September 06, 2009
Interview: Mario Ortiz, Jr.
Mario Ortiz and his
All Star Band Revival
A conversation with John Child
As the 10th anniversary of the passing of the revered Puerto Rican bandleader, trumpeter, arranger and producer Mario Ortiz approaches, his son, the accomplished trumpeter Mario Ortiz Jr., has produced Mario Ortiz All Star Band Tributo 45 Aniversario (Zamora/Sony) dedicated to the early recordings of his father's band, a musical sensation of the 1960s. A hard swinging salsa big band album, it features an all-star lineup, including Gilberto Santa Rosa, Cheo Feliciano, Tito Allen, Richie Ray, Bobby Cruz, Roberto Roena, Adalberto Santiago, Elías Lopés, Primi Cruz, Anthony Cruz, Ismael Miranda, Papo Lucca, Tony Vega, Bobby Valentín, Ismael Rivera Jr., Pedro Brull and Andy Montañez, among others. Here Mario Jr. speaks to John Child about the project, his dad's exceptional career and his own activity on the salsa and jazz scenes. The interview is accompanied by a discographic profile of Mario Ortiz.
John Ian Child (JIC): A stellar new album recorded in tribute to Mario Ortiz and his All Star Band, which we will get onto later, has inspired this conversation. Was your father born into a musical family?
Mario Ortiz Jr. (MOJ): No, my father was not born into a musical family, but his brother Ulises played the alto sax in the Mario Ortiz All Star Band and also recorded a few albums with him. My father has a half brother, William Ortiz, who is an outstanding composer of contemporary classical music. I understand that he is a music professor at a major university.
JIC: Tell me what you can about your dad's early musical education and experience before he became a bandleader?
MOJ: He was born in Santa Isabel, Puerto Rico, where his music teacher was Demetrio Rodríguez. Mr. Rodríguez was an outstanding musician who was in charge of the town's music school. He noticed young Mario as an enthusiastic and rare talent and very soon he hired him into his band, the Caribbean Kids. There he met Luigi Texidor (on bongos) and Ruth Fernández (singer). In the early 1960s dad went to the Conservatorio de Musica de Puerto Rico where he studied for one year. Many of his friends remember him as a self-taught musician with an absolute musical ear.
JIC: Both as a sideman, with the likes of Moncho Usera and Miguelito Miranda, and as leader, Mario worked in Puerto Rico's hotel industry. Please tell me more about this aspect of Puerto Rico's musical history and your father's connection with it?
MOJ: Moncho Usera and Miguelito Miranda were among the finest musical leaders of their time. Dad was a big admirer of both of them. The hotel industry offered musicians a steady job that was very attractive. Other than playing dancing music, they were expected to play for the main show. Accompanying such artists as Paul Anka, Tom Jones, Sammy Davis Jr., etc. Dad worked as a sideman and bandleader for approximately 20 years (on and off). His first job as a bandleader in the hotel scene came in 1966, when he was hired by the San Jerónimo Hilton. Bandleaders such as César Concepción and Pepito Torres were also hired by the hotel industry.
The Caribe Hilton Hotel was probably the most known and it was a different venue from the San Jerónimo Hilton. Dad was a sideman for Miguelito Miranda, who was an outstanding trumpet player and bandleader. In 1977, Miranda retired and dad was hired to replace him as the house bandleader. The Club Caribe was known as the club where only the best international and national artists performed. I recall Vic Damone, Diahann Carroll, Julio Iglesias, Iris Chacón, and Ismael Miranda as the first to take salsa music to this venue.
JIC: Again, as both a sideman and bandleader, Mario began working in Puerto Rican TV. Tell me more about this?
MOJ: Dad played in Puerto Rico's first TV show, El Show Libbys, as a lead trumpet for Pepito Torres' band. As a bandleader, he was hired by television's Show del Mediodia. That was in the years in which he led his All Star Band. As a sideman, he played for Rafael Elvira in the Show de las 12 and also El Show de Myrta Silva, Nydia Caro, Chucho Avellanet, and many others. I was told that live radio shows were very popular during the late '50s and early '60s. That was where Mario Ortiz and his All Star Band made their first appearance. The radio station was WIAC and the presenter was Fidel Cabrera, where he introduced this musical sensation as La Santa Banda (The Holy Band). On WKAQ, the presenter was Manolín Martínez.
JIC: Did your dad's longstanding involvement in the Puerto Rican hotel sector and TV mean that he was perceived as a conservative and establishment figure in the island's musical industry?
MOJ: I can say that is well put. He was the kind of musician who was well remembered as a "serious" type that was known in different genres of Puerto Rican music history.
