softly". So I grew up hearing all those different
sounds. So I guess that has influenced the way I approached music, or the way I approach
my instrument within the Latin Afro-Cuban vibe anyway. But you know, to live in New York and work as a musician, you've got to be versatile. But for me, it's deeper
than that, because I just like good music.
It's apparent from your playing style that swing is very important to inspire dancing.
I get off on watching the people dance. For me, it makes it worth doing. To play the
bass and be the heartbeat of the band, and there ain't nobody dancing, you're like:
"Oh, what's goin' on here?" Now I know better.
Is that something you got from your early teacher Victor Venegas, that you've got
to respond to the people around you?
Well, yeah. To play mainly within a rhythm section and your relationship with the
percussion. Essentially the bass is a melodic conga, and you've gotta work together
to try to establish a groove, not fight each other. Although sometimes there's an
occasion where nothing's happening, so you gotta hold it down on your own!
Did you ever learn about percussion to help merge with their sounds?
Yes. I learned the patterns, the conga patterns, and how they relate with the clave,
and their relation to the bass, and all that stuff. But I also asked questions. I
was like: "Oh, what is this and why is it this way, and why does it work?" I talked
to percussionists in my development years. Guys like Nicky Marrero and Bobby Sanabria (I
met him in 1979 at the Johnny Colón school). Then they were teaching there, and they're
knowledgeable cats, good musicians. Bobby is the "Eloquent Verbalist" who'll sit
you down and tell you about the whole history, and he can talk street or he can put it
more eloquently. Basically, that's the way I learned. I didn't go to college or a
specialised music school. I had high school and then did gigs. That's how I learned,
in the streets, not being over-taught. But there are some things which I wish I knew. There
are guys now learning in four years what it took me 20 to figure out. Basically I
do my job, and I love the music, and I try to "represent". But oftentimes when you
fall into a clique with a couple of guys who work a lot, you're gonna stay working. And
if you work on a hit record here and there, then other guys will call you. They'll
hear you and say: "Oh, we gotta get him." So that's how things evolve in the scene.
You've said that a couple of your key influences were Bobby Rodríguez and Sal Cuevas.
Actually, the first one was Sal Cuevas, because I played electric bass, which is what
I was into at the time. Then there was another Puerto Rican guy, Francisco Centeno,
who played mainly R&B. There are a lot of records he's on. Incredible bass player.
He went to school together with Sal: High School of Music and Art, when it was in upper
Manhattan, with guys like Dave Valentín, the González brothers, Jerry and Andy.
So was it common knowledge that these guys were the greatest?
Basically, you know what happened? Back in the days when they used to list the credits
on the back of the album covers, you'd say: "OK, this guy's there, so I'll buy this
record." It was like that. And back then, I was still studying with Victor Venegas,
a great teacher and great friend of mine. We used to study at the Johnny Colón music
school. Actually he's responsible for me playing the bass. By the way, he is also
on some great records: Celia & Johnny
(1974 on Fania), Eddie Palmieri's Vamonos Pa'l Monte
with Charlie Palmieri (1971 on Tico), and stacks of Mongo Santamaría albums. Then
later on, I started getting heavily into the acoustic bass, the upright. That's when
I really started analysing Bobby's work, and everything else took a back seat while
I listened to everything he did. I was also listening to what guys like Sal and Eddie
"Gua Gua" Rivera, who was also a big influence, and Bobby Valentín were doing. Those
guys all came from the Bobby Rodríguez school of playing. Andy González, for example,
is from the more rhythmic Cachao school.
Was it a big jump from electric to acoustic bass?
No. I was doing them both simultaneously because Victor played both. But he is predominantly
an upright player because, when he was coming up, maybe there was no electric bass,
only upright acoustic. It used to make my fingers bleed. When you started out learning, you'd start on acoustic. You had to learn to get a sound from the instrument
and learn the bowing to help you with the intonation. Intonation is the tuning so
you can hear the pitch, and there's a truer way to maintain an in-tuneness while
playing the acoustic. The bow helps you with that. You see, you can get away with pizzicato
but the bow is dead on. So I did a lot of that, maybe two to three hours a week when
I was with him. The rest of the time, I was playing electric bass in the junior high
school band, high school band and little local Barrio bands, playing block parties
or whatever in summertime, and clubs at other times. That was a good time to come
up, there was a lot of music. Back then was a different era. There were a lot of
more self-contained groups or bands. A guy like Ray Barretto had his band. Tito Puente always
had his band. Típica 73, Bobby Valentín, Roberto Roena, all these guys. They were
all on the same label, Fania, but they would get together to do these concerts and
everybody's name would be on the posters and on the records. So those guys became household
names with us musicians. Each band would have great players staying with them for
a long time, doing many albums. Now it's a whole different scene, it's about singers
and pickup bands for recordings. Although it's changed, at least it's still keeping the
music alive. It's gotta change, everything progresses, it goes with the times. A
lot of the guys from my era and before, don't like what's happening on the scene.
