August 04, 2008
Salsa's Unsung Pianist
Gilberto "Pulpo" Colón Jr.
A conversation with John Child
During the 1970s, pianist, arranger and musical director Gilberto "Pulpo" Colón Jr. was at the epicentre of salsa's Golden Age, recording and performing with some of the biggest bands in the business, including Rafi Val's La Diferente, Alfredo "Chocolate" Armenteros, Kako's All Stars and Pete "El Conde" Rodríguez. In 1975, he received his big break when Fania All Star vocalist Héctor Lavoe invited him to become his pianist and musical director, a position he occupied for 16 years. As Pulpo's reputation in the industry grew, he worked on recordings by the likes of Charanga 76, Orquesta Novel, Charanga La Tapa, Adalberto Santiago, Frankie Morales and Louie Ramírez. Pulpo also has the distinction of playing with all of the Big Three: Tito Puente, Tito Rodríguez and Machito. Prompted by the release of Pulpo's Hot Bread (The Mambo Project, 2008), his long awaited solo debut album, Pulpo speaks to John Child about this swinging and sophisticated project and looks back on his career as what he describes as "The Unsung Pianist."
John Ian Child (JIC): Before we discuss your distinguished career, let's begin by talking about your solo debut CD Pulpo's Hot Bread (The Mambo Project, 2008), which, much to my surprise, is mainly an instrumental project. What is the concept behind the project?
Gilberto Colón Jr. (PULPO): Very simply put: my group for the last couple of years was an instrumental Latin jazz group in which piano was used as the main melodic instrument. The principal voice if you will. The group is accompanied by percussion and, more importantly, features the percussion section as soloists. The concept for Hot Bread was to utilise the bulk of tunes that I had been playing in and around town at gigs keeping the essence of the group, which is a danceable Latin jazz. We also wanted to incorporate a little bit of everything, again keeping the dancers in mind. With that, we also kept true to salsa with two vocal tunes. We initially started with a template of the tunes we wanted, or should I say, what kinds of tunes. For example, we knew we wanted a cha cha, but in the beginning we hadn't narrowed down what that cha cha would be. As time went on, we started filling our template with tunes and ended up with our finished product.
JIC: I note that Aaron Levinson, the Spanish Harlem Orchestra's former producer, acted as production consultant. I remember that he has strong convictions about recording technique. Was this an area he advised on?
PULPO: No. When Chris and I first discussed the project, we had both immediately agreed that this would be a live recording. Since it was Chris' first production, he approached Aaron as a consultant. He went to Aaron with the framework, but mainly looked to him for advice on what NOT to do and post-production guidance. Aaron was a check and balance for us during the process since we were both very green in production. We knew what we ultimately wanted, but Aaron also led credence to the overall project. It was definitely nice having him involved.
JIC: The material on Hot Bread mixes original compositions (two written by you) with salsa standards like "Tirandote Flores" (originally from Eddie Palmieri's Molasses '66 on Tico), "Sonero Mayor" and "La Murga" (respectively from Willie Colón and Héctor Lavoe's Cosa Nuestra '70 and Asalto Navideño '71, both on Fania). However, the standards, two of which you arrange (Papo Lucca handled "Sonero Mayor"), are given a very different treatment from the originals. Please tell me about the approach?
PULPO: I wanted to keep the core of "Tirandote Flores" intact, but give it a little spin, that spin being timing variables. Making it a little more appealing while still rendering the Eddie Palmieri theme.
As for "La Murga," I also wanted to keep pace with the original form - that being the intro with which everyone can identify. Aside from that, I wanted to give it my own swing and elevate it with the timbal solo. It's not really my favourite tune, but throughout my gigs I notice how much people respond to it. Then once they hear how danceable my version is, they consistently request it.
With "Sonero Mayor," I always wanted to do this tune. During my time with Héctor I would ask him which tune is he proudest of. He would say "Todo Tiene Su Final." I would say it was because he wasn't high when he did it (from my observation) and showed what he could do when he had his bearings. I asked him about "Sonero" and offered to transcribe it, but with trumpets since I was in the band. He said no and never really mentioned why, although I assume it's because Willie had some artistic control over the tune and Héctor couldn't do what he wanted. But every time I brought it up, he would be quick to say that no one is ever going to do that tune because of its title. Saying that you had to be bad in order to say "Sonero Mayor." At that time people weren't really doing covers. But when he said no one would do it, that always stuck with me. As time went on and people started doing covers, I always knew it was a tune that I wanted to do. Chris also liked the tune and agreed that the dancers are very receptive, so it was a perfect fit. Now Papo totally twisted "Sonero." But I wanted him to do his own version. I didn't want him to adhere to any restrictions. Don't get me wrong; the original is a great tune in its original form. I just feel that Papo took the tune to another level.
JIC: Intriguingly, "Apariencia" and "Hot Bread" are composed and arranged by the late and much revered arranger / trumpeter José Febles
(we will mention him again later), who you thank for imparting "his musical prowess and knowledge onto to me with an extreme amount of patience". Please tell me the story behind these tracks?
PULPO: Well, 20 years ago I was supposed to record an album. I approached Febles to compose a tune for me. As a result, he did "Hot Bread" for me. That recording never materialised. He was also married to my cousin Ida and one day soon after, he called me over to his house in Elmont, Long Island. He showed me a tune for which he had composed the melody and my cousin had written the lyrics. It was "Apariencia" and he told me he wanted me to have it. I would never ask for something with four trombones and he knew that for my potential recording I was only going to use two 'bones, but he gave it to me anyway. He also gave me the score and a tape with lyrics. I misplaced both of them, but when I mentioned to Chris that I might have a Febles chart, he motivated me to find it. Unfortunately, I couldn't find the lyrics. We ended up rehearsing the tune before the recording, but had no lyrics. We decided to give Héctor "Papote" Jiménez a chance to write to the melody and he did. We liked the lyrics and they stayed.