JIC: When and where did Mario Junior arrive in this world and what are your early memories of family life and your dad's career?
MOJ: I was born in Puerto Rico, March 5, 1961. I have an older sister (Wanda) and a younger brother (Alan). Of my two siblings, I am the only one to become a musician. I started taking piano lessons when I was ten, and by the age of 12 I started to play the trumpet. I used to practice with my dad and even played duets with him. I would follow him wherever I could. I went to recording sessions, TV shows, ballroom dances, etc. Dad had a cheerful personality. He was always listening to music of different genres. He had an eclectic taste for music. Dad took up the guitar and piano on his own. My home environment was a constant in and out of famous musicians; such as Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, Patato Valdez, Roberto Angleró, Elías Lopés, Juancito Torres, Tito Allen, Tito Rodríguez, to name a few. My father was highly admired and respected by these people.
JIC: Tell me something about your own musical education and experience?
MOJ: I attended the Escuela Libre de Musica in San Juan, where I took trumpet lessons with Mr. Cora. My enthusiasm for music was at the right place because I had the opportunity to meet long-time friends such as Gilberto Santa Rosa, Arturo Ortiz, Humberto Ramírez, David "Piro" Rodríguez, and Ernesto Sánchez, to name only a few. I started playing with Maximo Torres' Chiquitines del Son and Evolución 75 for Don Perignon. I was 15 years old at the time. When I turned 16 I started playing with Tito Allen, who I consider as one of the best soneros ever. This opportunity was a big step for me as it led me to play with fine musicians such as Jimmy Morales, José Gazmey, Jaime Morales, David "Piro" Rodríguez, Andy Guzmán and "Jochi" Rodríguez, educating myself to play with the very best. At 17, I travelled to Traverse City, Michigan, to attend the prestigious Interlochen Summer Arts Camp. There I had the opportunity to see performances by jazz greats such as Maynard Ferguson, Count Basie, Dave Brubeck and to meet Byron Stripling, a fantastic trumpet player who inspired me.
At 18, I went to the Conservatorio de Musica de Puerto Rico and started playing with Willie Rosario's band. I recorded the album El De A 20 De Willie (TH Records, 1980), featuring Tony Vega. In 1980, I attended the University of Miami for two years. An amazing experience! I returned to Puerto Rico to rejoin Willie Rosario's band, where I recorded three more albums, Atizame El Fogón (TH Records 1982), The Salsa Machine (TH Records 1983) and Nuevos Horizontes (Bronco, 1984). Willie gave me the opportunity to co-produce Nuevas Horizontes, which featured Tony Vega and Gilberto Santa Rosa. Dad was just starting his new salsa band with Anthony Cruz and Primi Cruz on lead vocals in which I started playing September of 1984. I recorded six albums with my father's band. I also recorded with artists such as Andy Montañez, Lalo Rodríguez, Paquito Guzmán, Tommy Olivencia, Frankie Ruiz, etc. In 1990, I moved to Miami, where I finished a bachelor's degree in music from the University of Miami. I then started working for Juan Luis Guerra and touring extensively for a couple of years. In 1993, I went back to the University of Miami to complete a Master's in Music Education. During my stay at UM I had the opportunity to play with Dizzy Gillespie, Gerry Mulligan, Joe Henderson, Maria Schneider, Arturo Sandoval, etc. Currently I am a National Board Certified music teacher starting my tenth year for Miami-Dade County Public Schools.
JIC: Mario organised his All Star Band in 1962. What can you tell me about the line-up and personnel of this orchestra?
MOJ: The musicians in the 1962 All Star Band were a special group of very talented musicians who were very enthusiastic and hard working. The most exciting were Elías Lopés, on lead trumpet, Pedro Rivera Toledo, on tenor sax, Celso Clemente, on congas, and Pablo "Papi la Mona" Bonilla, on bongos, replacing Roberto Roena. It was a mini big band with three saxes and four trumpets. The piano player "Chupin" Navarro, also doubled on trombone. "Babo" Jiménez, "Yuyo" Martínez (trumpets); Manolín Montalvo, Julio César Delgado on saxes and Federico "Vigo" on timbales and "Vitito" on bass. The singers were Paquito Álvarez and Emma Rogers.
JIC: The band's baritone sax player Julio César Delgado went on to become a major producer with TH Records in the '80s spearheading the salsa romántica sound. Tell me about him?
MOJ: Julio César remembers Mario Ortiz as an incredible musician and dear friend who gave him the opportunity to play at a higher level. I had the opportunity to record for TH Records and remember Julio César, a hard working producer who gained a reputation for many successful recordings in the industry. I travelled with him to Venezuela to accompany Marvin Santiago in 1982. He then worked for EMI Latin. Julio César is now retired.