But the records are getting sold, because they wouldn't be putting them out if they weren't
Who do you remember seeing in the '70s?
Well, playing the other night along with Chino Nuñez reminded me we're from the same
crowd, the old school. We used to do gigs together at like the Corso, we were the
up-and-coming young and hungry guys. We used to go see all the heavy cats, Perico,
Pacheco. We used to see Héctor Lavoe all the time, and Angel Canales at the end of his New
York days, because he moved to Miami. His bassist, John Henry Robinson III, used
to play in El Barrio all the time, my neighbourhood. He was crazy. "Wow, what is
this guy doing?!" Then I got to meet him. I started hanging out with him a lot when he was
doing Héctor Lavoe. I got to know him really well and found out his main instrument
was the cello which is why he played the electric bass like that; on the floor between
his legs, sitting down like a cello player. Super musician, beautiful person.
How did you fall in with Machito and Puente?
Guys recommended me, they thought I could do the job. I was 17 at the time, at least
ten years younger than the other band members.
That was quite an honour to be there, besides a compliment.
Oh yeah, but a learning experience too. I don't remember much complimenting! I do
remember learning and being scared as hell. It was very intimidating, especially
with Machito or Puente. Not just because of what they represented, but their personalities
too! Let me tell you, sometimes those guys were hard-core. Machito was beautiful, but
when you messed around with his music, boy, he'd let you have it. And he let me have
it a couple of times, oh yeah. Tito too. You don't deviate from the charts with those
guys, and I learned that the hard way!
In Tito's case, I was playing what was there. But the thing is, Bobby Rodríguez didn't
record what was there in the charts, he played his own shit. And unfortunately, I
didn't know some of those songs. I knew a lot of Puente songs, but not like the B-side
tunes, the fillers on the LPs. To me, all the tunes really kick ass. There's something
to be said about every song, you know. They don't have to be great songs, but maybe
the band's performance or a particular performance captured my ear, and I said: "Yeah, yeah. I like this." So there were a couple of tunes like that, where I didn't know
the appropriate tumbaos on the record. I just saw the music and I got screamed at!
I could have avoided that by listening carefully to all the records and memorising
everything that Bobby actually played. I'm talking about the mambo or montuno sections
here. Bobby is the creative soul and he'd come up with all that on the spot, live
in the studio as they're recording. For example, on "3D Mambo" from Dance Mania
(1958 on RCA), there is a four bar montuno. Bobby plays a pattern and the chart is
just chord symbols. So I just played a tumbao. Boy! Down came the timbal sticks,
"No, motherfucker. Play this!!" He whipped my ass that night... But those are the
best lessons I ever had. Puente did that about two or three other times after that. Then I
did my homework, listening to the records and memorising them. Finally he loved me.
Once you got to know him, he was a gem, just like Macho. I don't sit down and transcribe
what's on the records because I'm lazy that way. Although I read music perfectly well.
I'll just listen and take the parts I like and use them. I'll always prefer to just
play it rather than write it out. I do have a good memory for this sort of thing.
Sometimes you'll be in a situation where you gotta learn a song on the spot. Often there's
no charts nowadays.
How come there's no charts if there's arranger credits on modern recordings?
Well, the arranger is the one who puts everything together, but doesn't write it down.
"This is how it's gonna go, this and that," and actually arranges the song in his
mind and tells everybody what to do. So now everybody can be an arranger! This method
is more hit than miss with certain people. So although it's not a traditional way,
can you argue with the success? A lot of the hit records on the radio that I've participated
on have been done that way. Some of the stuff on Marc Anthony's first record (Otra Nota
'93 on RMM's Soho Latino label, produced by Sergio George) was like that. Sometimes
only when it got complicated with a lot of chords, did we write it down on a piece
of paper; but no charts. In a way, that's what freed me up from playing the same
tumbao all the time, the repetitive tumbao, so I can be free to create.