JIC: Spanish Harlem Orchestra leader Oscar Hernández, who you describe as your biggest inspiration and the reason why you play piano, contributes the track "Cross Body Groove." I understand that you studied with Oscar and had a distinguished piano tutor. Tell me more about "Cross Body Groove" and your long-time friendship with Oscar?
PULPO: I never formally studied with Oscar, but he was around every step of my piano career. He is my compay, so we spent a lot of time together and naturally we shared a lot. He was the first to explain things to me and never held back anything. Whenever I had lessons or had a question about something, he was the first person I went to. I met Oscar when I was 14. We were both trumpet players, but he began playing piano by ear. We immediately forged a friendship and he became my son's godfather. He's practically a brother to me. As such, I have always included him in anything I have done. With "Cross Body Groove," around that same time of my potential recording 20 years ago, I called him one day and heard him playing a tune over the phone. He said he was writing this tune called "Mambo Rhapsody" and it was a tune for himself for a potential Latin jazz recording he envisioned. I immediately went over and he played it for me in person. I wanted it and asked him for it. He didn't even hesitate and gave it to me.
JIC: What was the thinking behind the choice of an all-trombone frontline?
PULPO: Anytime that I play and the budget allows outside of the rhythm section, I add a trombone. There are really no formal arrangements with my group. It's pretty much melody, solos and ending. So to spice it up and give some colour, I use the trombone. I prefer trombones over trumpets. It's a ballsy instrument. At the same time, we wanted variety, which is why not every tune has trombones.
JIC: Tell me about the sidemen who sessioned on Hot Bread?
PULPO: It was essentially a two-day session. The first day we sent for Joe Santiago on bass, Chembo on congas, Pequeño Johnny on bongos, Chino Nuñez on timbales and Luis "Pipi" Cruz on trombone. On this date we did all the non-charted tunes. The next day we had Ramón Martínez on bass, Pequeño Johnny now on congas, Richie Bastar on bongos, Chino still on timbales, José Davila and Joe de Jesús on trombone. We also tracked our batá that day with David Gómez and even got to track our coros with Jorge Maldonado, Eddie Rosado and Héctor "Papote" Jiménez. Needless to say, it was a long but very productive day. Jorge González made the finishing touches with minor percussion. These guys were all involved because they are sensitive musicians who not only know how to play but also know how to listen. They know how to assume the sideman role even though they are leaders in their own right. And whether called upon or not, they know how to give the little extra that I need. I have played with pretty much everyone on this list for years, especially everyone in the rhythm section, so they know me and how I play. We didn't need to rehearse every tune 'cause they are familiar with them. Some guys weren't even at the rehearsal and just showed up the day of the recording!
JIC: Of course you played with Richie Bastar's dad Kako, who I want to ask you more about later. Is Richie's main gig still El Gran Combo?
PULPO: Yes. Luckily January is the break for El Gran Combo and we happened to record in January. When we first mentioned using Richie, we weren't sure if he would be around, but it all worked out.
JIC: Album credits for your arrangement work did not start appearing until the mid-'80s. Tell me about your development as an arranger?
PULPO: I always liked arranging but I never formally studied it. From my beginnings in the '70s with Angel Canales and Pete "Conde" Rodríguez, I always gave my input or changes. Even when I joined Héctor, it was my recommendation to add the second trumpet. But my first formal arrangement didn't start until "Delirio" on Adalberto Santiago's album Cosas Del Alma (WS Latino, 1984). I wanted to keep arranging, but had difficulty keeping both up. I felt I needed more work on the piano and felt I couldn't do both.
JIC: Hey, I can't let mention of Angel Canales pass without asking you all about your experience of working with his band. Tell me the whole story?
PULPO: Well, I am friends with Doctor William Rodríguez, the current pianist of Johnny Pacheco and principal of the Celia Cruz High School in the Bronx. At the time (1972), I had just gotten married and he was gigging in a lounge with Orlando Marín and also playing piano with Angel Canales y su Sabor. There was a gig he couldn't do with Canales and he called me to sub. I subbed and they offered me the gig saying that Willie was more unavailable than available. So I ran it by Willie 'cause I didn't want it to seem that I was taking his gig. He said it was alright since he was leaving anyway. That band had Louie Colón on bass, Antonio Tapia on congas, Luisito Rivera on bongos, my compay Gadier "Gary" Quiñones, who I brought into the band, on timbales, John "Fudgie" Torres as lead trombone and musical director, Richie Montañez on second 'bone, me on piano, Mike Lawrence on trumpet and Emerito Benítez on baritone sax / flute. It was a great band. They had just gotten rid of Markolino Dimond because of his drug habit. Angel Canales loved Héctor Lavoe's style. He was a little different and marched to his own beat, but he still idolised him. People started criticising him for sounding like Héctor, so he started to develop his own style and became known as "El Diferente." But he took the criticism to heart. As a result, he started not caring what people said, doing what he felt, and eventually came through because he does have a following today. There are people that would die for him in Panama and Colombia. When I was playing with him, all his arrangements were by Edy Martínez, the Colombian pianist. Slammin! They were jazz oriented and very tight. The band was slightly ahead of its time. To me he sounds good. Not the best singer, but he has his style, different than anyone else. So I guess it was good for him when they said he sounded like Héctor.
I will also tell you that Angel Canales was the band that performed most at the legendary Cheetah. We opened for Eddie Palmieri all the time. Ralph Mercado managed EP and us. That band was also one of the most family oriented ones I had played with. When I was called in 1973 to play with Conde, most of them took it to heart and stopped talking to me for about two years, including Angel. Good thing we all grew up and moved on. But it's good to see that he's gone through history as one of salsa's best soneros.