JIC: It's from the All Star Band's first four albums, On The Road (Rico Vox, 1963), Swinging With Mario Ortiz All Star Band (Remo, 1964), The Best Of Mario Ortiz (Remo, 1964) and Los Cabezones (Remo, 1965), that the material on the new tribute album is drawn. Before we discuss Mario Ortiz All Star Band Tributo 45 Aniversario, tell me what you can about these recordings? Let's start with On The Road?
MOJ: On The Road was recorded in Puerto Rico in 1963. A well-known producer, Alfred D. Herger, heard that the most exciting band everyone was talking about was Mario Ortiz and his All Star Band. This band was mostly popular because of its live radio broadcasts and the fame and recognition that dad was gaining. This record was reissued later with the name Holiday in Puerto Rico.
JIC: When I co-interviewed Elías Lopés, he said the opportunity to record the Remo albums arose when the All Star Band were contracted to play for three weeks as the house band at New York's famous Palladium Ballroom. Can you tell me more about important milestones in your dad's career?
MOJ: The success of the On The Road album was the one which took the band to the Palladium Ballroom. After a gig there they went to a recording studio and recorded Swinging With Mario Ortiz All Star Band, which was later released in 1964. Paquito Jouvert and Gino Picart were also on trumpets. I strongly believe after listening to these recordings that they will certainly become a collector's item and a strong part of Puerto Rico's music history. The musical recordings of this band could compare to the ones in New York in terms of arrangements and drive (excitement). By the way, that was the first authentic Puerto Rican band to play at the Palladium.
After the All Star Band days, he established himself as a bandleader in the hotel industry. He also did musical arrangements for Roberto Roena and Tommy Olivencia, among others. He recorded Bailables Navideños in 1967 (for the Borinquen label) that was a humongous hit that year. Overall, my father had a continuous fine reputation as a trumpet player, bandleader and arranger.
JIC: Tell me about the new versions of "Que Bonito Es Puerto Rico," "Maina" and "Mambo Infierno" originally from On The Road on the tribute CD?
MOJ: Machito and his Afro-Cubans, which dad was a big fan of, first recorded "Que Bonito Es Puerto Rico." You can hear the famous Graciela on this song. I transcribed dad's arrangement and added a few changes with the help of Ernesto Sánchez. I used Primi Cruz in the lead vocals and Adriana (my niece) doing Graciela's part. "Maina" has a hard swinging chart with a catchy style featuring the beautiful voice of Anthony Cruz. On "Mambo Infierno," Lenny Prieto helped with the transcription. We added a reggaetón mix, which was a lot of fun. The Fania All Star legend, Adalberto Santiago, contributed lead vocals.
JIC: Tell me next about the reinterpretations of "Yare, Yare," "Chinita" and "Para Los Bravos" originally from the first Remo album Swinging With Mario Ortiz All Star Band?
MOJ: On "Yare, Yare," Tony Vega sings the lead vocal part which is a constant soneo that prepares the stage for an exciting piano solo by Papo Lucca. This combination encompasses the essence of this recording. In "Chinita," I recruited my long-time friend, Gilberto Santa Rosa, taking it to another level. "Chinita" is one of my favourite compositions by Roberto Angleró. In "Para Los Bravos," Andy Montañez sings his heart out leading the way to Cheo Feliciano, Gilberto Santa Rosa, Adalberto Santiago, Pedro Brull, Ismael Miranda, Anthony Cruz, Ismael Rivera Jr., Tito Allen and Bobby Cruz with their soneos, paying respect to the great musical personalities who are no longer with us. The concept behind this song and the artists involved will make this a classic for years to come.
JIC: "Con Güiro y Pandereta" was recorded on both Swinging With Mario Ortiz All Star Band and the 1967 Christmas album Bailables Navideños, your father's second release for Borinquen Records. Tell me what you can about the original recordings and Pedro Brull's new version?
MOJ: "Con Güiro y Pandereta" is a Puerto Rican rhythm called bomba. It's a typical Christmas song usually performed during parrandas (a surprise Christmas celebration, where the musicians unexpectedly arrive at the homes of friends). Dad had a love for Christmas music and celebrations to the point where he recorded several Christmas albums. The original recording had Paquito Álvarez on lead vocals and Chico Rivera sang the 1967 version. Pedro Brull, a long-time friend and veteran sonero, gives the new version a different flare. This song has a brief intervention by composer Roberto Angleró and Chico Rivera pretending to be in a parranda.
