by Susan Kepecs
Trombonist / composer / bandleader Papo Vázquez and his Mighty Pirates Troubadores bring their freewheelin’ bomba bop to Music Hall, under the auspices of the Wisconsin Union Theater and the Isthmus Jazz Series, on Thurs., Nov. 14. Really, bomba bop’s too small a term, but there’s a lot of Borinquen in Vázquez’ sound. Vázquez and his outfit put out warm, gregarious sounds – David Sánchez’ style of Puerto Rican jazz, better known in Madison since he's been here twice in recent years, is cooler – and though the Mighty Pirates’ tunes aren’t meant to be bailable, Vázquez’ music owes at least something to to his salsero history.
Salsera that I am, the first thing I think of when I hear Vázquez’ name is the Fania phenomenon. Born in Philadelphia in 1958 and shuttled back and forth between the City of Brotherly Love and Puerto Rico, Vázquez spent his formative years as a bilingual, bicultural school band kid with a cheap trombone and tons of talent. He joined a Philadelphia salsa band at 14, and a few years later he was playing in the Big Apple with the likes of the great sonero-cum-Latin jazz trompetero Chocolate Armenteros, who was, at that time, working quite a bit with “El Sol de la Musica Latina,” Eddie Palmieri. Next thing Vázquez knew, he was onstage with Palmieri and the other sovereigns of salsa – the Fania All-Stars.
But Vázquez left his salsa story behind years ago. What he wanted was to play jazz, and play jazz he did – with “Slide” Hampton, Dizzy Gillespie, and Mel Lewis, among others – plus Latin leaders like Tito Puente, Palmieri and Manny Oquendo of Conjunto Libre, to name just a few.
Vázquez, whose playing is agile and and rhythmic, like a salsero’s – but freer – emerged as a jazz leader with his Pirates Troubadors in the 1990s. The liner notes on the Pirates’ sixth release, Oasis (2010, Picaro Records) describe a pirate troubador as a person or group that steals your musical allegience, and it’s easy to see why. Oasis is a richly textured album, layering the heartbeat rhythms of Puerto Rico with the free flow of postbop, a bit of the blues, and an occasional global gloss.
The Cuban rumba complex has three basic rhythms, but Puerto Rican bomba has sixteen. On Oasis the Mighty Pirates Troubadors explore several of them, plus a pair of Puerto Rican plenas. “Manga Larga” is a powerful postbop bomba rule, Vázquez’ trombone bookending a wide-open sax solo by longtime Pirate Troubador Willie Williams. “Que Sabes Tu” is hoyo de mula bomba bop with a kiss of hip-hop at the end. The sparkling plena “Sol Tropical” is a big Hallelujah, jivey with subtle hints of New Orleans and Sonny Rollins in the mix. There’s “Danzaon Don Vázquez,” a danza closely related to stately Cuban danzón. Venturing beyond Puerto Rico there’s the title track, a Scherezade-tinged “world jazz” piece, plus “Psalm 59,” a Coltrane-esque jazz waltz, and “San Juan de la Maguana,” a merengue that opens in tight Fania style and then cuts loose.
In anticipation of his upcoming concert I spoke with the trombone master a couple of weeks ago by phone.
CulturalOyster: It’s been a long journey for you, from Fania to the Mighty Pirates Troubadors. Can you reminisce a little?
Vázquez: I tell you I think I would have a lot more fun if I’d been a piano player. With trombone, you inherit bad gums. It’s a recurring theme in my life every time the weather changes. I got this great dentist – Wynton Marsalis and others go to him – but it’s a pain in the neck. But getting back to Fania, it’s difficult to erase that. It’s been 20 years. But I’m not a salsa player or a dance player, I’m a jazz player.
CulturalOyster: But Palmieri says if you can’t dance to it it’s jazz Latin, not Latin jazz.
Vázquez: I love and respect Eddie. But it’s not important if you can dance to this stuff. What’s important is swing. Dizzy said if it doesn’t have an element of the blues its not jazz any more. These kids today go to schools like scientists, their music [millineal jazz] doesn’t swing. It’s weird. I respect a song or two, but most of it I don’t find interesting. So much of the concept of improvisation is gone. Once in a while they let one of their guys loose, but for me improvisation was always the thing – when I was still playing dance music I liked being part of Batacumbele [a Puerto Rican fusion band in which Vázquez was a founding member] because so much of it was improvisation. The big corporations eliminated that, every time you get them involved in art they’re thinking about selling records. Jazz is a problem for the Latin music fan base. Most Latinos stayed behind. they still live in the [salsa] bubble. They didn’t follow us out of it. They don’t understand jazz, they aren’t buying Latin jazz albums or going to hear Latin jazz performed.
CulturalOyster: But you started as a salsa player. What brought you to jazz?