JIC: Your lead vocalist is Héctor "Papote" Jiménez, who sings on Chino Nuñez's follow-up album Doctor Salsa, Vol. 2 (Infamous, 2007). Tell me about Héctor?
PULPO: For being 24, he comes across a lot more mature. He is a personable and self-assertive young man with a promising career ahead of him. I will also say that at his age he can hold his own and then some with anyone in his peer group.
JIC: Is there anything further that you would like to say about Hot Bread before we move on?
PULPO: It is the culmination of 40 years of my musical life experience.
JIC: Let's move now to talking about your life and career. When and where were you born?
PULPO: I was born in Queens, New York, December 28th, 1953.
JIC: Tell me about your upbringing in New York and your earliest musical experiences?
PULPO: I lived in New York until 1960 when we moved to Bayamón, Puerto Rico. In 1963 we moved back to New York and settled in the Bronx. I started musically in elementary school playing the drums and singing in the chorus. In junior high school I continued with the drums and chorus and also started playing trumpet in the jazz band. In high school I played trumpet in the band and in 10th grade I started to play piano.
JIC: Tell me why the piano became your instrument of choice?
PULPO: When I came from Puerto Rico, my mom would send me every summer to the island. On TV I would see different pianists like Luisito Benjamin, Ray Coen, Papo Lucca, Luis Quevedo and Mario Román. At the same time I was mainly exposed to Charlie and Eddie Palmieri and Richie Ray, among others. What stuck with me most was that with the piano, you have the whole orchestra in front of you. And if you played it right, you could literally play it by yourself and actually be saying something.
JIC: I don't know if you know Dr. Ken "Leo" Rosa, the self styled "Second Greatest Latin Pianist in the World," but I know he holds the largely forgotten Luisito Benjamin in high esteem. Would you like to tell me more about Benjamin and his impact on you?
PULPO: The first time I met Dr. Ken "Leo" Rosa was in the Bronx Casino on 149th Street. He was the pianist for Fred and Santi Nieto, of the band Los Jimaguas (Rosa also performed on Los Jimaguas '73 on Mericana). He also had a radio show on Saturdays and would always profess that he was the second greatest Latin pianist in the world. So since he boasted, I wanted to see how bad he really was. The Bronx Casino was one of the last places that had an acoustic grand piano. So I went to find out how good he was. Before the band started, he would play a classical piece by himself. Boy, did he make that piano sing! Beside the fact that it was missing 25 keys! I never asked who was the first, but to me it is Charlie Palmieri. As for Luisito Benjamin's influence, he was already starting to play hip chords with jazz voices. His montunos were different and I didn't think anyone in Puerto Rico would have that jazz influence. That's what really impressed me. So when I started playing piano I bought his records and tried to copy what he did. A very poor copy, I might add. Then I later found out that Papo Lucca idolised him.
JIC: Who were the earliest Latin bands you performed with?
PULPO: My own band, Gilberto Colón Jr. and Orchestra, Luis Antonetti and Orchestra, and then Rafi Val's La Diferente.
JIC: Tell me all about Rafi Val (Valenzuela) and how and when did you come to be a member of his group La Diferente, which was directed by José Febles?
PULPO: Rafi Valenzuela came to New York from Ponce, Puerto Rico, to San Francisco and lived on Davidson Avenue in the Bronx. I was introduced to Rafi by a bassist named Raphy Picart. They had been rehearsing at Papiri Rivero's club called Che José on 122nd Street in El Barrio. (Pequeño Johnny's father.) Picart told me in September 1970 that they needed a piano player. They already had Charlie Hernández, but he was really a trumpet player and just filling the spot until they got a steady pianist. I went to try out and I got the gig. George Gould, who was one of my first piano teachers, also tried out but didn't pursue it because he didn't think La Diferente was going anywhere because they were all getting high and hadn't recorded. Funny thing is he used to get high, too.
JIC: You played on Rafi's three albums for the Fania subsidiary Vaya Records: Rafi Val y La Diferente (1971), co-produced by Johnny Pacheco and Willie Colón, La Sociedad (1972) and Fuerza Bruta (1975), both produced by Larry Harlow. I would be interested to hear your comments about La Diferente's sound and your memories of these recordings?
PULPO: I really liked playing with La Diferente. They personified the Puerto Rico sound, while other bands of the same period tried to come across with a New York sound. José Febles was a key factor in La Diferente's Puerto Rican sound.
JIC: Did La Diferente get much live work?
PULPO: I would say we worked at least once a week. We would play at the Corso and the Hipocampo. We also went to Puerto Rico and Chicago and opened for El Gran Combo for about six months. At the time (1972), I had also been playing with Ismael Rivera. He had just gotten out of jail and had his band Los Cachimbos. Javier Vázquez was his piano player, but Hilton Ruiz would sub. When Hilton couldn't make it, he called me. But he played real jazzy, so they kept calling me. Although I played with Ismael, it wasn't my band. Diferente was, so I really wanted to make it with the band I was playing with.
La Diferente contained Ralphy Picart, who was widely considered to be the most talented young bassist around, and the conga player Luis Bonilla, who used to play with Larry Harlow. Both died an untimely death, never to reach their full potential.
JIC: What numbers did La Diferente regularly feature in their set?
PULPO: "A Mi Nena," "Tu y Yo," "El Bardo," "Monina y Ramon" and a nice mambo jazz number called "Faluking" (all from Rafi Val y La Diferente) and "La Liberación" (from La Sociedad).
JIC: I am not aware of any further recordings by La Diferente or Rafi after Fuerza Bruta. What became of Rafi?
PULPO: Well, we just got back from Puerto Rico and I learned there that he recorded two additional albums, one of which was produced by Rafael Viera. I am not sure if they ever got transferred to CD. After 1972, Rafi moved back to Puerto Rico. He lived in Santurce and came back periodically to see his wife who lived in the Bronx. For the second and third Vaya recordings, he would come back to New York. One day, Febles came to my house and received a call from Rafi's brother explaining that Rafi was killed. I must say that I will forever be indebted to Rafi Valenzuela for his belief in me as a person.