JIC: Moving onto 1964's The Best Of Mario Ortiz, tell me about the reworkings of "Malagueña," "Rumberito" "Se Acabo el Bembe," "El Soplo" and "Move"?
MOJ: "Malagueña" is a contemporary classic by Ernesto Lecuona in the flamenco style. When you listen to the 1964 recording, the excitement and energy that the band exudes is exhilarating. For this number, I recruited the legendary pianist, Richie Ray, who gave this piece a unique interpretation. On lead trumpet, I featured Luis Aquino. In my opinion, Luis is one of the finest lead trumpeters of our time. We recorded together with Willie Rosario and toured with Juan Luis Guerra. Every time I listen to the ending of the "Malagueña," which has a three against four rhythm, I am reminded of the calibre of my father's musicianship.
"Rumberito" features Bobby Cruz and Roberto Roena. Sometimes I feel like the Fania All Stars came to help me out. Bobby told me that he was a big fan of my dad's music and Roberto was one of my father's dearest friends. The original "Rumberito" was played by Pablo "Papi la Mona" Bonilla, a virtuoso bongo player who was also a legendary figure for percussionists in the Latin scene. Roberto Roena gives a tribute not only to Mario Ortiz but to "Papi" as well. Bobby was nominated this year for a Latin Grammy after more than 100 recordings. "Se Acabo el Bembe" was one of dad's biggest hits during the '60s. Ismael Miranda, another Fania legend, helped us in this gathering of soneros who for many years have been swinging their way through history. In many of these charts, I composed a riff to give the pieces an updated version, but Miranda's swinging feel takes this song sky high. This song will surely be a must for Miranda's fans.
On "El Soplo," I recruited long-time friend and sonero, Tito Allen. I recorded "El Soplo" in a faster tempo incorporating a trumpet solo. Tito's soneos were so well put, that it sounds more like a composition than an improvisation. It is absolutely a work of art! On this chart I used Pedro Rivera Toledo, Ulises Ortiz (my uncle) and Rafael "El Indio" Martínez on saxes and Gole Fernández on timbales. These musicians were the same that recorded this chart 43 years ago. On "Move," a well-known Miles Davis' composition, where the band plays Latin jazz (known in the '60s as "mambo jazz") which was one of the distinctive sounds of Mario Ortiz and his All Star Band. In this version, Rigoberto Díaz pays tribute to the outstanding timbales solo that Gole Fernández recorded in 1964. With Elías Lopés, leading, Tommy Villariny, Luis Aquino and I play in the challenging trumpet section. It was really an honour to have played with Elías, as he was a founding member of the band.
JIC: There is a medley of the boleros "Odiame" and "Anoche Hable Con Un Niño" originally from The Best Of Mario Ortiz and Los Cabezones respectively sung by the original vocalist Chico Rivera. Tell me about Chico's history with your dad's band and the "Medley Boleros"?
MOJ: "Medley Boleros" is a showcase of Chico Rivera's beautiful phrasing and style. Chico is one of the all time bolero (ballad) interpreters of Puerto Rico, which makes this recording truly special. Before Chico joined the band, he was with Orquesta Panamericana, lead by Lito Peña, a great bandleader and father of Cuco, one of the best studio producers on the island. Chico made recordings with this band that made big hits. When dad's band moved to San Jerónimo Hilton, Chico went with him. He also went to Venezuela in the band that toured with Tito Rodríguez.
JIC: And from Los Cabezones, the third Remo release, there are covers of "A Quitarse" and "El Cid" on the tribute project. Tell me about these?
MOJ: The Los Cabezones album was recorded at the same time as The Best of Mario Ortiz album. Los Cabezones was to be released in New York, while The Best Of Mario Ortiz was released in Puerto Rico. The Puerto Rico All Stars recorded "A Quitarse" in 1977 (included in their second album Los Profesionales on Fama), featuring Tito Allen with a piano solo by Mario Román. I wanted to do a different version, so I called Cheo Feliciano. Feliciano recounted that he was there when dad's band played at the Palladium in 1963, describing it as a musical feast. He was so proud to see Puerto Ricans playing at this calibre. Cheo tells me, "I am so happy to be a part of this tribute to Mario Ortiz, he was such a good person."
I decided to record "El Cid," an instrumental song that featured dad on trumpet. Thanks to technology, once again I played with my dad. What an emotional moment! The same as Natalie Cole's recording with her late father and Gilberto Santa Rosa's with his idol, Tito Rodríguez (featured in Santa Rosa's CD A Dos Tiempos De Un Tiempo '92 on Sony Discos). At the end of this recording you can hear my father saying, "Thank you God, and thanks to all of you for your support."
