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Ray Barretto, Ancestral Messages CD

Review: Ray Barretto & New World Spirit: Ancestral Messages

by Bobby Sanabria

Ray Barretto is living testimony to the word "historical." Having developed his early playing style during the post World War II be-bop era, he would go on to replace Mongo Santamaría in the Tito Puente orchestra, participating in such classic albums as Dancemania, Herman's Heat Puente's Beat, Tambó, and the cult classic masterpiece Revolving Bandstand during the tail-end of the mambo era. He would go on to become a seminal bandleader in the Cuban dance field. His mastery has enabled him to lead Charanga (flute and string) based ensembles to explosive Conjunto's (brass oriented bands) which would be schools (ala Art Blakey) for three generations of players in the Latin field.

But Ray would also become known as a "first call" studio musician, participating in literally thousands of record dates ranging from straight ahead jazz (Oliver Nelson, Lou Donaldson, George Benson, etc.) to rock n' roll (Edgar Winter & the White Trash, The Rolling Stones). He has even dabbled in the "spoken word", doing a recording with acclaimed actor Brock Peters and as a bandleader combining percussion with poetry (Head Sounds — Fania Records, circa early 70's).

In the Latin community we tend to take our musicians for granted. This is a shame considering the all-encompassing depth of Ray's career and the influence he's had on musicians not only here in New York but worldwide. I remember, when I was very young, becoming a Barretto convert after listening to Hard Hands. I still listen to it for inspiration.

Mr. Barretto's latest offering, Ancestral Messages, shows an artist who is not resting on previous accomplishments but one who is still in the process of evolution, growth, and exploration. He's also assembled a stellar working ensemble of young players who are on the same wavelength as him; with Ray as their guide they honor the past but are not afraid to explore the future.

"New World Spirit," penned by Nuyorican (as is Barretto) trumpeter Rey Vega, showcases this concept beautifully. Beginning with a rumba featuring Ray on quinto (conga soloist) and Vega's diana (typical vocal intro, here done with trumpet) the tune goes into funk and then Bembé (Yoruba rooted 6/8 rhythm) on the bridge, back to funk and then guaracha/mambo alternating with funk. Vega's lyrical solo avoids the high note pyro-technics most people associate with latin style trumpet and "speaks" to the listener — he even quotes from the classic bolero, "Historia de Un Amor." Young Colombian/Brazilero Jay Rodriguez on tenor digs in with some aggressive and impressive blowing as the rhythm section responds, bringing up the heat. A beautiful example of the trad/rad concept — and kudos to Vega for his interesting use of clave (the key cornerstone rhythm of Cuban music.) during the Bembé section of the tune.

"Song for Chano" is Ray's tribute to his primary influence (as far as conga drumming is concerned), Luciano "Chano" Pozo. In fact, if you want to learn how Chano used to play his tumbao (basic repetitive rhythm), check out Barretto's hands at a live performance. Anyway, this is a beautiful "dark" melody that features Ray not only as a player but as an accomplished composer in this Bembé oriented tune. It's anchored by Colombian Jairo Moreno on bass (soon to be Dr. Moreno — he's a Ph. D. candidate at Yale). There's some nice synth background work by fellow Colombian Héctor Martigñon and, again, Ray Vega's lyrical playing is featured on flugelhorn. He also does some nice shekere work. Jay Rodriguez solos on flute and is reminiscent of Barretto's work with Herbie Mann's Afro-Jazz septet of the mid 60's. Pianist Martigñon's bluesy piano solo brings back the sorrowful character of the melody and Ray gives a short chant in a farewell tribute to the first conguero in jazz.

The use of jazz standards as vehicles for Latin rhythms has become passé, to say the least. Unless, of course, some fresh life is breathed into the interpretation of the work. Dominican arranger/trumpeter Angel Fernandez, a former Barretto side-man, has contributed a unique re-working of Eddie Harris' "Freedom Jazz Dance." Part of the credit must be given to Japanese born drummer/timbalero Satoshi Takeishi, who fuses some típico timbale accompaniment with modern day funk. Takeishi has lived in Colombia, South America, absorbing various latin styles and plays tastefully throughout the album. Fernandez gives the tune an apocalyptic intro, setting up the jagged melody with Barretto, and Takeishi providing the mambo/són-funktuno groove. This is followed by some Puerto-Rican Bomba Xicá before the all out descarga (jam session) is fueled by Rodriguez's explosive tenor, then back to the funk for Vega's trumpet where he quotes some Parliament Funkadelic. Martigñon's solo mixes elements of modal harmony, típico Cuban, and blues licks climaxing with the leader on congas.

On a "Sunday Afternoon" is an easy listening guajira-són by educator/band-leader/pianist and one time D.J. Chico Mendoza ,a.k.a. Irv Roberts. The tune features some nice jazz playing by Martigñon who unfortunately is not given enough solo space in order to develop what he started. Héctor quotes some Jorge Dalto in his short solo, which brought a smile to my face.

Given Barretto's historical importance to both jazz and Latin music, it's only natural he includes two more jazz standards on this album. The 1931 "Beautiful Love" is given the jazz-mambo treatment, showcasing Ray Vega's muted trumpet and proves that along with Piro Rodriguez and Barry Daneilian, he is one of the brightest lights on the trumpet today in both jazz and latin. Jay Rodriguez and Martigñon follow with equally commanding panache and verve.

The Benny Goldson classic "Killer Joe" follows with some nice stop time work by Takeishi and Barretto and features a són-montuno treatment of the tune. "Aqua Blue" by Moreno has some South-African flare to it and it's pop oriented melody should give Ray some crossover appeal on pop-jazz stations. But make no mistake — there's some spirited blowing by Martigñon, Rodriguez and Vega.

"Gabriela," penned by Martigñon, is an ode to N.Y.C. band studio singer Gabriela Anders. It starts off as a guajira but with romantic elements featuring Rodriguez on flute and Martigñon on piano. "My Latin N.Y." is another Martigñon original that paints a picture of the hustle and bustle of the apple with its quirky melody and rhythmical changes from sóngo to guaracha to samba.

Barretto's "Ancestral Messages" closes. With its chant-like melody (akin to a Cuban comparsa) Ray goes back, in a sense, to the subconscious roots of Latino's everywhere — for we all are children of Africa, Europe and the Americas. Explosive horn blowing is capped off by the leader in an all too short but sweet solo that exudes maturity.

Ray Barretto has always been a cultural hero in many ways. He's never been afraid to voice his opinion on issues relating to music or the community. Ancestral Messages is a testimony to his all encompassing scope and, with a working band that musically and culturally represents this New World Latino spirit, the path for listeners to follow is open. As Stan Lee might say, onward true believers...

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