JIC: One member of La Diferente, percussionist "Chino" Cruz De Jesús, went on to found Conjunto Melao, with whom Ray de la Paz made his album debut. What can you tell me about him and Melao?
PULPO: Chino was a go-getter. From the first day I met him I could tell he was going to make his own band. He was a hustler with good ideas and he liked Febles' style of arranging. I felt his band was somewhat compatible to La Diferente. He was also the first bandleader I knew to use three different singers, those being Ray de la Paz (Hernández), Eddie Temporal and Roy Carmona. Great band!
JIC: Meanwhile you sessioned on Pinocho (Vaya, 1974), the second album by Marty Galagarza y La Conquistadora produced by Larry Harlow. Tell me about the origin of La Conquistadora and how you hooked up with them?
PULPO: La Conquistadora was formed by Marty Galagarza and Carlos Berrios, the trombone player. They broke up and Berrios went to record in Puerto Rico with Tempo 70 (Tempo 70 '72 on Mericana). Marty kept the band. My compay Oscar had done the first recording (La Conquistadora c. '71 on Vaya), but then went on to play with Ismael Miranda's Revelación 73. I had met Marty at different gigs and my compay made the transfer offer to me and I was grateful to accept. Good album by the way. Eddie Gua Gua on bass! He's one of my favourite bassists.
JIC: Apart from lead vocal, coro and arranger credits, Pinocho lacks information about the sidemen. Can you remember who played on the date?
PULPO: That session had Eddie Montalvo on congas, Johnny Castro on timbales, Marty Galagarza on bongos, Eddie Gua Gua on bass, Leopoldo Pineda and Jose Rodrigues on trombones, Héctor Aponte and Roy Carmona on lead vocals, and Ismael Miranda and Adalberto Santiago on coro.
JIC: Did you gig with La Conquistadora?
PULPO: We did a couple of gigs here and there, but not more than what I had done with La Diferente.
JIC: Again, I am not aware of another recording by La Conquistadora after Pinocho. What happened to Marty and the band?
PULPO: Marty also moved to Puerto Rico and recorded an LP produced by Rafael Viera.
JIC: How and when did the opportunity to join the conjunto of the legendary trumpeter Alfredo "Chocolate" Armenteros arise?
PULPO: In 1973 I had been playing with Pete Conde. They had a trip to Puerto Rico coming up and he decided he didn't want me to make that trip. I didn't know this at the time and he went behind my back to my compay Oscar to go on the trip. Truth be told, he really didn't want me in the first place. He said I was playing too jazzy. He really wanted Oscar, but Oscar was with Revelación 73. My compay told me about the trip, so I decided to quit Conde's band. I felt he disrespected me. Oscar had also been playing with Chocolate, so when he went to Puerto Rico, I swapped and started playing with Chocolate.
JIC: You performed on Chocolate's second and third solo albums, Chocolate Caliente (Mericana, 1975), produced by Louie Ramírez, and Chocolate
En El Rincon (Salsoul, 1976) produced by Joe Cain. Please share your memories of these recordings?
PULPO: Chocolate Caliente was one of the best albums I ever recorded. It was a great session and Louie Ramírez was a great producer and person to work with. Chocolate also had an excellent band. We did most of those tunes in one take! Recorded live with no overdubs. What I also liked about Caliente is that it featured my compay's first arrangements. Charlie Palmieri also arranged "Retozon".
Pretty much the same with En El Rincon; another great session. Julio Romero on bass, Frankie Rodríguez on congas, Charlie Santiago on bongos, Alex Cruz and Frank Rosa on trombone, Richie Fernández and Willy García (La Lupe's ex) on trumpet with Chocolate.
JIC: Again, I'm curious about the gigging activity of Chocolate's band at that point. Tell me about this?
PULPO: Not too much on the scene, but we did a lot of weddings and private gigs. The one club we played a lot was La Epoca in the Bronx and we also did Ralphy Mercado's Cheetah.
JIC: I understand that you worked, but did not record with, Kako's All Stars. His son, Richie Bastar, as mentioned earlier, plays on your current CD. How and when did you hook-up with Kako and please share your memories of working with this legendary timbalero?
PULPO: I started steady with Kako in 1975. I actually left playing with Mon Rivera to be with Kako. I had been playing with him on and off since 1971, but this was when I went steady. He had just recorded with Camilo Azuquita Union Dinamica '76 on Alegre) and had three trips lined up: Chicago, San Francisco and Panama. I had never been to Panama and I wanted to go. This was my first experience playing organised jams. Kako allowed everyone to take solos for extended periods, so I got to hone my solo skills and when I was not soloing, I improved on holding the montuno. Kako really embraced me and treated me like a son. At the time, I was clean and it was his band that I left to go with Héctor. He told me: "Don't do drugs." I will never forget that.
JIC: Can you recall who were the other members of his All Stars at the time and what material did the band perform live?
PULPO: He had Tommy Rivera and Julio Andino on bass; Willie Perdomo on congas; Roberto "Etto" Lastra on bongos; Kako on timbales; Carlos Santos and Azuquita singing; Alberto "Panama" Mercado and Reggie Lockhart on trumpet; Felo Rodríguez and Jose Rodrigues on trombone. We regularly did "La Fiera" and "A Panama" (both from Union Dinamica), "Estoy Buscando A Kako" (from The Alegre All-Stars '61 on Alegre), "El Reloj," "La Lengua" and "La Cazuela" (the last two from Kako '74 on TR Records), the last two both arranged by Febles.
JIC: You can't slip the name Mon Rivera under my radar! Come on, what's the story behind you working with his band? Plus the usual questions: who were the regular guys in his band and what repertoire were you performing?