That makes sense because an arranger is not necessarily an expert with all the instrumentations.
I always got bored with playing the same stuff and I'll try to figure roundabout ways
to get from point A to point B, going through point Z. Sometimes you gotta do that
to get to the fork, and like Yogi Berra said: "When you get to the fork in the road,
take it!" That's freed me up a lot, although there's still sessions I go to, jingles
or movie soundtracks or whatever, and the chart is there on the stand all laid out
note-for-note and you gotta play just that. I can do that too, a million times. But
I like the ones where you're free to play, to try to be creative.
Was your role clearly defined in the studio after Puente and Machito, yet before the
new sound became popular?
Up until about 10 years ago, a little before Marc Anthony, about '90 or '91, everything
was more or less the way that people wanted it, traditional. You could add your own
little thing, like Bobby did forever, and Sal or whoever added their own personality to the thing. But they had their chart, everything was arranged, mambo this way,
montunos that way; a lot of unison in the big bands with the baritone sax. Working
with Sergio George - who, like me, was raised in the Barrio with the same sounds
-, he wouldn't do the horn arrangement until the rhythm track was done. So the arrangement came
out naturally, and as a progression as opposed to somebody 1500 miles away getting
a cassette saying this is how I heard it this moment when I wrote it. 'Cause that's
a snapshot only of that moment like a live performance. An hour later you could do it
completely different, but you can't change it. It's there to stay on the recording.
So do you think there was anything new before the modern sound besides individual
Hell yeah, Ray Barretto's Rican/Struction
(1979 on Fania). The first time I heard that record my jaw dropped. I couldn't believe
it was a Latin band playing that music. I knew exactly where it came from because
I had the same influences as Ray growing up here, even though they were a different
generation. He was born in El Barrio too, and grew up on the streets and was another
guy influenced by the pop and Latin sounds of his era. And likewise for a lot of
the players he had on that record. And the writers and arrangers, Oscar Hernández,
Eddie Martínez, Dick Mesa, who's an incredible musician and nice human being who's not on the
scene any more, but contributed a major part on that record. By the way, his brother
Oscar Mesa used to be bass with the L.A. Philharmonic, now taken over by his son,
Oscar Jr.. But anyway, I remember hearing Roger Dawson's Sunday show on WRVR out of Riverside
Cathedral. Man, I was in my messy room cleaning up or something, and I think I first
heard the song "Tumbao Africano" and my jaw dropped. I had to go out straightaway and get the record. I went to Vicente at Casa Latina on 116th, just where it is now.
I used to get all my records there. When I heard that whole record, damn! To me that
record is hipper than Damn, I'm not even gonna say, I'm gonna keep quiet! But that
record inspired me and made me want to get deeper into it, which I'm sure was what
they intended. I listen to that record today, and it's still a killer, and stands
alongside anything coming out today for hip
There's also Siembra
(1978 on Fania) from Willie Colón and Rubén Blades from about the same time, with
a lot of the same players including Sal Cuevas. There were no Walkmans then, and
I didn't own any headphones, so I just listened to the radio and my speakers, and
tried to play along on a little amp I had at the time. But a lot of that shit was just way too
hard! No seriously, I did a good job, listening and learning. What's also great about
those records was the social message in the lyrics as well as the great music. It
made me a little conscious of the social thing, even though generally we had other things
on our minds as 17 year olds! I really didn't get fully into the lyrics until later
when I could see for myself what he was talking about, on tour. I remember locking
myself in my room with Jaco Pastorius records or Chick Corea's Return To Forever records,
trying to figure out the music; not leaving 'til I got it. Now I don't even have
time to listen; mainly baby-sitting my kids in the day when I'm not out working gigs
Tell us about crucial albums in your career, particularly the first Marc Anthony record.
