Posts Tagged ‘bassist’

PRdream mourns the passing of Manny Oquendo

Sunday, November 1st, 2009

MANNY OQUENDO
January 1, 1931 – March 25, 2009

Bandleader, percussionist Manny Oquendo passed away March 25, 2009 of a heart attack. A self-taught musician, Oquendo was a senior statesman of the Latin percussion instruments of timbales and bongos before founding and co-directing the critically acclaimed Latin music band, Conjunto Libre for more than 35 years.

A member of the seminal recording “Grupo Folklorico Experimental Nuevayorquino” Parts I & II, Manny Oquendo was known for his understated yet aggressive solo improvisations on both the timbal and bongos. His was not a race as to who could play the fastest, or who could do the most paradiddles, excessive drum rolls or “contra-clave,” Manny Oquendo’s style was a school in and of itself. “The Timbalero must always keep the beat,” he emphasized in interviews. “Never overplay,” was his most consistent rule.

His style was found in the roots of Cuban bands such as Arcaño’s or Orquesta Aragon, never flashy, never overstated. For influence and inspiration he looked to the drummers of the vintage Cuban bands such as bongocero, Ramón Castro, who played with the Orquesta Casino de la Playa and later with Pérez Prado or Conjunto Casino’s Yeyito Iglesias or Papa Kila (Antolín Suárez) who played with Arsenio Rodríguez or Sonora Matancera’s Manteca (José Rosario Chávez). Manny Oquendo was known by what he said on the timbal, not how many things he could do to it.

For more than 60 years, Manny Oquendo’s said many things through his percussive strength and musical vision. His profound yet understated sounds were part of the Latin New York music scene from the ‘40s until today.

Born José Manuel Oquendo on South Fourth St. Brooklyn, he was called “Manolo” before he became “Manny” in his teens. The family later moved to East Harlem in 1939 where Oquendo was captivated by the sounds of music. “Music was everywhere,” he recalled.

East Barrio’s first Latin music record store “Almacenes Hernandez” (originally located at 1600 Madison Avenue and opened in 1927) was just one flight down from the Oquendo family’s apartment. The swinging big bands of Machito, Jose Fajardo and Orquesta Aragon became the soundtrack of his childhood. “There was music constantly coming out of that store, and that was my education,” he recalled.

His first set of drums were a pair of “tom toms” with the skin on both ends. Played with sticks from a wooden hanger, Manny played along to records from his parents’ victrola. Spanish language radio stations were always on in his home. Later, when Oquendo visited his parent’s roots in Ponce, he discovered the cuatro through his grandfather.

After the “tom toms,” Oquendo got a pair of wooden timbales and began playing with Sexteto Sanabria but not before taking a few drum lessons at a school on 125th Street at 25 cents per lesson. Later on, he studied privately with Sam Ulano, a well-known percussion teacher. Jazz drummer Max Roach also studied with Ulano alongside Manny. Whenever they’d run into each other they’d reminisce on their school days. Oquendo always kept his set of trap drums.

By the 1940s, the Oquendos moved to Kelly Street in the South Bronx unknowingly joining a community of likeminded musicians. Pianist, Noro Morales lived down the street from Manny on Stebbins Ave.; Joe Loco was by Horseshoe Park; Tito Rodríguez was on Rogers Place; Tito Puente on 163rd Street, while Arsenio Rodríguez and Ray Coén both lived on Kelly Street.

Oquendo began playing with New York’s top orchestras. He played with the Carlos Medina Orchestra, the Charlie Valero Band and Xavier Cugat’s former singer Luis del Campo before playing with the legendary Marcelino Guerra Band.

From here Oquendo played with trumpeter Frank Garcia and his vocalist, El Boy, where he met Chano Pozo who performed with Miguelito Valdes at a local show and stayed to play with the fledging timbalero. Chano remained with the small group until he got a better paying job. Oquendo moved on as well, joining pianist Jose Curbelo’s orchestra where he performed on a full array of drums owing to their diverse repertoire that included tangos, sambas and American swing music. “It gave me the feeling of being a complete drummer.” He mentioned in an interview to Frank Figueroa over Latin Beat.

From here, Manny Oquendo joined Pupi Campos’ band playing many venues on Long Island alongside Tito Puente and his Picadilly Boys. Since they were both working in the same area, Tito and Manny would ride together to their respective gigs with Manny playing in Tito’s band as he waited for his own show to begin. When Tito’s regular bongocero Chino Pozo left to tour with Katherine Dunham, Tito asked Manny to take over that chair. When Little Ray Romero took a job with Eartha Kit, it was Manny Oquendo who Tito Rodriguez called to fill his bongo chair.

Manny had his Afro-Antillian chops chiseled under the bands of Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez, Johnny Pacheco and others. He had hung with the legendary Chano Pozo, taking the Musician’s Union cabaret license test for him enabling Pozo to work in New York clubs during his stay between 1946 –’48.