PULPO: Well, I was backing up a singer by the name of Vitín Avilés in Kako's "Bongo" Social Club in the Bronx on Southern Boulevard. The bassist's name was Leo Fleming and the conguero was Julito Collazo. They both were recruiting me for a guy in Puerto Rico that was coming from Mayagüez named Mon Rivera. They both told me that he was gonna start looking for a piano player. Mon Rivera and Willie Colón had just finished recording the LP There Goes The Neighborhood / Se Chavó El Vecindario (Vaya, 1975) and wanted to put a band together to tour for that album. So Mon came and I went to a church called Our Lady Queen of Angels in El Barrio for an audition / rehearsal. There were no other pianists, so I got the gig. They told me we were going to tour with Willie Colón to San Francisco, Chicago, L.A. and Puerto Rico. It was a successful tour but Mon got caught up with drugs again and it was my time to leave. That's when I went with Joe Cuba. But I have to say that working under Mon is where I learned how to play bomba y plena. It was my school. He was definitely "El Rey del Trabalengua." I don't remember all the tunes, but we played "Lluvia Con Nieve" and "Pachanga Con Guaguancó" (both from Que Gente Averigua '63 on Alegre), "Pancho y Ramona" and "Dolores" (both from Dolores '63 on Magda with the Joe Cotto orchestra) and "Pena De Amor" (from There Goes The Neighborhood).
The band consisted of Willie Colón, Frank Rosa and Frank Figueroa on trombones, Papo Martínez on timbales, Leo Fleming on bass, Victor Roque on bongos, Julito Collazo on congas, Johnny Ortiz on coro and Mon singing.
JIC: You performed on Curious? (TR Records, 1976) by Tito Rodríguez's son and José Alberto's first album as a lead singer in New York. Do you have anything to share about this project and/or performing with Tito Rodríguez Jr.?
PULPO: I had played with Tito Rodríguez in 1972 at the Village Gate for a week, so now I was working with this legend's son. It was Sal Cuevas on bass; Angel "Cachete" Maldonado on congas; Johnny "Dandy" Rodríguez on bongos; Richie Fernández and Larry Spencer on trumpet; John Kelly on trombone; John Purcell and Charles Lagond on saxophone; Rubén Blades and El Canario on vocals.
JIC: Also in 1976 you performed on Charanga 76's self titled debut album on TR Records co-produced by violinist / arranger Eddie Drennon and featuring vocalist Hansel Martínez (later of Hansel and Raúl fame), flautist Andrea Brachfeld, etc. What are your recollections of working with Charanga 76?
PULPO: That album is a classic! We recorded Willy Chirino's "Soy" and it's a classic to this day. It was the most innovative charanga up until that point. No charanga sounded like that, everything up until then was blasé. We were in your face! That band also included a third singer, being Ronnie Baro.
JIC: The following year you replaced Oscar Hernández as the pianist on Pete "El Conde" Rodríguez's A Touch of Class, his third album for Fania. You touched on how you got the El Conde gig earlier. What are your memories of working with him?
PULPO: When I left the first time I started getting my crap together. I really started honing my Latin skills. At the time I was already with Héctor Lavoe, but he was in the Creedmore Sanitarium on a hiatus. I was waiting for him to get out, so in the interim I did A Touch of Class. We had two trips lined up, one to Martinique and one to Chicago. Héctor was out of commission from April to September, so during this time I played with Conde. Truth be told, there weren't that many new piano players on the block. Oscar was the first call for most, but he couldn't do everything, so he gave some to me. It was a great gig, but it wasn't a gig I got on my own. It's different. Like when I got the Héctor gig, I was his first call. In the end, I just didn't like how the whole situation ended up when he called Oscar for the Puerto Rico trip. I had been playing with the band for months and we knew about the trip for a while. I had been telling everyone I was going and it wasn't until a week before that I found out from my compay Oscar
not even Pete or his wife!
JIC: It clearly still rankles with you. There are no sidemen listed on A Touch of Class. Can you recall who played on the session and arranged the respective tracks?
PULPO: Well, the three of us from Héctor's band sessioned (Montalvo, Febles and myself); also Andy González on bass; Tony Cofresi and Victor Paz on trumpets; Victor Cruz Jr. on bongos; Febles, Papo Lucca and Luis Cruz arranged. They had done a session prior to me getting there that featured Edy Martínez and Oscar Hernández on piano.
JIC: Most significantly, in 1975 you became the pianist and musical director for the great Héctor Lavoe, and fulfilled the role for 16 years. However, it was not until Héctor's third solo album, the classic Comedia (Fania, 1978), that you got the opportunity to record with him. What's the story there?
PULPO: They recorded De Ti Depende (Fania) in early 1975 with Professor Joe and I didn't join the band until November 23rd of that year. Héctor also didn't record every year. He felt that he could hold out and that the people would demand the product. His next album wasn't until Comedia, which was recorded on December 20/22nd, 1977. There was nothing in between. Besides, he was in somewhat bad shape
or should I say, taking it easy.
JIC: As someone who worked closely with Héctor for many years, what's your view of his portrayal in the Jennifer López / Marc Anthony movie El Cantante (2007)?
PULPO: I think they did a great job in bringing Héctor's story to the general public. They could have brought a lot worse and they didn't. Just the fact that they took interest is honourable.
JIC: There are no personnel credits on my vinyl copy of Comedia. Can you assist by recalling who played on the album?
PULPO: You must have a shitty copy, John. On bass was Sal Cuevas and Danny Rosado; Harry D'Aguiar and Jose Rodrigues on trombones; Eddie Montalvo and Milton Cardona on congas; José Mangual Jr. on bongos; José Febles and Luis "Perico" Ortiz on trumpets; yours truly on piano. The coro section was Milton Cardona, Willie Colón and José Mangual Jr.