I remember it like yesterday. I was on tour in Europe with Roberta Flack doing the
festival circuit. We went straight to Chicago, and as soon as I came home, I had
to run down to 17th Street to the recording studios. Later on, Sergio took over that
place for his office as Sir Sound in Chelsea. The first song was the first out on the record,
"Palabras del Alma", and then the third cut we did that day too. I felt great coming
off the tour with great musicians and the tracks felt good, really slick with a good vibe. Sergio waited for me to return from Europe to put the bass part down because
everything was already done, except the vocals and bass, which was only his guide
programmed keyboard bass. And listening back at the time, I thought I could go back
and fix a few small things. But he said: "No, that sounds fine." I said: "Let me do..."
On a record you've gotta remember who the session is for. Sometimes I get a little
carried away in the studio and they say: "That's fine, for your OWN record, not for
this one! Do it over!!"
As it turned out, that record kind of revolutionised the whole salsa scene. I probably
played better on other records, I don't really go back and listen. Man, you hear
that shit on the street, you get sick and tired of listening to it on everyone's
radio. But then, the whole package was some totally different shit. Incredible. It was very
important in my career, and brought me in a lot of work. Because you know how people
are, they see your name on a hit record, and they try to get that sound too, for
themselves. I don't blame producers for trying to imitate, because it's been like that
for years. Motown was copied, all the great big bands too, and musicians are out
there looking for work. So the record label says: "Yo, you gotta do this." So you
either gonna turn down the gig, or do it.
Was Sergio building up to that style?
Yes, it started really coming together with the Tito Nieves records he was on and
like me he was raised in the Barrio with the same sounds. He and I had been doing
all kinds of music together on and off since the early '80s, but mainly in a live
situation. The thing about the Marc Anthony record is that it's not a bass performance per se,
it's just the whole was greater than its parts; the whole idea and style. It was
criticised as occasionally going against the clave by the clave police. But rules
are sometimes there to be broken. Sergio did his homework, and everything was intentional.
Those are not mistakes. From then on, the music scene changed.
The third and fourth Victor Manuelle CDs (Victor Manuelle
'96 and A Pesar De Todo
'97 on Sony Tropical)
were where that sound was established and were the ones that Sergio did. The thing
about the Victor Manuelle thing, his first two records (Justo A Tiempo
'93 and Solo Contigo
'94 on Sony Tropical) were done like whatever the thing at the moment was, which
was like love songs, ballads in salsa. You do the intro, four coros, four soneos,
mambo and then two or three soneos, and go out to the coda. What I think the Sergio
thing was, they picked good songs, but the main thing is that he took advantage of Victor's
true calling, which is sonear. That's why on a couple of things, Sergio opened up
a little spot where Victor can just improvise, and that he did, and it sounded really
good. What a good producer does is take the artist and does a record for that particular
artist. Not the formula: "OK let's do this, which seems to work for everybody else,"
you know. That's what makes a good producer. So even though this has been done long
before those records, he brought it back, like a cycle.
Was Sergio always in the studio while you were recording?
When he's doing the record he's always there, and that's how that sound evolved. His
ideas and everybody else putting in their two cents worth. As far as the engineers
at Latin sessions, theirs is a technical job where it's important to get a decent
sound, especially with Latin percussion. It is very important to have the right guy at the
board to get a good balance when you're recording, while there are five or six guys
in a room together to do a rhythm track. But the producer is a creative issue. When
you can hear what everyone else is doing, then you can feed off each other. Sergio keeps
everything from veering off line. Nowadays, especially when working with Sergio,
his job is to do the record, not to get the band charts or to give the singer the
score or whatever. He's probably the only one I worked with who works that way. Everybody
else usually has the charts already done and you can add a little personality, but
most times it's read it and make it swing.
You tend to somewhat play down your input to the hip and commercially successful "Sergio
sound". Please put modesty aside for a moment, and tell us how your bass playing
makes such an important contribution to this sound, and how your melodic style is
so effective on a rhythm instrument?
You know how I can best answer that? You hadda be there! For me this is the sort of
thing I have difficulty talking about, being that I'm not a "schooled" musician,
so I don't have the "language". What I like to pick up on is little things on the
melody here and there, the phrases, and if a certain phrase reminds me of a certain song that
maybe I've heard throughout my evolution as a bass player, then it'll make me do
certain things. For example, if there's a line that reminds me of a Stevie Wonder
song, or anything. I'll just try to go back and remember what it was that I heard in that
song or in the rhythm. Really though, I just play by feel and by instinct. I don't
have a set formula, you gotta treat every song a little different. Hopefully you
can give it a little personality.