By the 1960s, everything Cuban was forbidden. Manny listened to the Mozambique sounds of Pello El Afrokan over short wave radio and on pirated records. Back in his apartment on Kelly Street in the Bronx, he’d practice hitting the timbal with the left and playing the rhythm on the right until he nailed the Cuban genre so well he made it his own.

In 1963, Manny Oquendo joined “La Perfecta,” the conjunto organized by pianist Eddie Palmieri. Alongside congüero, Tommy Lopez, Manny crystallized the Mozambique sound creating a powerhouse rhythm section alongside Palmieri’s improvisational infrastructure.

In 1974 Oquendo and bassist Andy Gonzalez left Palmieri to move in their own direction. Leaving the traditional structures behind, the duo incorporated jazz, Afro-Cuban, Afro-Puerto Rican rhythms while exploring alternatives. The goal was to “free” the music from restrictive content and Libre was born. During 1976 to 1981, Oquendo became a musical historian of the tipico sound he’d perfected with Palmieri. Libre’s first albums included classics by composers Ignacio Pineiro, Rafael Hernandez and Nico Saquito, as well as a traditional Puerto Rican plena by Manuel “Canario” Jimenez.

At the same time, the group attracted a creative crop of innovative young artists in Latin music. The Gonzalez brothers, Andy and Jerry Gonzalez are founding members; Alfredo de la Fe is featured on various incendiary violin solos with singer Herman Olivera making his recorded debut over a Libre recording while flautist Nestor Torres was also a featured guest. At various times, Barry Rogers, Jose Rodrigues, Angel “Papo” Vazquez, Jimmy Bosch, Reynaldo Jorge, Dan Reagan and Steve Turre held down the trombone line, while Oscar Hernandez, Joe Mannozzi, and Marc Diamond rocked the piano chair.

Last year, Puerto Rico’s Radio Station, Z93 dedicated its National Salsa Day to Manny Oquendo.

Manny Oquendo is survived by four sons and two sisters.

According to Manny Oquendo’s wishes, there will not be a viewing. We will post any information regarding a memorial in the future.

A video from Salsa Sunday’s Conversations with the Masters has been posted on our website at www.zondelbarrio.com/Press.php

About Aurora Flores:
Twenty-first century Renaissance woman Aurora Flores is the recipient of numerous awards and is included in Who’s Who in Hispanic America. Currently the President of Aurora Communications, she was the first Latina editor of Latin New York Magazine and the first female music correspondent for Billboard Magazine. While attending Columbia’s Journalism School, she broke into mainstream journalism and today has thousands of articles to her name.

A musician by training, Aurora founded her own septet, Zon del Barrio, bringing together modern music genres, Afro-Boricua folklore and Afro-Cuban salsa. She lectures on Latin music, has composed bilingual songs for Nickelodeon’s “Dora the Explorer,” and recently edited and wrote the foreword for ¡Salsa Talks! A Musical Heritage Uncovered. Aurora can be seen in BET’s Pasos Latinos; BRAVO’s “Palladium, When Mambo was King;” the Smithsonian’s “Latin jazz, La Combinación Perfecta;” and in Edward James Olmos’s “Americanos: Latino Life in the U.S.” alongside the late Tito Puente, playing a composition she co-wrote. She is a proud descendent of Puerto Rican visionary, Eugenio Maria de Hostos.

At Home in Two Traditions: Jazz and the Sounds of Puerto Rico

Friday, December 5th, 2008

G. Paul Burnett/The New York Times

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Miguel Zenón with his band, including the bassist Hans Glawischnig, the drummer Henry Cole and Obanilu Allende, in hat, who plays plena rhythms.
By BEN RATLIFF
Published: December 3, 2008

When the jazz saxophonist and composer Miguel Zenón visits his native Puerto Rico to see his mother and other relatives every year around Christmastime, he rarely hears any jazz. Instead he’s surrounded by plena, a century-old Afro-Caribbean musical tradition, a kind of movable street-corner folksong.

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The composer and saxophonist Miguel Zenón.

Plena is made with three different-size panderos (like tambourines without the cymbals) and voices singing about island myths and scandals, cultural identity, political reality, love and plena itself.

“It’s really common,” he said in an interview last week in Washington Heights, where Mr. Zenón, 31, now lives with his wife, Elga Castro, a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the New School. “And it’s so simple that you find it at a basketball game, at church — anywhere.”

Panderos are easily portable, as opposed to the barrel-shaped drums used in bomba, another island music. And the four-beat plena rhythm has also been part of the holiday-season ritual of parranda, which is akin to Christmas caroling: surprise late-night musical visits to the neighbors.