JIC: My shitty copy is a US vinyl Fania reissue in a single sleeve I purchased in the early 1980s. I suspect that the original vinyl had a gatefold sleeve. Regrettably, not even the 2006 CD reissue of Comedia on Fania / Emusica provided sideman credits. Anyway, going back to your input to the album. Of particular merit is your extended solo on "Bandolera." Do have a story to tell about this?
PULPO: Yes. Since Héctor's Willie Colón days, all the pianists had been soloists: Dwight Brewster, Mark Dimond, Kenny Gómez and Professor Joe. When Héctor was high, he would let them go on extended solos during the gigs so you had to have your chops. In the recording it was somewhat limited due to time constraints. For "Bandolera," Febles said he arranged it with me in mind. Héctor wasn't in the studio when I recorded, but he told me that he mentioned to Willie that he wanted me to take a long solo. Willie wasn't too keen on that, so right before I did it, Willie told me that if I repeated anything, that he would edit it so much that I wouldn't be able to recognise it. Basically saying, it better be good mo! Willie Colón states that there was nothing to edit because it was one of the best piano solos he ever heard. The tune is almost 10 minutes long and the solo over three minutes, essentially a song unto itself.
JIC: Another name I can't let pass is the exceptionally talented and tragic Mark Dimond? You have kindly provided me with a photo featuring Markolino, "Chino" Cruz De Jesús and you. Please share some stories about Mark?
PULPO: I was a fan of Mark. I first heard him on Willie Colón's The Hustler album (Fania, 1968). I first met him at a rehearsal with Andy Harlow in Brooklyn. And his solo on "Guajirón" to this day is a classic! Also it's his composition. Unfortunately he was hooked really bad on drugs and I couldn't have a conversation with him. But then in 1972 while I was playing at the Corso with La Diferente, he came and remembered who I was; hence the photo. He is one of my favourite piano players, may he rest in peace.
As for a story, I did a gig at La Mancha on 14th Street with Marty Galagarza and La Conquistadora. In comes Mark Dimond with his sister and Frankie Dante. Mark comes up to me and I ask him if he wants to play a number. He immediately said yes, but no one in the band knew the tune and Danny Rosado couldn't follow it. So he ended up playing it with the rhythm section alone. The tune was called "Manhá De Carnaval," a samba / ballad by Luiz Bonfá. Bro, the whole place stood still, including me! No one danced; they just watched him play. He was ripped out of his mind. And to this day I learned to play that tune after I saw that. He did it on a shitty electric piano, ripped! A cheap Univox, 61 key piano. Man, he made it sing! Everyone was mesmerized. I said I gotta learn that tune. I didn't even want to play after that.
JIC: You appear on four other Lavoe releases, Recordando A Felipe Pirela (1979) and El Sabio (1980), both produced by Willie Colón, Que Sentimiento! (1981), his only self-produced album, and the posthumous release Live (1997). I would welcome your comments about these recordings, especially details of the personnel on the Felipe Pirela album and information about the live recording?
PULPO: The Felipe Pirela album had three piano players, Jorge Calandrelli, Carlos Francetti and myself. The rhythm section was Sal Cuevas on bass, Eddie Montalvo on congas and José Mangual Jr. on bongos.
El Sabio was a great album. It had excellent arrangements by Febles. Two tunes ("Para Ochun" and "Noche De Farra") were carryovers from the De Ti Depende album, which featured Professor Joe on piano and Santi "Choflomo" González on bass. The rest of the album featured Danny "Orbita" Rosado on bass; Sal Cuevas on bass for "Llore" and Eddie Gua Gua on bass for "Ceora" and "Alejate"; Reinaldo Jorge and Harry D'Aguiar on trombones; Puchi Boulong and Febles on trumpets; Eddie Montalvo on congas and Luis Mangual on bongos. What a band!
On Que Sentimiento!, the album says self produced, but it was also produced by Louie Ramírez. That album also has two pianists, Professor Joe and myself.
On Live, half was recorded in Miami and the other half was recorded at Casa Borinquen in Brooklyn, New York. We didn't know we were being recorded. We found out after it was released and people started telling me. Hence, we didn't get paid for it as a recording! It was put out after Héctor died.
JIC: Your discography says that you contributed to Fuerte y Caliente (Velvet, 1979), the third album made by La Salsa Mayor after splitting from Oscar D'León. What was the nature of your involvement?
PULPO: We were playing with Héctor Lavoe in Venezuela when Leo Pacheco and Pellín Rodríguez approached us about doing a recording. They wanted Febles to arrange four tunes and Héctor's band to record at Bobby Valentín's studio in Puerto Rico. Shit, what an honour, so we did it. That band featured Febles and Ray Maldonado on trumpets, Reinaldo Jorge and Harry D'Aguiar on trombones, Eddie Montalvo on congas, José Mangual Jr. on bongos, Danny "Orbita" Rosado on bass and myself on piano.
JIC: None of you got a credit on La Salsa Mayor's Fuerte y Caliente. What happened there?
PULPO: This is what happened: Leo Pacheco and Pellín Rodríguez approached Febles, but they didn't want the members of their current band to know 'cause it would have been hurtful. They used their band for four numbers and our band for five. That one had arrangements by Tito Valentín, José Febles and Bobby Valentín. Now I wasn't aware that credit wasn't given, because I think if I saw a copy, I would have flipped since I got to record with Pellín. But if there isn't credit, it's probably because they didn't want the band to find out. Who knows? But the guys there were José Febles and Ray Maldonado on trumpets, Reinaldo Jorge and Harry D'Aguiar on trombones, me on piano, Eddie Montalvo on congas, Danny Rosado on bass and José Mangual Jr. on bongos.