It's not uncommon to hear soloists quoting from famous melodies such as "Stormy Weather"
Well yeah in a solo you'd do that a lot, but on my instrument, remember, you've gotta
accompany. I guess I can thank James Jamerson, Chuck Rainey, and Bobby Rodríguez
for that kinda stuff. It's a feel thing, it's really hard to explain. But it's usually
on the gigs when you've been doing the material awhile, that you can really open it
When people ask you about Bobby Rodríguez' playing, what CDs to you send them to buy?
Get Dance Mania
, Alegre All-Stars, any Puente on RCA, early Machito too, but Dance Mania
is incredible. He had a sound that without a doubt ... his playing was powerful,
that's a given, but his touch wasn't. He had the lightest touch I've seen any upright
player with. I have his acoustic bass and I've fixed it up. And the first time I
took it back to him was at the Puerto Rican Day parade at the 68th Street stage in '93. That
thing was in his basement for years, and when I took it out of the bag, his eyes
lit up. He grabbed it like an old friend and just started playing. Giovanni Hidalgo
was there, and Bobby started playing the tumbao from "Son Montuno" from TP's record Tambó
(1960 on RCA), where he hits his fingers percussively on the side of the bass or
the body. Giovanni flipped out: "What did you do?!" Giovanni thought that was a conga
doing that. Myself too. And when we saw Bobby do it in front of us, we just cracked
up. To see Bobby smiling, and playing that bass again, that was great. Because the first
one to play it again after I had it fixed, after myself of course, was Cachao at
a rehearsal at Boys Harbor school. Cachao couldn't believe Bobby wasn't playing that
instrument. Why? Well, all the Concord recordings were with an electric bass; easier to
carry, less valuable. But the original was in the basement all messed up, and he
never got around to fixing it. Strings were broken off, everything was just laying
around all over the place. But when it was all fixed up and I took it to him it was like he
was reunited with an old friend. That was incredible, I'll never forget that. I had
a lot of good times with Bobby, all over the world. When I was with Mongo, we used
to travel a lot, do a lot of festivals, the same gigs and hang out together on double bills
with Tito. When he would be working here in New York, I'd show up and hang out with
him at the gigs, and I learned a lot from him.
How do you get a solid sound with a light touch, which sounds like a contradiction?
I don't know how to describe it. When I saw Bobby play the acoustic bass, I was with
him at one of those Puente recordings, and I took the acoustic bass to him. He played
it and he had to raise the action just high enough so he could slip his finger underneath between the fingerboard and the string, maybe just higher than a quarter of an
inch on the G string. That's unusual and that's high. But he had gut strings, so
they weren't all that tense. Even still, he pulled lightly. I didn't even see his
wrist move, really really light. There are some videos of him playing and he's just caressing.
Still, he pulls, so you get a punch for Latin music. He did work harder after I fixed
up the instrument, because of the new type strings, but I still just can't do what
he did. I kill myself trying! Even with the Baby Bass, the Ampeg, I took it to the
shop to Jess Oliver who developed and designed them, reinvented them. He was with
Ampeg back in the days. I took my two B15s to him so he could adjust the pickup,
the bridge and stuff. The first thing he said was: "You play with the action this low?" The strings
were not low, they were kind of high off the fingerboard for today's standards but
he was not impressed! So it shows they really did things differently in the old days. Also though, why I don't play my acoustic on gigs too much is because I don't know
how to amplify it without it getting lost to the percussionists. I like to make music,
not worry how it sounds. I just, like, plug in and play! My working instruments are
all that way and the acoustic is a little more "work". But I'll have to start getting
used to it, because people want to see it.
Recently I've done recordings with Celia Cruz, Luis Enrique and Caribbean Jazz Project,
but I've only done a few gigs with them recently. I approach CJP the same as with
a salsa gig: my job is to play the bass, play support, the bottom, keep it together,
keep it tight. Of course I have more liberties than if there was a singer, a little
freer, but I still gotta be the foundation. So my role remains the same, I gotta
be a timekeeper and that's what I do. I also like to be true to whatever idiom I'm
playing in, whether jazz, salsa or even R&B. For example, I will be working with a singer who
used to be Natalie Cole's musical director, Linda Williams. When you have drummers
or percussionists who tend to overplay, then somebody's gotta keep it! But if some
nights they're holding the pocket, then I can be free to take liberties as long as somebody
is keeping the time and keeping the groove happening. But 99% of the time it's me,
so I do that and I love it.
