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Latin Jazz Conversations: Bobby Matos (Part 4)

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Bobby Matos Every musician reaches a point in their life when they simply need a change. Too much of any good thing can drive a person to boredom and an overload of the negative powers will certainly make an artist crazy. When a musician reaches this point, the need for change drives their next set of decisions. In some cases, an altered musical direction might suit the artist's needs, sparking a new set of inspired creations. A lifestyle change could be the solution for other artists, sending them to a new home or a different set of social circumstances. Whatever the solution, the need arises at some point in every artist's life, and it's important that they follow their instincts into new opportunities.

Percussionist and bandleader Bobby Matos spent his youth building a musical foundation in New York before making a major musical transition onto the West Coast. Matos got his love for music from his family, and as a teen, he found himself frequenting performances from Machito And His Afro-Cubans. He found deep inspiration in the Machito Orchestra, and when the opportunity arose to play percussion in an Afro-Cuban band, he dropped out of college to dedicate himself to the music. The group helped Matos build his skills, but a growing career as a New York sideman was quickly sidelined as the U.S. Army drafted him. He found himself stationed in Washington D.C., where he met percussionist Paul Hawkins and realized that he needed to dig deeper into musicianship. The G.I. Bill allowed Matos to attend school following his service, so he studied theory and harmony at The New School and The Manhattan School Of Music. With the ability to translate his ideas into compositions, Matos formed The Latin Soul Combo and began booking gigs to perform his music. Word about the group spread and he soon recorded a demo that caught the attention of Philips Records. Matos produced the instant classic My Latin Soul, but Philips didn't support the album fully soon parted ways with Matos. He jumped to Speed Records where he created a second album full of strong compositions, but the album disappeared under the company's financial woes. Frustrated with the life of a bandleader, Matos found extensive recording work in New York, which he balanced with sideman gigs. Winds of change soon blew through his life though, taking Matos to Los Angeles looking for work. Unfortunately, the West Coast record companies didn't supply the same volume of studio work that Matos enjoyed in New York. Things progressed slowly, eventually inspiring Matos to return to the life of a bandleader. He formed The Heritage Ensemble, a vibes based group that eventually evolved into a full-blown Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble. He distinguished his work as a bandleader with unique song choices, strong arrangements, and solid performances that became well known across the Latin Jazz world. His group found a home on the Cubop label, where Matos became an important producer, opening the door into the next phase of his career.

Matos established himself through long years of hard work on the East Coast, but when he needed a major change, the West Coast provided a new venue for his Latin Jazz approach. The move reignited his career as a bandleader and eventually made him one of the West Coast's important voices in the genre. In Part One of our interview with Matos, we dug through his early musical influences, his connection to Latin Jazz legends, and his first steps into performance. Part Two of our interview looked at Matos' move towards the timbales, his time in the army, and his first steps as a bandleader. In Part Three of our conversation, we discussed the evolution of his Latin Soul Combo, the creation of My Latin Soul, and his unreleased second album. Today, we delve into his move to the West Coast, his slow entry into the Los Angeles recording scene, and his return to life as a bandleader.

BOBBY MATOS: There came a time that I just wanted to move to the West Coast. A friend of mine was out here and told me that I could stay with him until I got my own place. It sounded very attractive. I was coming out of a failed relationship and I said, “It's time for me to go to California."

I thought with all the contacts that I had in the recording industry and all the guys that were calling me for dates in New York, it would continue in L.A. Guess what? It did not. It did not translate at all. I would call all these different contractors that all my friends recommended and they would say, “Oh, great! You know who you should call . . ." Then they'd pass me onto somebody else. They would give you somebody else's number and they would never do anything for you. Then you wound up going full circle—you'd come back to the original person. I would meet some of these people later on sessions that I had gotten from someone else. The producer would tell the contractor to call me for the percussion work. They would call me and I would think, “Wait, this is the guy that never returned my call."

So I started to get a little bit of work, but nothing like the volume of work that I had in New York. In New York, I wasn't looking to be a leader most of the time. I had that little quintet with Andy, which was a lot different from the Latin Soul band that I had. With Andy, he always had a pianist and bassist that he worked with that knew his repertoire. We would do the same repertoire; maybe I would add a few tunes to it. That was enough to satisfy my creative output because I was playing with all these different cats on all these different dates. I basically made a living from doing session work and being a sideman. I did a million R 'n B dates, and the sidemen were some of the best guys in the business. The guys were all playing with Aretha Franklin or Roberta Flack. Eric Gayle was on one of the dates, Candido was on another—I was playing with great musicians. I did ten days with Trini Lopez at one time and I was one of the only East Coast guys that was jobbed in for it. All the rest of the guys were from California. So I figured that I'd call all of these guys when I got out to California. They did introduce me to a few musicians when I got out here. It was a very different scene. I had to work a lot harder in California to get established.

There wasn't a lot of Latin Jazz in California; you would have thought that there would have been. You think of Cal Tjader, Bobby Montez, and Eddie Cano, and you think of Latin Jazz. But there wasn't enough to make a living. When I came to this town, Willie Bobo had a band. Willie was playing more soulful music than straight ahead Latin Jazz. It was a great band, but I think that he was getting over because he had added that soul element to his music. I struggled for many years out here.