JIC: You sessioned on Orquesta Novel's crossover project Novel Experience (Fania, 1980), produced and arranged by Eddie Drennon. Tell me about this album?
PULPO: I was friends with Eddie Drennon. He was living in Pennsylvania and coming back and forth. Aside from playing with Willie Ellis, the leader of Novel, he was doing some productions with a lady named Akura Dixon. He wanted to do a modern charanga album and with Willie's blessing, he asked me.
JIC: You sessioned on the 1980 album Don Gonzalo Fernández Presenta Miguel Quintana, the solo debut by the late, great Cuban sonero Miguel Quintana produced and arranged by the legendary Don Gonzalo, a pioneer of salsa africana via his work with Le Grand Kalle's L'African Team in Paris in the '70s. Please share your experience of recording with these legends?
PULPO: This was another project with half the tunes arranged by Febles and half by Sonny Bravo and Gonzalo himself. Sonny also played piano. It was a great album with Andy González on bass, Nicky Marrero on timbales, Papo Pepin on congas and Charlie Santiago on bongos.
JIC: Charanga La Tapa (Neón, 1981), produced by Hansel and Raúl, definitely figures in my top 10 charanga albums of all time. Tell me about this project? Did La Tapa perform live or were they just a studio creation?
PULPO: This was the concept and brainchild of Hansel and Raúl. They were partners doing work aside from Charanga 76. They wanted to do a charanga to beat all others. In essence, a Charanga All-Stars. But the concept was straight swing with the core of a horn band, but no horns. I am proud of the piano solo I took on "Vamonos Pa'l Monte" in which the legendary Bobby Rodríguez accompanied me every step of the way. He was one of the most lyrical bassists with timba ever! May Bobby rest in peace. I also must say how I pride myself to have performed alongside every awesome bassist since I started playing piano. While we're talking about bassists, I must say that one of my career highlights was a night when I was performing with Héctor Lavoe at the Village Gate and Joe Santiago came to pick me up with Jaco Pastorius (bassist from the jazz group Weather Report)
RIP. We ended up going to a loft in Soho to jam. It was great
two master bassists and one piano. This would never happen again. Those were the days!
JIC: How and when did you get recruited to the Machito Salsa Big Band with whom you made Live at North Sea (Timeless) recorded on July 18, 1982?
PULPO: I had been playing on and off with Machito since 1978. In 1980 I started subbing regularly for Isidro Infante. In 1982 they had a European tour for 10 weeks. At the time, Isidro was doing a production for Raúl Marrero (Raúl Marrero y su Música antes y despues de los Años 40 '81 on Salsa International) and decided that he couldn't go. They called me to go. At the time I was with Héctor and unsure about going on the trip. I had never been to Europe and wanted to go. I asked Febles what he thought, and he said I should go and that: "Héctor Lavoe will be here when you get back." I was also with Machito when he died in 1984 and now continue to be in the Machito Orchestra led by his son Mario.
JIC: Please share your memories of touring with Machito?
PULPO: With 20 people on tour it's hectic, but what an invaluable experience. We traveled extensively throughout Europe for that tour.
JIC: I believe you also performed with Tito Puente. Please do tell?
PULPO: In 1972 I subbed for Paquito Pastor. In 1975 I started subbing regularly for Rubén Rivera and in 1981 I did my first tour with Puente to Miami. I played with him on and off after that. I will share this story. When I subbed in 1975, I was already playing for Héctor and thought I was all that and a bag of chips. Hence I tried to give my Héctor flavour to the Puente band. Puente taught me a valuable lesson by calling out chart 956 from his book number four. It was a difficult chart and he knew I would have a hard time playing it. That is when I learned that you have to adapt to your situation. It wasn't all about me, it was about Puente and the bigger picture. My turn would come, but it wasn't then. From Tito I also learned how to be a good Indian. We were performing once in the Omni Hotel in Miami for a two-week engagement, six days a week, four sets a night! We had to wear the same redundant uniform (black suit, red tie, white shirt), every damn day! Well one day, Joe Santiago (who was my roommate) and I decided not to wear the said red tie. Joe was smarter than I. He only omitted the tie. I wore a blue shirt and no tie. Boy was Puente pissed! He came over to me and made me move my piano towards the back of the stage where the trumpets were sitting and told me that if he ever saw me on stage without the proper uniform again, he would fire me on the spot. Joe got away with it - I guess I am not Joe!! It's not about me, an invaluable lesson!
JIC: Tell me about your stint with Adalberto Santiago, with whom you recorded Cosas Del Alma and Más Sabroso (Tropical Budda, 1985), both produced by Ray Santos?
PULPO: Papo Lucca had just produced his LP entitled Calidad (Fania, 1982); a great album! Adalberto Santiago was living in Puerto Rico. He decided to move back to New York and recruited me for his band. The first recording we did was the bolero album Cosas Del Alma. I often modified the charts trying to make things a little more modern. He saw that I had ideas and liked what I was doing. He was the first one to commission me for an arrangement.
JIC: I first became aware of Frankie Morales on recordings by the Bad Street Boys and the Lebron Brothers. So what was the story behind you working on his first two solo albums En Su Punto (Caimán, 1987) and Sobresaliendo / Standing Out (El Abuelo, 1989), the second of which you produced?
PULPO: Frankie Morales sang coro for Héctor Lavoe and when Héctor didn't show on time, Frankie would sing. Humberto Corredor and Henry Cárdenas from the Colombian club Abuelo Pachanguero wanted to record him, but wanted me to be his musical director and partner. They approached me to produce both those albums.
JIC: Around this time, the salsa romántica sound was beginning to dominate the Latin music industry. What is your take on this development and current state of the salsa market?
PULPO: I believe that the times dictated that salsa romántica would take place. It is what it is. People embraced it 'cause that is what they were yearning to hear. Not to take away from salsa dura, which has its following. But it was a phase. Currently, I think we have a ways to go. Salsa is back on the right track, especially with bands like Chino Nuñez, Spanish Harlem Orchestra, 8 y Más, Los Soneros del Barrio, and now Ensalada De Pulpo!