Any memories about your other mentor, Sal Cuevas?
There's a late '70s Los Kimbos record* that Sal plays Fender bass on, and it's incredible
playing; funky, and always in the pocket; very creative. New York had that edge since
about that time. That was one of the things that made me want to become a bass player, and he influenced me big time. I remember one session when I watched him record.
At the time I was playing with Rafael de Jesús, the singer with Perico, at the time
of Rafael's second LP En Grande
(1984 on Corso). Great cover, not yet reissued on CD. Black and white, greyish face
on the cover. I was already in the studio with the band when he came in to overdub
a couple of José Febles charts. Febles was there, Danny Jiménez too, a great trumpet
player, ex-Clásico, recently passed away in Colombia. Yomo Toro was there and played
some incredible progressive solos on "Cantar De Un Jibarito". I think it was a Charlie
Donato composition and a Febles arrangement. But Yomo's stuff didn't make it onto
the record and he had to overdub to make it simpler! Anyways, we hung together then and
also during a Son Primero session and rehearsals. Joe Santiago was recording, not
Sal was often inaccessible, couldn't find him anywhere. I remember I had to work up
a lot of nerve to call his house, and he was never there, always out working. I miss
him a lot although he's working now out of Miami, like on a recent Gilberto Santa
Rosa CD (Intenso
'01 on Sony Discos). I'm glad he's still working and we can still get to hear him.
A lot of young guys get to hear him too, because people credit me with stuff, which
is cool. But when I ask them: "Do you know who Sal is, or who other guys are?" They
say: "Who?". They don't remember or they never knew! That's a drag. One of the things
I've been doing lately is trying to educate them, and tell them, this is where I
came from, I didn't invent nothin'. It was already done. I just took a little certain
things that I liked and try to play it to my liking, try to play the way I hear it, you know?
(*Sal Cuevas and Bert Díaz played bass on Aquacero Ne Me Moja
'79 on Cotique by Vilató y Los Kimbos. Sal also played on the first two Los Kimbos
albums, Los Kimbos Con Adalberto Santiago
'76 and The Big Kimbos with Adalberto Santiago
'77, both on Cotique.)
Tell us about some of the numerous recordings you sessioned on. You remembered earlier
that you played with Louie Ramírez and Ray de la Paz for Noche Caliente
and its successors.
Great experience. He was a funny guy. Beautiful guy too; beautiful cat, and funny
as hell. "Hey Rubén, I don't do that any more, but I don't do it any less!" I miss
that guy. He was one of those innovators as well as being amazing. He incorporated
jazz into Latin music harmonies, for example, in the big band setting in the tradition of
René Hernández. Bobby Valentín is a similar pioneer along with trumpeter José Febles,
Perico and Louis Cruz.
José Mangual Jr. has hired you for a number of his productions, with names like Junior
González, Salsa Ritmo Caliente, Sarabanda and his second tribute to Chano Pozo (1995
on MC Productions). Do you have any stories about these recordings?
Mangual used to work at Variety Studios on 42nd Street. He still has a lot of unreleased
tracks that we did around the Chano Pozo tribute sessions, or maybe in the five or
six he did for Junior González, some hard to find, even at the time, because they
were for fly-by-night labels, shall we say? We used to do some for a guy over in Jackson
Heights in Queens, but I remember a lot of tracks we did with Mangual, with Pepin,
myself, Louie Ramírez playing timbales, Isidro Infante or Sergio George on piano.
When some of these things eventually did come out, it was a totally different song because
they kept the same arrangement, but he composed a whole new song for the track. The
blue Chano (Tribute To Chano Pozo Vol. II
'95 on MC Productions) could be like that with a couple of songs which came out completely
different, a new song. The first Chano (Tribute To Chano Pozo
), originally on True Ventures, was a great record, particularly the "Campanero" track.
The Sarabanda with the girl on the cover (A Golpe De Marea
'91 on Kañaveral; reissued on Platano '93), I got paid for the session that I recorded,
but some out-of-town guy came in and they overdubbed his playing on top of mine,
so I'm no longer there, even though I was credited on the sleeve!. That's not my
playing, but that's cool.