JIC: I recall that the classically trained Luis "Perico" Ortiz began his professional career as a trumpeter with your dad's band in 1966. Tell me about some of the notable musicians that passed through the orchestra at this point?
MOJ: Perico is certainly one of the finest musicians of our time. He played a couple of years with my father at the San Jerónimo Hilton. Perico respected and admired my father, who in turn recommended him to Mongo Santamaría's band.
I could say that Celso Clemente on conga was one of the best congueros ever. The way he drives the band on "Move" (older recording version) is well noted. In this tribute album, Celso Jr. is playing on bongos. I can mention Tony Sánchez (drums), Wilfredo de la Torre (sax), Eddie Feijoo (trumpet) Ramón Irizarry (bass) and Sicinio García (trumpet).
JIC: In 1966 Tito Rodríguez invited Mario and his orchestra to accompany him for a spectacular in Venezuela. What can you tell me about this?
MOJ: In a conversation with Oscar D'León, he tells me that he was there when Mario Ortiz and Tito Rodríguez joined forces for this memorable presentation. He told me how impressed he was to be listening to this music that was so well known in Venezuela. Tito Rodríguez was a big fan of dad's band. He was living in Puerto Rico at the time and said that the only way he was going to Venezuela was with the famous All Star Band. The admiration that Tito Rodríguez had for dad was well known. He also admired dad for his moral character and personality. The Venezuela tour was an impressive event that was highly publicised. Those concerts were a major stepping-stone for dad's career. I have a picture of that band with Juancito Torres, Eladio Pérez and Little Ray Romero.
JIC: After his return to Puerto Rico your father made his debut on Darío González's Borinquen label accompanying the singer Tito Lara on Quisiera (1966). Can you tell me about Lara and this album?
MOJ: Lara, was a well known singer with a beautiful voice and Darío González thought it was going to be a good combination. Another recording that was very successful was for Lissette Álvarez on her debut album that was co-produced by Mario Ortiz and Radames Reyes Alfau.
JIC: I understand that following his marathon residency at the San Jerónimo Hilton Hotel and a very brief stint at the Dupont Plaza Hotel, your dad returned to the commercial circuit in the early '70s. Can you fill in some detail about this period in your dad's career?
MOJ: Dad played for Guillo Carías (bandleader) at the Dupont Plaza (Sheraton), but then he had a band with Paquito Álvarez, as lead singer, which featured a different sound (two trumpets, two trombones and two saxes)
JIC: In 1975 Willie Rosario produced Mario's Vivito y Coleando! for El Gran Combo's EGC label. Tell me about this recording?
MOJ: Rafael Ithier, EGC label, gave dad a chance to record his band. I remember being present at that recording session. That's where I fell in love with salsa. There was a chart called "Random Riff," composed by Bill Hoffman (Stan Kenton's band), that features Rey Coen on piano, dad on flugelhorn and Celso Clemente on congas.
JIC: In 1977 your father made Borinquen Flame for Borinquen, on which 15-year-old Gilberto Santa Rosa made his recording debut. Talking about Borinquen Flame in a 1992 NY Latino magazine interview, Gilberto said: "Mario never got a chance to play with that band because around that time his group became the house band at the Caribe Hilton Hotel. That record had some success, but it really opened doors for me as a professional and I was surrounded by musicians like Elías Lopés." I would like to hear your comments?
MOJ: I met Gilberto in 1974 while attending the Escuela Libre de Musica and soon thereafter I started playing with Perin, better known today as "Don Perignon." Gilberto was my best friend. When my father was asked to produce this album I encouraged him to use Gilberto as a lead vocalist. Gilberto proved himself as a terrific sonero.
Gilberto always remembers my father with love and admiration. He claims that his first recording was his most memorable experience. He was excited to be among such fine musicians as Elías Lopés, Tony Sánchez, Eladio Pérez, Manolito González, Polito Huertas, Santos Colón, Paquito Guzmán, Elliot Romero and René Hernández (his last recording), among others. Elías became Gilberto's mentor and soon after he joined the Orquesta La Grande, in which Elías directed their second recording. Months after that, my dad's band at the Caribe Hilton Hotel went on strike (musician's union). We played a benefit for the musicians. That night Tommy Olivencia's singer, Simon Pérez, arrived late and Gilberto took his place. This created a milestone for Gilberto.
JIC: Paquito Álvarez, lead vocalist since your father's debut album On The Road, made his last appearance on Borinquen Flame. Please tell me about Paquito?