As life went on, I got involved in a relationship that forced me to sacrifice a lot of my artistic and professional endeavors. I was still playing a bit here and there, but it wasn't like a full time thing. After I moved on, I was playing all the time, I was having rehearsals in my living room, I was hunting gigs, and it was like my life was returned to me. It was like, “This is what I'm supposed to be doing!"

So I decided to try to be a leader again. I was always writing music, and there weren't any bands that were playing this music that I was hearing. So I started another band. It was a great quintet. One of the guys in the band now is making a lot of noise on the jazz scene—John Beasley. They vibes player was Durell Harris; he could play vibes and sing like George Benson. It was a quintet based on a Cal Tjader sound. Little by little I started adding some horns to it. That became The Heritage Ensemble, and we did a couple of recordings. Eventually, the horns started to dominate and the vibes started to take a lesser role. I changed the sound of the band, and by the time that I was recording for Cubop, it was a much more horn-dominated band. So I changed the name of the band from The Heritage Ensemble to Bobby Matos And His Afro-Cuban Jazz Ensemble.

One day somebody asked me, “Who's Cuban in this band?" At times I've had Cubans in the band, but I looked around at the time and said, “Well, nobody's Cuban in this band." Plus, we played Brazilian music and Puerto Rican music as well as Afro-Cuban music. So I said, “We're going to change it to The Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble, which was something that I had seen on an old Machito record. Machito had been one of my first heroes. Little did I know that Chico O'Farrill's band would metamorphosis into Arturo O'Farrill's Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra. Now there's a Chicago Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble too. I kind of like that, because it's more inclusive. It means you can play a Venezuelan joropo, a Puerto Rican bomba, a Brazilian samba, or an Argentinean tango. Although I very much love Afro-Cuban music, but there's more to life than Afro-Cuban music. There's Brazilian music, Puerto Rican music, Venezuelan music, Colombian music, and more.

Then there's the jazz element involved. I've always loved straight-ahead jazz—not as much as I've like Latin Jazz—but I've always loved the jazz innovators. Dizzy, Monk, Blakey, Horace Silver, Trane, Cannonball—they were big heroes of mine. But I always like the stuff that had the Latin rhythms the best. One of the reasons that I like Horace Silver was that everything feels like it's written for clave. Even his tunes that have odd measures in them, they still sound like they're written clave conscious. To me, that's the penultimate music.

Some of that stuff is classic music—the blues never goes out of style, bebop doesn't go out of style, it doesn't sound dated. You might say, “That's the sound of the forties or the fifties," but it's really not dated. It's really like classical music—it may come out of the seventeenth century, but still, it's not going out of style anytime soon, it's here to stay. Nobody is going to say that we don't play Beethoven anymore because it's old—the same with Bird, Miles, Puente, Cal Tjader, or Mongo.

LATIN JAZZ CORNER: On all your recordings as a bandleader in Los Angeles, you have such an interesting choice of tunes—from Pharaoh Sanders' “The Creator Has A Master Plan" and The Rascal's tune “Groovin'" on Session all the way up to today. What inspires you to go in all these different directions?

BM: It kind of reflects what I've been listening to and what I love. I worked for a while with The Rascals; I was on the road with them for a while. When I auditioned for them, I had no idea who I was auditioning for. I was giving conga lessons to one of the singers that was on tour with The Rascals and she said, “We need a percussionist." She invited me to this audition, but she did not tell me the name of the band. I went to the audition and I didn't know who those guys were. Then I realized that these are the same guys that make the records that I've been buying! I had the sheet music to “People Got To Be Free" because I loved it.

When you hear something really sublime, you've got to like it. I just love R n' B and the blues . . . I love bebop, Chopin, Rachmaninoff—how can you not? Brazilian music really knocks my socks off. I love the music from the Cape Verde. Last year, I heard a duo of two guys from Romania playing violin and accordion, playing all this Middle European music that I had no clue what to call it. But it was sublime! How can you not be turned on my music that just reaches to the highest levels?

How can you not have all these influences? How can you not be turned on by what you love? I've been a Ray Charles fan from the very first time that I've heard him. I used to listen to Bo Diddley, to Josh White, to B.B. King, to Leadbelly, to Bud Powell, to The Rascals . . . how could you not be excited by these guys? When you hear something that really just grabs you, you think, “How could I use that element? How could I capture that feeling?"

LJC: During your time with Cubop, you put out some great albums as a leader, but you were also a producer for them . . .

BM: They gave me an opportunity to work with all these different artists. Each artist was a different experience. Some times theses guys would come in with their ideas fully formed and it's not your job to change those ideas.

At first, I was kind of feeling my way around what a producer should be, so I turned and I asked my engineer for advice. I was trying to use the same engineer for every date because I liked working with him, he knew how to mic my drums, and how to mic everything else to get the kind of sound that I wanted. I said, “Man, I'm hearing a different concept than he hears—how much should I insist on this?" He turned around and he said, “Bobby, your job as a producer is to make the artist look good."

I'd been producing myself and I didn't have any problem with that. But when you're dealing with a second person as an artist, then there's a dichotomy. So I was thinking how to make the artist look good; it wasn't about me imposing my will about what I'm hearing—I do that on my stuff. How do I make the artist look good and give him his own sound? Every once in a while, I would tell someone, “Listen, why don't we try this?" There were a couple of little things where I could help shape the sound.


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This story appears courtesy of The Latin Jazz Corner by Chip Boaz.
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