Part of the jazz tradition is using whatever’s in front of you, and Mr. Zenón, a New Yorker since 1999, has done this before. His album “Jíbaro” (Marsalis Music), from 2005, dealt with the song form of Puerto Rican back-country troubadours, and it had a preoccupation with numbers, particularly in the décima, a 10-line stanza with specific rhyme schemes.

“Jíbaro” threads Puerto Rican folklore through small-group jazz played at a high level, led by Mr. Zenón’s limpid and graceful alto saxophone sound. The album helped establish Mr. Zenón as one of the important contemporary revisers of Latin jazz and spread his reputation for delivering excellent music from a complicated premise, a reputation that reached the secret committees of the MacArthur Foundation, which awarded him one of its $500,000 “genius” grants in September.

This year Mr. Zenón also received a Guggenheim research grant and took a long fact-finding trip back to Puerto Rico. To ask for introductions to the living plena masters, he sought out Hector (Tito) Matos, a plena practitioner who has played with the long-running New York band Los Pleneros de la 21, as well as his own group, Viento de Agua.

Mr. Matos pointed him toward historians and older musicians like Modesto Cepeda and Ismael (Cocolai) Rivera so that Mr. Zenón could understand the music’s origins and functions. He learned about the subtle differences, for instance, between the San Juan-style use of the open hand on the pandero and the slower-tempo “punta de clavo” fingertip style of Mayagüez.

An insight from Ramón López, an ethnomusicologist who has written about plena, helped Mr. Zenón with his work. “He said something to me about how the moment you put plena onstage, it’s not the real thing anymore,” Mr. Zenón said. “So he told me not to worry about it, because it’s already different from what it’s supposed to be.”

Mr. Matos said: “That he decided to focus on plena for a whole recording and a whole research project, that surprised me right away. It’s very important what Miguel is doing, to open the music we play to more ears around the world.”

Mr. Zenón used his research for his composition “Esta Plena,” a work in 10 parts: half instrumental, half with singing. (He wrote his own lyrics too: about the nature of plena, about an all-night New Year’s party at Mr. Matos’s house, about political corruption and the disappearance of cultural tradition.) It will be performed for the first time this week, Thursday through Sunday, at the Jazz Gallery in the South Village. The performances feature his working quartet — Mr. Zenón, the pianist Luis Perdomo, the bassist Hans Glawischnig and the drummer Henry Cole — as well as three extra musicians playing plena rhythms and singing: Mr. Matos, Juan Gutiérrez and Obanilu Allende.

Again in “Esta Plena” Mr. Zenón used numbers as an organizing principle. “There are three panderos in plena,” he said. “So I dealt with the number three. In terms of form I wrote a lot of phrases in three or six. Harmonically I started thinking in terms of major-third intervals and augmented triads, and from there I built melodies and chord progressions.”

That the basic plena rhythm is always in four — with the biggest drum accenting the one and three, the middle one accenting the three and four, and the smallest providing improvised accents — didn’t deter Mr. Zenón. Through “Esta Plena” he has kept the four-beat percussive plena rhythm steady, while writing melodic cycles for the rest of the band in three or nine.

If you think that sounds complex, you’re right. (Mr. Zenón graduated from Berklee College of Music in 1998 and had no formal math training beyond high school. Still, he has a math-and-science way of thinking.) Yet his compositions are always clear and organized, and when they’re making references to folklore, they keep the feeling of dance in them.

The number three, incidentally, has no other significance than the three panderos. Mr. Zenón laughed at the notion that it could signify the trinity. “When I write anything, I need something concrete to help me, something outside of music,” he explained. “On another project it might be letters.”

After the shows at the Jazz Gallery Mr. Zenón will record “Esta Plena” for his next album. And — given the financial freedom of the MacArthur award — then what?

He has an idea. Recently, he said, he was watching the documentary “Heima,” about how the Icelandic rock band Sigur Ros thanked the fans in its home country by playing an unusual series of free concerts: in factories, small-town community centers and even in fields and caves. Mr. Zenón said he got the urge to do something similar in Puerto Rico, particularly in small towns and mountainside areas where jazz is almost never heard.

It could make a difference, he said, to play jazz of the sturdiest sort; not his own, but music by Charlie Parker or John Coltrane or Miles Davis. He might also talk to audiences about improvising, play them records, offer clinics.

“When I grew up there,” he said, “there wasn’t really any live jazz. It was usually background music, and it was always the same eight or nine guys in San Juan. So I saw this movie, and I started thinking: man, if I could do that, just play the music, without having to worry about the business part — tickets, publicity, who’s going to pay the guys, are enough people going to show up — it would be incredible.”

Miguel Zenón performs Thursday through Sunday, 9 and 10:30 p.m., at the Jazz Gallery, 290 Hudson Street, South Village, (212) 242-1063, jazzgallery.org.