MOJ: When we recorded Vamos A Gozar (Rico Records) in 1984, we used Anthony Cruz and Primi Cruz because at the time we were looking for younger voices. Nevertheless, Paquito was a witty sonero with a beautiful voice. He continued to sing with José Luis Monero, a well known band leader. I later heard that Paquito retired, moved to Orlando, and became a preacher. I will always remember Paquito as a charming and enthusiastic person who was an asset to my dad's band.
JIC: What can you tell me about the 1977 albums Ramito En Salsa and La Calandria En Salsa your dad made with Ramito and La Calandria for Borinquen Records?
MOJ: These albums were due to the success of Bailables Navideños. Darío González, the owner of Borinquen Records, hired dad to produce these albums of well-known Puerto Rican folk singers. Dad was very good at arranging typical Puerto Rican Christmas songs. Dad had a passion for Christmas music.
JIC: Mario did not record as a leader for another seven years. He recorded with Willie Rosario for instance. Did he gig with Willie as a sideman? Can you give me some insight into this phase in his career?
MOJ: No, my dad never played with Willie Rosario as a sideman. Willie invited dad to record as a guest artist in several albums. I remember a trumpet solo in "Caramelito del Campo" sung by Tony Vega (from Nuevas Horizontes '84 on Bronco). The last time I recorded next to dad was in the 1990 album Viva Rosario! (Bronco).
In 1976 my dad recorded with the Puerto Rico All Stars, which brought enormous success. Dad was remembered as a soloist and arranger on "Budo" (from Puerto Rico All Stars '76 on PRAS), a piece by Miles Davis. The creator of the Puerto Rico All Stars was Frankie Gregory, a huge fan of Mario Ortiz and his All Star Band. Frankie convinced dad to co-produce Los Profesionales, the second Puerto Rico All Stars album featuring Tito Allen, Lalo Rodríguez and Yayo el Indio, among others. This band was invited to perform at New York's Madison Square Garden in November 1978. It was a big concert produced by Ralph Mercado. This concert was one of the most memorable events of my life. This band was absolutely incredible! Elías Lopés played an impeccable lead trumpet of phenomenal arrangements by Jorge Millet.
JIC: When did you begin playing with your father's band?
MOJ: During the Caribe Hilton years (1977-1983). I used to play when a fourth trumpet was needed. It was a great experience for me. I had the opportunity of accompanying Vic Damone, Robert Goulet, Diahann Carroll, the Stylistics and Frank Gorshin, to name only a few. In 1984, after the release of the Vamos A Gozar album, I started playing with the band.
JIC: There is no doubt that the mid-'80s was an exciting period of robust swinging salsa in Puerto Rico dominated by various precision drilled dance bands, the frontrunners including Willie Rosario, Bobby Valentín, Tommy Olivencia, Mulenze, Raphy Leavitt and your father's band. He signed with Ralph Cartagena's Rico Records and his hit 1984 debut on the label, Vamos A Gozar, which you played on, was absolutely outstanding. Before we talk about the Rico albums, was the band active prior to the Rico deal? If so, please tell me more?
MOJ: No, the band was not active, but we played a couple of television shows. I convinced my dad that playing as a sideman was not for him. That he should bring back his 1960s band sound with new singers.
JIC: Vamos A Gozar knocked me out when I first heard it, and still does today. Every track is a winner; however "La Gordita," "Los Soneros" and "Vamos" stand out as my personal favourites. Can you give me some insight into the development of this album?
MOJ: We first recorded "Vamos" and El Pescador." Those songs were given to us by Gilberto Santa Rosa. Gilberto had been saving those songs for his dream album. Gilberto, Tony Vega and Chico Rivera were in the coro. Gole Fernández played the timbales on these tracks. Charlie Sierra did the remaining tracks. On bass and piano dad used Ramón Irrizarry and Luis Quevedo, outstanding musicians who used to play in the Caribe Hilton band. My father went to his old friend, Roberto Angleró, looking for compositions. Roberto gave him "Arrollando el Sabor" and "Yo la Busque." Dad's arrangements in this production were very effective. The wind section consisted of four trumpets and three saxes: alto, tenor and baritone (it does not show this on the back cover). The baritone sax had always been there, recorded by Sammy Vélez. It was a misprint on the back of the cover. I must also recognise the performance of Isidro Pérez as the conguero. This recording is one of the highlights of my dad's career.
JIC: Anthony Cruz and Primi Cruz were installed as the lead singers; Anthony was 19-years-old, nearly 10 years junior to Primi. Tell me the story behind their recruitment to the band?
MOJ: Dad met Anthony Cruz through his brother, Nelson, a bass player for José Nogueras. He heard him sing and fell in love with his voice. Primi was recommended by Rafael Ithier. Primi just sang a few songs on the phone and was immediately hired. "Cuidadito" was the first big hit of the album and is still remembered by many of dad's fans. We recorded "Lola," but it was left out and later included in Ritmo y Sabor (Rico, 1985).