You worked on Louie's Latin jazz tribute to Cal Tjader (1986 on Caimán). Any reminiscences
about that project or about those times?
The Louie Ramírez was at the old Fania studios, 1440 Broadway, one of the classic
studios: the old WOR studios. During that time my main activity was doing lots of
gigs, which was good. Of course I didn't have a family back then, so it was a lot
easier. Now it's a bit rough. I had been doing Puente since '82. Machito I did for a three month
tour in '83 but haven't played with the band until very recently under the direction
of Mario Grillo, the son. Man, I wish that music was still around. Machito died in
April '84 and these days a band that size just can't afford to work that much. It's
only the Chico O'Farrill Afro-Cuban Jazz Big Band that carries that tradition, and
which I get called for when Andy González can't make it.
Thank you Rubén and good luck for the future.
It's a pleasure. Peace.
A Non-Exhaustive Discography of his Salsa and Latin Jazz Recordings...
Caimán 9025 Louie Ramírez - A Tribute To Cal Tjader
(Johnny Torres also plays bass)
Caballo CR 1659 Junior González - Sabor y Sentimiento
Latin Phoenix LP 416 Foto Rodríguez y su Orq. La Unica - Voy Amarte
TTH TTH 1927 Juan Padin - Ahora Si!
Buho Records BR 1224 Grupo Baruc de Carlos Paz - Reencuentro
(plays bass on one track)
Tibiri TR 0680 Salsa Ritmo Caliente - Salsa Ritmo Caliente
(Johnny Torres and Ray Martínez also play bass)
TTH TTH 1942 Ralphy Santi & Tito Allen - Llegare
Red 123221 Ray Mantilla Space Station - Dark Powers
RMM 1692 Grupo Caneo - Grupo Caneo
422 842 213-1 Junior González - Más Romántico Que Nadie
Mercury/PolyGram Latino 422 842 214-1 Johnny & Ray - Salsa Con Clase
Valdésa VR 001/Osagaji 001 Salsa Sudada - Salsa Sudada, Vol. 1
(Marino Solano also plays bass)
RMM/CBS 80348 Cheo Feliciano - Los Feelings de Cheo
RMM/CBS 80479 Johnny Rivera - Y Ahora de Verdad
Kañaveral 1006 Salsa Ritmo Caliente - Salsa Ritmo Caliente Vol. 2
RMM/Sony 80630 Tito Nieves - Dejame Vivir
RMM/Sony 80672 Hermanos Moreno - Together
(Johnny Torres also plays bass)
RMM/Sony 80680 Tito Puente - The Mambo King: 100th LP
(Johnny Torres and Bobby Rodríguez also play bass)
Sonero Records/Sony 80727 Johnny Rivera - Encuentro Casual
Tibiri RT 0684 Salsa Ritmo Caliente - La Mechita
(Marino Solano also plays bass)
Soho Records 80958 Marc Anthony - Otra Nota
RMM/Sony 80985 Celia Cruz - Azucar Negra
Sonero Records/Sony 81052 Miles Peña - De Que Me Vale
(Johnny Torres and Pedro Pérez also play bass)
RMM/Sony 81066 Tito Nieves - Rompecabeza/The Puzzle
RMM/Sony 81126 Familia RMM - Combinación Perfecta
HG Productions HG 0108 Orquesta Palenque - Como Un Huracan
Soho Records 81373 India - Dicen Que Soy
RMM/Sony 81482 Oscar D'León/Elba Ramalho - Salsa Brasilera
Platano 5028 Sarabanda - No Se Tu
(Johnny Torres and Sal Cuevas also play bass)
Polydor 314523184 Elemento 10 - Solo Para Ti
(guests on one track)
Axile 018 212 Angela - Jungla Fria
Soho Latino/Sony 81582 Marc Anthony -Todo A Su Tiempo
RMM 82035 Isidro Infante Y La Elite - Isidro Infante Y La Elite 2
Productions MIC 921 José Mangual Jr. - Tribute To Chano Pozo Vol. II
(Johnny Torres and César Rivera also play bass)
Sir George/Sony Tropical 81694 DLG - Dark Latin Groove
Sony Tropical 81733 Victor Manuelle - Victor Manuelle
Sir George/Sony Tropical 82087 Nora - Electric Lady
Milestone 9255 Steve Berrios - And Then Some!