Vázquez: I always aspired to be a jazz musician. It’s not that I wanted to be a star, but for jazz they come to see you perform. But what started it was Jimmy Purvis [a Philadelphia trumpet player in the salsa band Vazquez joined as a teen]. He was like a mentor, an adult friend. He didn’t even know it, but I was sexually abused as a kid. That affected me. I went into a shell, I was afraid of people. But Purvis became my friend. I used to go to his house – no funny stuff, it was all about music. He was Coltrane’s nephew. We’d sit down and listen to music. He gave me Coltrane Live at the Vanguard. I immediately understood I had to learn how to practice. The Coltrane record, I didn’t understand it, I didn’t get it at all. But I really appreciated Purvis’ friendship so I said I’m gonna give this a try, I’m gonna get this. And one day something happened to my brain and I understood it. I was a young kid, 14 years old.
CulturalOyster: So you fell for jazz, but you went to New York and became a salsa star?
Vázquez: In 1984 I was playing with Batacumbele, in Puerto Rico. Everything we played in that band was Cuban-influenced. My mission there was to create a new variation of what people considered Latin jazz – Puerto Rican, more bomba y plena, though I never turned my back on mambo. So I’m a pioneer of bomba jazz, and I feel proud of that. We used to play for the door back then. People would come to hear us and turn around and walk out – they’d say Papo Vázquez? Playing bomba jazz? They didn’t get that at all.
CulturalOyster: But the Pirates’ sound isn’t just bomba bop – it’s sometimes built on a bomba groove, or plena, or more occasionally mambo or something else. But pirates are dangerous, they operate outside the law. Is that you, musically speaking?
Vázquez: It’s gonna be very difficult to describe what I do. There are all original compositions on my records. You buy one, you go on an adventure and see what it is. After my first album as a leader, Breakout (Timeless, 1993), we eliminated bomba jazz. It pigeonholes you into a certain thing. I had that conversation with Mike Viña [the bass player in Ruben Blades’ original Seis del Solar – and to place Breakout in temporal context it’s worth noting that in Vázquez’ discography that album’s bookended by his appearances on Blades’ Caminando and Juan Luis Guerra’s Fogaraté]. I told Viña I don’t wanna be recognized for bomba jazz. And Viña said you want to be a pirate troubador. I said man, that is cool, I love that. So I went for it. I don’t want to be categorized as anything other than a musician and a jazz artist. You want to feel free to do whatever the hell you want to do. If I’m hired to do it I can walk this band into a dance band, that’s a fact. But otherwise we do whatever we want, though it’s mostly built around the Puerto Rican theme – that’s who we are.
CulturalOyster: You’ve been working with Anthony Carrillo since Batacumbele, and he’s your lead percussionist on Oasis – is he coming to Madison with you?
Vázquez: Anthony’s not on this tour – he’s gonna be on the road with Palmieri. Carlitos Maldonado leads the rhythm section, he’s a wonderful percussion player, and we have a wonderful young cat, Gabriel Lugo. These guys are well versed in Afro-Puerto Rican and Afro-Cuban folkloric drumming. They know how to accompany a soloist, and we’re a jazz band, so that’s the most important thing – we’re not playing in a bombazo [a bomba baile in the street]. It’s more controlled. We’re actually having a conversation, but one guy’s talking louder than the rest. I have Victor Jones on drums – he’s been in my band for many years now – we alternate between him and [Alvester] Garnett, who’s on Oasis. It’s good to change the personnel around a little, it gives a little different flavor and keeps it fresh. On sax, Willie [Williams], from Philadelphia, has been with me for about fifteen years. [Milwaukee native and in-demand Big Apple pianist] Rick Germanson is on this tour. I’ve got a new guy, Alexander Ayala, a wonderful bass player.
As a leader you’ve gotta have two or three different combinations of players you can work with. These guys are world class, they play for everybody. My regular bass player, Dezron Douglas, is touring with Ravi Coltrane right now, but he called and said he wants to come home. We’re a family. But these new players, they’ve worked out pretty good.
CulturalOyster: After this tour, what’s coming up for you?
Vázquez: Mostly leading the Pirates, unless Wynton [Marsalis] hires me to compose something [Vázquez composed a work for Marsalis’ Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra in 2010]. Most recently I composed a piece for Arturo O’Farrill’s Latin Jazz Orchestra. But my main concern is to make sure you guys get the best bang for your buck. My job is to have all the musicians onstage and have all the audience members think that was money well spent. Me, as a music fan, I hate to throw my money away – that’s how I see this.
Vázquez brings some mighty jazz outreach education to Madison, too. Thanks to Howard Landsman of the Madison Music Collective (see his comment, below) for updating the stats: there’s a closed-to-the-public master class at Sun Prairie High High on Tuesday morning (Nov. 12) and a master class Tuesday night at the UW School of Music jazz program; a youth-oriented workshop at 5 pm at Centro Hispano on Weds., Nov. 13 and an all-ages workshop, 6:30 - 8 pm, followed by an open jam at 8.