JIC: Mario went on to make a further six albums for Cartagena between 1985 and 1991, of which, in my opinion, Ritmo y Sabor (Rico, 1985), ¡Dejenme Soñar! (Rico, 1986) and Algo Diferente (Rico, 1987) are worthy successors to Vamos A Gozar. You played on all but the last release, 1991's The Trumpet Man (Combo). Tell me about the approach your father used in the studio to recording his albums?
MOJ: My father's signature sound was that of a mini big band. He featured his swinging style of arranging, which made Mario Ortiz and his All Star Band popular during the '60s. As much as he wanted to do instrumental music, he decided to please Ralphy Cartagena's approach to the business. I personally miss the creativity that instrumental music brought to Mario Ortiz and his All Star Band. Nevertheless, I will always be grateful to Ralphy Cartagena.
JIC: Ernesto Sánchez became the band's regular baritone saxophonist on 1986's Dejenme Soñar!, and contributed a few arrangements to subsequent albums. His name appears on many Puerto Rican recordings (largely in the salsa romántica vein) as a session musician and arranger. Tell me about him?
MOJ: Ernesto is another friend from the Escuela Libre de Musica. He made a name for himself as an arranger and sax player. He studied at Boston's Berklee School of Music. Tommy Villariny recommended him to Julio César Delgado and Ernesto shined during the salsa romántica years for TH Records. Later on Ernesto also worked for El Gran Combo.
JIC: What were the most popular songs from Vamos A Gozar, Ritmo y Sabor, ¡Dejenme Soñar! and Algo Diferente and what sort of gigs and material were the band performing at the time?
MOJ: The most popular song in Vamos A Gozar was "Cuidadito" followed by "Los Soneros" and "Arrollando el Sabor." In Ritmo y Sabor the most popular song was "Negra Quiereme" followed by "De Ninguna Manera." From ¡Dejenme Soñar! the most popular was "Dejenme Soñar" followed by "Tu Forma de Querer." In Algo Diferente, "En Bancarrota" and "Hablame en la Cama" were the most popular.
JIC: Significantly, Gilberto Santa Rosa acted as artistic assistant on Mario's first four Rico albums and sang in the coro on all of Mario's records issued between 1985 and 1990. What did Gilberto's artistic input comprise?
MOJ: Gilberto coached Primi and Anthony, giving them ideas for the soneos. I consider Gilberto a soneo virtuoso.
JIC: In 1986, Mario (together with Rafael Ithier) produced Gilberto's solo debut Good Vibrations on Combo and contributed arrangements to this album and Gilberto's next two releases. You were an invited guest on Good Vibrations. Can you tell me anything about this?
MOJ: Gilberto considered my father to be his second dad and entrusted his first solo recording to him. I also participated in this recording, because, besides Gilberto respecting me as a musician, he also considered me as a brother.
JIC: Primi Cruz jumped ship to Willie Rosario's band after Algo Diferente which featured Nelson Rodríguez as a third lead and coro vocalist. Was Primi's departure in any way a blow to the band?
MOJ: It was definitely a blow to the band, because of his popularity. But Willie Rosario's band was a stepping-stone for Primi and we recognised it.
JIC: Luigi Valentín filled Cruz's vacancy on Sexy Salsa, which, as the title suggests, marked the band's almost total immersion in salsa romántica waters. Bearing in mind his legacy of energetic, swinging salsa, what was your dad's opinion of salsa romántica?
MOJ: My father was not a big fan of salsa romántica but the success of "En Bancarrota" and "Hablame en la Cama" brought him closer to this style of salsa. Salsa romántica opened doors to many other listeners not necessarily salseros. On the album Sexy Salsa, you can listen to songs like "A Fuego Lento" and "Pensar en Ti", but the arrangements are terrific with an explosive swing.
JIC: Presumably Anthony Cruz gave the band considerable youth appeal at the time?
MOJ: Of course! Not only was he young. He was good looking and had a fabulous voice.
JIC: But Anthony Cruz also departed after 1990 Que Sera De Mi? (Combo) to pursue a solo career, lured away by Tony Moreno to record for his Musical Productions label. How did this impact on the band?
MOJ: Again, we were sorry to see him leave, but we recognised his musical advancement at the time.
JIC: By the way, why did the band switch from Rico to Combo? And who was the Bobby Rodríguez credited as associate producer?
