The loft that propels Afro-Cuban music—a loping vibe buoying the percussive components, faceted choruses, and elegant ferocity of piano and horns that front an ensemble—derives from the bass lines. What Latin bassists etch, rather than the walk of jazz or the pulse of blues-based rock, is the compulsion inherent within the clave, the rhythmic pattern that binds black Cuban and Puerto Rican music. This distinction can yield a grasp for listeners enthralled by Latin music’s verve and formal rigor, who didn’t grow up ensconced in the polyrhythmic drumming, choral chants, and dance at the root of these traditions. The mambo dancer’s feet skirt the downbeat, and rumba ceremonies and salsa parties thrive all night on that interior lift. As the clave moves on what’s inherent and compulsive, as if charting exhalations among the counts, so do Latin bass lines hover around what’s left unplayed, tethering great Latin dance bands into afinque, the music’s dynamic groove.
The maestro of Cuban bass is Israel “Cachao” Lopez, a brilliant, tireless dynamo who soon turns ninety. Cachao’s achievements have garnered resounding acclaim since 1993, when actor Andy Garcia’s documentary on the bandleader revived Cachao’s international stature. His music spans great streams that fed the twentieth century’s Afro-Cuban culture: the danzón, with its elegant polish of European salon pop (with “pop” understood as that which incites a given generation to dance) and the intensity of rumba and son from eastern Cuba. Awarded his first Grammy in 1995 for the exuberant, stylistically diverse Master Sessions, Volume 1, Cachao now has a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, and was fêted at Lincoln Center’s Bajo! festival in 2006.
In the late 1930s, Cachao and his brother Orestes developed nuevo ritmo, fusing danzón with African rhythms and establishing the framework for mambo. Two decades later, his loose Cuban Jam Sessions in Miniature scaled big-band power down into inventive combos, prefiguring salsa. His playing is described as “melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic, all at once, all the time,” by Ned Sublette in his authoritative book Cuba and Its Music. Sublette deems Cachao “arguably the most important bassist in twentieth-century popular music”—and from the hollowed Melanesian tree trunk at the Met Museum to low tango slurs, Walkin’, Bootsy Collins’s funk, and Wu-Tang’s mad beats, bass is the place. Cachao crosses the world’s stages with assistance these days, and does so with a massive smile, arriving at the heart of the matter as soon as he reaches his upright bass.
Andy Gonzalez shared center stage with Cachao at Lincoln Center’s Bajo! fest. Gonzalez cofounded two of New York City’s vital bands: Libre in 1976, with timbalero Manny Oquendo, and the Fort Apache Band in the early eighties with his brother Jerry doubling on brooding trumpet and congas. (At Libre’s post–Valentine’s Day gig at SOB’s, Eddy Zervigon’s dazzling flute balanced with Libre’s three-trombone attack, and Fort Apache played in late February at Sweet Rhythm.) In the mid-1970s, Oquendo and the Gonzalez brothers also led Grupo Folklorico y Experimental Nuevayorkino, a short-lived project whose influential discs, Concepts in Unity and Lo Dice Todo, remain musical lodestones. Last autumn, Grupo reformed for a Berlin date, and plans are in the works for gigs here.
In an interview at his Bronx home, Gonzalez said he first saw Cachao in 1964 at the Embassy Ballroom on 161st Street and Third Avenue, when Gonzalez, at thirteen, was playing his first big dance, and Cachao was headlining with Tito Rodriguez (who led one of mambo’s three stellar orchestras, the others being the Machito and Tito Puente bands). “It was a Sunday afternoon matinee with ten bands, and we were the tenth band,” Gonzalez said with a laugh. “It was a thrill to see Cachao—we’d just started listening to the Cuban Jam Sessions album,” and the bill’s other main attractions, Eddie Palmieri’s La Perfecta and the Joe Cuba Sextette, were hot on Symphony Sid’s radio broadcasts.