JIC: Tell me about the history of your group Ensalada de Pulpo?
PULPO: In 1990, as a result of not wanting to depend on a singer and also wanting to develop my pianistic skills, I started my group. Although at the time it was just Gilberto Colón Jr. and friends. In 1993, we were the house band for the Tito Puente Restaurant. Tito Puente came up to me and said that I have an "Ensalada." He is the one that gave the group its name and we have been Ensalada de Pulpo ever since. The name and concept has allowed me to be versatile with the instrumentation. I can play alone, with a three-man rhythm section, or now, more recently, my own 10-piece band.
JIC: Fittingly you worked on Junior González's Tribute To Héctor Lavoe (Ecuajey Records, 2000). Tell me more about this project?
PULPO: This was a José Mangual Jr. production for an Ecuadorian man named Mike Naranjo. There were three pianists, Larry Harlow, Professor Joe and myself. I only did "Paraiso de Dulzura."
JIC: Talking about Héctor Lavoe, tell me about Orquesta De La Gente?
PULPO: This was the brainchild of Jorge "Koki" Leureyro, who is a Peruvian musical enthusiast and Héctor Lavoe fanatic. He felt that with me as the musical director and the other surviving members of Héctor's band and a new singer, we could put forth the music of Héctor Lavoe as a tribute. For this group we use the great young Peruvian Renzo Padilla.
JIC: My usual closing questions: Would you like to tell me what else you have been working on recently and what you have in the pipeline?
PULPO: I am working on being a better person, a better father, a better son, and most importantly, a better pianist. As for the pipeline, hopefully we'll sell 10,000 CDs and there will be CD number two.
JIC: Is there anything else that you would like to add that we have not talked about?
PULPO: Yes, there are a few recordings that I am very proud of that I would like to mention. The first is Ramón Rodríguez's El Bautizo (Day Dance, 1990) on which I served as musical director. Great musicians and great arrangements. Also, Israel Sardinas' Israel
La Verdad! (Bacan, 1984); the Cuban sonero who used to be Los Van Van's principal singer. A rock masterpiece called Gichy Dan's Beechwood #9 (RCA, 1979). And Louie Ramírez y sus Amigos (Caché) in 1990. In 1978, my (three) instructional solo albums for Martin Cohen and Latin Percussion that featured Eddie Montalvo, Charlie Santiago, José Raúl Santiago and Sal Cuevas. My 2001 live recording at Martin Cohen's 63rd birthday party featuring Ray Martínez, Eddie Montalvo, Bobby Allende, Marc Quiñones and Jimmy Delgado. A dream team rhythm section!
I also want to thank Johnny Colón with whom I taught for over 16 years at his school of music (East Harlem Music School). During that time I had the honour of sharing musical ideas with the young and talented Sergio George, Ricky González, Carlos Jiménez, Victor Santos and Martin Arroyo (1965-2000) who all passed through the school during my tenure and went on to become first call pianists. Lastly, I am also very proud to have had the dubious distinction of performing with all of the Big Three: Tito Puente, Tito Rodríguez and Machito.
JIC: You don't get a credit on Israel Sardinas' Israel
La Verdad!. What's the story there?
PULPO: Shit, thought I got credit! On that one, Larry Harlow was producing. But they didn't want Harlow to play. So they got Sonny Bravo for four tunes and me for five. Too many musicians if you ask me. I don't know whose fault it is for not getting the credits. That one was Nicky Marrero on timbales, Johnny "Dandy" Rodríguez on bongos, Frankie Malabe on congas, trombones was Lewis Kahn and Sam Burtis, trumpets were Victor Paz and Héctor "Bomberito" Zarzuela. It also had Justo Betancourt, Adalberto Santiago and Yayo El Indio on coro. As a result of that recording, I became his musical director for seven months while we did all the major clubs in New York before he moved to Florida.
JIC: Was there live work associated with the Gichy Dan, Ramón Rodríguez and Louie Ramírez projects?
PULPO: Yeah, let's go! With Gichy Dan's band, apart from being a one-album project, we did Lake Placid for the Olympics, gigs in California, and mostly concerts throughout the US, but it didn't last long. With Ramón Rodríguez, I was his musical director and we had plenty of work. We did the whole Dominican circuit. We didn't do the salsa circuit. Our manager was Chubby Jiménez, owner of the Fuego Fuego nightclub in New York City (he was also the executive producer of El Bautizo, the first production on his Day Dance label). Therefore, the Dominican clubs were the ones who embraced us. Ramón got frustrated and went back to Puerto Rico. With Louie Ramírez y Super Banda, we were the house band for the Copacabana. We were also the premier representative band for Budweiser beer. We did every parade in New York and a bunch of gigs in the city, but we NEVER travelled and only did that one recording. That band had Danny Rosado on bass, Steve Guttman, Roberto Rodríguez, Héctor Colón Jr. and Leonel Sánchez on trumpets, Pete Miranda on baritone sax, Wilson "Chembo" Corniel on congas, Edwin Rosas on bongos, Louie Ramírez on timbales, and on vocals was Sammy González and Carlos El Grande from Panama.
JIC: What title would you choose for this interview?
PULPO: More To Be Revealed, I'll Get Mine, The Unsung Pianist.
JIC: Thanks for talking to me; I especially appreciate your memory for detail.
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© Descarga.com and John Child. John Child produces and selects the contents of the totallyradio show Aracataca. He is an editor and journalist for the Descarga.com Latin music website, and a contributor to the
MusicWeb Encyclopedia of Popular Music and Penguin and Guinness Encyclopedias of Popular Music, and has prepared compilations for the Union Square and Nascente labels.