MOJ: This decision was made by Raphy Cartagena. I think that it could have been that El Gran Combo was better identified with Combo Records and my father was identified with Rico Records. This, of course, is only an assumption. Bobby Rodríguez was Cartagena's main man in Puerto Rico.
JIC: Mario radically re-jigged his frontline to two trumpets, two trombones and baritone saxophone for 1991's The Trumpet Man (Combo), his last as a leader. Though you didn't play on this album, are you able to share why your father changed the horn combination?
MOJ: Because he wanted to please Raphy Cartagena. Cartagena thought that the big band sound was on its way out.
JIC: After The Trumpet Man, Mario was hired to produce, arrange and perform on a trio of albums by the former Grupo Niche and Grupo Star singer Moncho Santana: Aquí Estoy!, From Cali With Love and Sabor & Sentimiento '90-3 on Combo. You are credited on Aquí Estoy!. What can you tell me about these projects?
MOJ: I did not play on Aquí Estoy!. I guess that was a misprint. Raphy Cartagena hired dad to take charge of these recordings. Raphy always remembered dad as a fine gentleman. He had faith in my dad's musical creativity and talent. The last album that dad did for Raphy was with Cano Estremera, Punto y Aparte (Combo, 1996; Mario also worked on Cano's 1994 album Cambio de Sentido on Combo). Dad and Raphy were personal friends and business did not get in the way.
JIC: What was the situation regarding live work for the band after your dad stopped recording as a leader and with the rise of romantic solo stars?
MOJ: The band was not playing as much. In 1991 dad dissolved the band and started to freelance. He did arrangements for José Alberto "El Canario", Puerto Rican Power and Alex D'Castro, to name a few. He travelled extensively with Gilberto Santa Rosa and Jerry Rivera. He also did studio work and recording for other genres. He never stopped working.
JIC: I would be interested in hearing about your experience of the developments and changes in the Puerto Rican recording industry over the last three decades?
MOJ: During the '60s and '70s there were many recordings made of different genres. It was not until the '80s, with the rise of salsa, and mid-'80s with the salsa romántica and the popularity of the merengue, that the industry boomed. Musicians were working heavily, people were buying albums; therefore records were made. The recording industry was at its peak!
During the '90s traditional bands such as Willie Rosario, Bobby Valentín,
Orquesta La Selecta, La Sonora Poncena and Roberto Roena and his Apollo Sound, were not working as much as they used to. The hotels were no longer hiring house bands. The rise of technology impacted the music industry. Now one pianist with a synthesiser and rhythm box substituted the band, making this a cheaper option. Piracy is now an issue. Therefore the sales of record albums decreased. Technology, although beneficial in many aspects, has created a better quality in sound and ease of use for many; professionals and laypersons. Today many households with a bit of interest in music have a home studio. But it certainly has put a dent in the commercial recording industry.
JIC: Please could you tell me about the current status of Puerto Rico's recording and live scene?
MOJ: The reggaetón genre has certainly affected salsa in Puerto Rico and elsewhere. Although salsa is making a comeback. Technology again is to blame for the lack of sales of albums. Piracy and downloading has tremendously affected the industry.
JIC: Apart from the tribute album, would you like to tell me what you have been working on recently and what you have in the pipeline?
MOJ: I am mainly freelancing. I have toured with Gilberto Santa Rosa, Rey Ruiz and Willy Chirino, among others. I also play gigs locally (Miami). I was recently contracted to do the house band for Univision for the Latin Grammy Salute to Marco Antonio Solis. At this time, all of my efforts are going towards the Mario Ortiz All Star Band Tributo 45 Aniversario album.
JIC: Is there anything else that you would like to add that we have not talked about?
MOJ: I would like to express my gratitude to all the musicians and singers who have collaborated in this dream project. I want to thank Rolando Alejandro and Gamalier Reyes for their superb engineering work. There were others who called to offer their help to whom I am also appreciative.
I have united in one album the cream of the crop. No amount of money would have been able to afford this kind of production. Most of them say that they remember and admire Mario Ortiz' personality, simplicity, generosity and above all his love for music. I was raised listening to these songs. This is my opportunity to introduce to the new generation the amazing sound of Mario Ortiz and his All Star Band with my own twist. I know that those who remember and lived that era will appreciate this album. This will be my greatest reward and legacy. A musical feast for the real salsero!
JIC: My usual closing question: What title would you choose for this interview?
MOJ: "Mario Ortiz and his All Star Band Revival".
(Be sure to read the complete Mario Ortiz Discographic Profile.)
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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 Donald Clarke's Encyclopedia of Popular Music and Penguin and Guinness Encyclopedias of Popular Music, and has prepared compilations for the Union Square and Nascente labels.