Rodven/Polygram 3267 Pedro Guzmán - Jibaro Jazz 6
(Fender bass on tracks 2, 5)
Wenmar Records J1131 Mauricio Smith - Madera
Stern's Africa 1071 Africando - Gombo Salsa
Concord Picante 4732 Tito Puente - Special Delivery
Sony Tropical 82334 Victor Manuelle - A Pesar de Todo
Sir George/Sony Tropical 82340 DLG - Swing On
RMM 82063 Issac Delgado y su Grupo - Otra Idea
WEA Latina 18410 Yolandita Monge - Mi Encuentro
WEA Caribe 18730 Frankie Negrón - Con Amor Se Gana
WEA Latina 21390 Servando y Florentino - Los Primera
WEA Caribe 22267 Charlie Cardona - Mi Propia Aventura
Warner Brothers 46814 Paul Simon - Songs From the Capeman
Stern's Africa 1082 Africando - Baloba!
Blue Jackel 5028 William Cepeda & Afro Rican Jazz - My Roots And Beyond
RMM 82256 Johnny Rivera - Un Estilo Propio
RMM 82266 Miles Peña - Mis Ideas
RMM 82267 Michael Stuart - Retratos
RMM 82270 Tito Puente - Live At Birdland/Dancemania '99
Sony 82717 Victor Manuelle - Ironías
Caimán 9041 Son Boricua - Son Boricua
(Ray Martínez also plays bass)
WEA Latina 22269 Lisette Melendez - Un Poco De Mi
Sir George/WEA Latina 24030 Vélas - No Stoppin'
Sir George/WEA Latina 25581 Various Artists - The Sir George Collection
Sir George/WEA Latina 26189 Charlie Cruz - Imaginate
WEA Caribe 24712 Frankie Negrón - No Me Compares
Shanachie 66010 Ralph Irizarry - Ralph Irizarry & Timbalaye
(guests on one track)
Sir George/Sony Discos 82924 DLG - Gotcha!
Sony 83209 George Lamond - Entrega
Sony Discos 83310 Victor Manuelle - Inconfundible
(Carlos Henriquez also plays bass)
RMM 84047 Tito Puente - Mambo Birdland
BMG/A&E 72316 Raulin Rosendo - Donde Me Coja La Noche
(José Tavares also plays bass)
Palm Pictures 2020 Ned Sublette - Cowboy Rumba
Concord 4872 Dave Valentín - Sunshower
WEA Caribe 80049 Frankie Negrón - Lo Que Llevo Por Dentro
CMS Records 0053 Grupo Caribe - Son De Melaza
CMS Records 0054 Grupo Caribe - Ritmo Nativo
RMM 84022 Domingo Quiñones - Poeta & Guerrero
(Johnny Torres also plays bass)
Stern's Africa 1092 Africando All Stars - Mandali
(Ray Martínez also plays bass)
WEA Latina 82671 Charlie Cruz - Así Soy
RCA International 69323 Christina Aguilera - Mi Reflejo
Asefra 1016 Club 3d - En Otra Dimension
Concord Picante 4946 Caribbean Jazz Project - Paraiso
AJ Records 1572 Humberto Ramírez - Paradise
Sony Discos 84130 George Lamond - GL
Sony Discos 84291 Gilberto Santa Rosa - Intenso
(plays on one track)
Sir George/Sony Discos 84297 Huey Dunbar - Yo Si Me Enamoré
Mas Music 1079 Johnny Ray - Romantico con Timba
WEA Latina 88141 Tito Nieves - En Otra Onda
WEA Latina 89617 Frankie Negrón - Por Tu Placer
Sony 84519 Celia Cruz - La Negra Tiene Tumbao
(José Tavares and Carlos Henriquez also play bass)
WEA Latina 40951 Charlie Cruz - Un Chico Malo
Du Records 2022 Mel - Sin Miedo
Javaanse Jongens 77008 Gerardo Rosales - La Salsa Es Mi Vida: The New York Album
Cobo 9050 Frankie Morales & Orquesta - Mambo Of The Times / Mambo Del Tiempo
Warner Music 45315 Luis Enrique - Transparente
Concord Jazz 2125 Caribbean Jazz Project - Gathering