Gonzalez stressed the significance of records Cachao made with Tito Rodriguez—“he really showed his skill as a great rhythm player in a big band”—and of the danzón albums made before he left Cuba, noting “one where the original cover shows him holding a bass with his finger in the air, called Superdanzones. Those are his arrangements and they’re very, very cool—one has two woodwinds, a bass clarinet, and a clarinet, adding texture.” Gonzalez said the importance of Patato y Totico, Verve’s 1968 rumba release co-led by the great conguero Patato Valdez, who died in December, includes Cachao and tres player and composer Arsenio Rodriguez playing together: “Their appearance jointly on a record is very rare indeed. And it’s a chance to hear Totico as a singer of guaguanco [the rumba form with the hottest couple dancing]. The only time you got to hear him in those days was in the street. That record had ties to Grupo Folklorico y Experimental—we gave a good listen to that record.”
Analyzing Cachao’s technique, Gonzalez said: “Instead of plucking the way that most bass players do—to the side, like jazz players—he has a way of plucking outwards—bing, bing—and getting a more percussive sound. He brought techniques to Latin music that were never heard before. He was a virtuoso bow player, having played with symphonies in Havana. He has ways of playing and hitting the bow on the string at the same time, which I’d never seen anybody do—he would go ‘kum-ba-ba, kum-ba-ba, kum-ba-ba.’ The ‘kum’ is his plucking, and the ‘ba-ba’ is hitting the string with the bow to follow. It was beyond my comprehension the time that I first heard it.” Gonzalez also spoke of instruments: “Lázaro Prieto, bassist with Arsenio Rodriguez on the great Cuban RCA records, told me that back in Cuba Cachao was always borrowing basses for recording sessions. And on some [of Cachao’s 1980s] Salsoul records, that’s my acoustic bass he’s playing,” said Gonzalez, adding that it has the master’s belt buckle scratches to prove it. “He could pull a good sound out of any instrument—it wasn’t the instrument, it was him.”
Gonzalez grew up listening to Cachao and Bobby Rodriguez, the fluent bassist in the Machito and Tito Puente orchestras, and jazz bassists back to Pops Foster (with Louis Armstrong) and Milton Hinton (with Cab Calloway), who Gonzalez termed “the supreme slap bassist.” Ron Carter’s mid-sixties stint with Miles Davis moved Gonzalez to hone his signature sound, while working up to six nights a week with Ray Barretto’s band and waking up early to attend the High School of Music and Art. “The gut strings the Baby Bass [an amplified, cello-sized upright made of fiberglass or plastic] used made a thumpy sound; then somebody hipped me to strings that the jazz players used on acoustic basses.” Those were tight on his upright electric, but Gonzalez located another model called solo-gauge strings, designed for brighter projection in classical orchestras. By tuning them down a note, he got the tension he was looking for, which “has a lot to do with the sustain I like to hear at the bottom: You play a low note that goes ‘Boommmmm,’ and the note stays.” Alongside Gonzalez’s sofa was an Ampeg advertisement for the Baby Bass from around 1960, picturing Everett Hull, the instrument’s developer, alongside Tito Rodriguez and legendary bassist Julio Andino. Gonzalez said he’d hear Andino on recordings such as Rodriguez’s Live at the Palladium, then learned he had been the original bassist with Machito’s Afro-Cubans in the 1940s. “After he left Tito Rodriguez, he was the bass player when [Johnny] Pacheco changed his band to a conjunto. He happened to be at my first recording session, with Monguito Santamaria, Mongo’s son, in 1967. I was quite nervous, and he said ‘Just play what you’re playing; don’t change a thing.’”
Several Sundays each month, Gonzalez is at Birdland with the Chico O’Farrill Afro-Cuban Jazz Big Band, and every first Wednesday he and the combo NYPR (New York Puerto Ricans) play Willie’s Steakhouse in the South Bronx. His bandmates there include Willie Rodriguez on piano and vocals (formerly with Machito and Libre, Rodriguez is founding principal at the Celia Cruz Bronx High School of Music) and the deft, explosive Nicky Marrero, who followed Manny Oquendo as Eddy Palmieri’s timbalero. As evening settled in Norwood, Gonzalez spun tracks from NYPR’s new Live at Willie’s Steakhouse! (along with tracks from an Enja release, Ori Bata, that he cut with Lucumí folkloric singer Lázaro Ros and called “one of the feathers in my cap”). NYPR’s burnin’ Latin jazz disc will be available at Willie’s (williessteakhouse.com), and at descarga.com.
See this issue's Books section for Ned Sublette's The World That Made New Orleans, and the Rail archives for other installments of From Mambo to Salsa.