Israel "Cachao" Lopez and Charles Mingus
Profile: Double Bass Hits: Two Great Reissues by Two Legendary Bassists
by Chico Alvarez
I’m one of those rare folks who just doesn’t believe in coincidence. Well, almost. Recently, my conviction was somewhat rattled when I played an old LP recording for a non-musician friend who visited me. The artist on the vinyl was the renowned Cuban bassist Israel Lopez. The listener’s initial reaction was...”Que salsa, caballero,” followed shortly by the comment...”The bass player has such a beautiful tone.” Then, after a short pause, he stated...”His sense of timing is impeccable.”...topping it off with the final statement...”His phrasing is just so...percussive...it must be Cachao!” His comments per se were not what shook me up, but rather that an almost verbatim description was used by another friend just a few days earlier upon listening to an old Columbia jazz recording that I played for her. And she was not a musician either! The only discrepancy was in the “salsa” comment. On the earlier occasion, the listener opened up the conversation by uttering the phrase...”Man, what soul!” The object of her admiration was the late Charles Mingus. Freaky, huh? Well, it gets better. About a week later, I received a CD in the mail. It was Mingus’ record, reissued. In the same day, I received the latest Descarga Newsletter and saw that Cachao’s record had also been reissued. Chalk one up for coincidence. Now, let’s talk records.
Israel “Cachao” Lopez
Originally issued on the Musicalia label during the early sixties as Cuban Music in Jam Session, this beautiful collection of descargas is now available as (you guessed it) Descarga Cubana on Lucuso Records. It features Cachao with practically the same personnel included in the classic Panart session of 1958. Although the Panart jam sessions are considered the definitive jams and did, in fact, revolutionize Cuban music, laying the foundation for today’s modern salsa, this recording cannot be ignored and must be given its proper due in the evolution of that music. Cachao, who, with his brother Orestes, wrote over 3000 elegant and yet funky danzones, was responsible for giving this Spanish/French derived formal dance its African flavor. He blended the two elements into a perfect expression of the island’s mulatto character, making it into a Cuban thing. In like manner, he was able to integrate the uniquely jazz concept of jamming into the various forms of Cuban music which, until that time and with very few exceptions, had been highly structured. The arrangement no longer was the law, and the musicians were given the freedom to express themselves. The very word descarga literally means to discharge or unload. In the contemporary language of that time, it simply meant to let loose. Cachao, the musician, composer, arranger, innovator and groundbreaker had done it again. He had turned the uptown after hours jam session into a very Cuban thing.
In 1962, Cachao left Cuba and arrived in New York, a city already much influenced by his innovations, and proceeded to play and jam with many of the top bands, including the orchestra of the great Tito Rodriguez. He relocated, first to Las Vegas and then to Miami where he has been living for about thirteen years now. The music on the CD represents that great era when the descarga reigned supreme with hip musicians and dancers alike. There wasn’t a dance hall or a small club that didn’t showcase their musicians letting loose and showing their stuff. Great duets and battles ensued between musicians on stage, trying to outdo each other, to the delight of the spectators. You can savor it all here on this great reissue. Don’t wait until they’re all gone. Remember, it was roughly about ten years after this recording first came out that the LP edition became a rarity, almost obsolete. And it would be another ten years before the maestro would turn out another masterpiece like this one. And meanwhile, back in New York....
In 1970, after half a decade of self-imposed semi-retirement, Charles Mingus returned to the jazz scene and, under contract with Columbia Records, began working on the ideas for this very ambitious project. In 1972 Let My Children Hear Music was released. This recording was, in Mingus’ own words, “the best album I ever made.” And who would know better? It also marked the return of a colossal genius to the world of music. Very few jazz bassists have ever attained this stature. And, certainly, with the exception of Cachao, no Latin bassists have. Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that there aren’t any good Latin bassists. There are hundreds, no, thousands of them. But Cachao was (and is) much more than just a performer. His contributions to Latin music rival those of Arsenio Rodriguez, Ernesto Lecuona, and even Chico O’Farrill.
And, like Cachao, Mingus was also a composer, an arranger an orchestrator, an innovator and a groundbreaker. The music on this record represents some of MIngus’ most serious efforts up to that time. The prinicpal arranger and orchestrator was Sy Johnson, who also conducted the rather large ensemble on three selections. This enterprising orchestra consisted of ten woodwinds (from piccolos to contrabass clarinets), brass (including French horns and tuba), a section of six bassists and a cello, and, of course, the rhythm section, anchored by Mingus himself. The other selections feature a smaller big band consisting of five reeds, five brass and a rhythm section. The soloists include Charles McPherson on alto sax, trumpeter Lonnie Hillyer and tenor saxophonist Bobby Jones.
And then there’s Mingus. Known for his prolific gift for melody, he offers us an improvised solo of the highest caliber with unique changes in tempo and changes in mode, and with variations on a theme that still manage to fit into one composition. (Sometimes a musician will play eight bars, and then the next eight bars will sound like a completely different theme.) The solo is also structured as if it were a written piece of music, although you will hear different feelings all expressed as one. I’m referring now to “Adagio Ma Non Troppo,” which features six bowed basses and a solo cello. I highly recommend this record to all jazz lovers and particularly to Latin/Hispanic musicians who aspire to become jazzists. Of course, as in all reviews of this nature, this is merely an opinion. But it is an opinion shared by many, including some very discerning musicologists who, I dare say, know a great deal more than I.
Almost simultaneously Cachao and Mingus have become musical institutions. Although MIngus is no longer alive, his legacy lives on. And it lives on in this, his finest endeavor. Of special note is one of Mingus’ earliest works, “The Chill of Death,” which he wrote in 1939 and recorded on this LP some thirty-three years later. He is featured on this reciting a poem in which he equates death with a beautiful woman. McPherson excels on alto sax above the orchestral backing and the arrangement (by Mingus) was tailor made for the six bass section. There is also a very fine solo on “The I of Hurricane Sue” by Julius Watkins on French horn. This one was scored by Mingus and arranged for a large orchestra by Sy Johnson.
My suggestion is to go and purchase these two CDs before they take them off the market—again! Save them for your children and their children. They’re going to need them. As Mingus himself put it, “Let my children hear music! You do what you want with your own!”