Latin Jazz Conversations: Bobby Matos (Part 5)


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Bobby Matos
One of the most exiting parts of being a seasoned professional is the ability to touch other people's artistic statements and make a difference. During an artist's younger days, their main focus lies upon their own personal development as a musician. While they reach their peers, their collaborations generally don't make overarching impacts. More experienced professionals have a more selfless way of sharing their abilities with their colleagues, leaving their mark upon the music without stealing the spotlight. Their influence can change career courses for their peers, and sometimes, leave a lasting impact upon an entire scene.

Percussionist and bandleader Bobby Matos spent years refining his own approach on the East Coast, and by the time that he moved to the West Coast, his intelligent vision helped shape a number of recordings. Exposed to great music as a child, Matos found his way to New York's Latin Jazz legends, gaining the inspiration to focus his energies upon a local Afro-Cuban band. This experience built Matos' skills and earned him local sideman work, but the draft quickly thrust him into army life. His connection to Washington D.C. based percussionist Paul Hawkins kept Matos sane during this time, helping him come to the realization that he needed more insight into music. He used the G.I. Bill to pay his musical education at The New School and The Manhattan School Of Music, giving him the knowledge to create original material. This new music inspired the formation of The Latin Soul Combo, a group that quickly built a reputation in New York and caught the attention of Philips Records. The label signed Matos, who delivered the instant classic My Latin Soul, but a lack of support from Philips led to low sales. Matos parted ways with Philips and signed with Speed Records, recording a second album full of strong material. Unfortunately, Speed fell into bankruptcy, and although a few singles were released, most of the recording disappeared. Frustrated, Matos left his role as a bandleader behind a found extensive work in New York's studios. Ready for a change, Matos moved to Los Angeles, and worked towards establishing himself on the West Coast. It took a while to get his foot into the studios, leading him back into the bandleader life, in front of the vibes based Heritage Ensemble. Over time, this group evolved into The Bobby Matos Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble, and Matos scored a deal with Cubop Records. As a leader, Matos recorded several albums on Cubop, but he also became one of the label's most important producers. During his tenure at Cubop, Matos worked on Jack Costanzo's Back From Havana, Ray Armando's Mallet Hands, Dave Pike's Peligroso, and many more. This work defined a big part of the West Coast sound during the early 2000s, making Matos visible and valuable. Several years later, Matos joined the collective record company Lifeforce Records, giving him more control over the work that would lead him to the present.

Matos' keen ability to share his smart artistic insights without overshadowing his fellow musicians lead him to influence the Los Angeles Latin Jazz sound in the first part of 2000s. His series of collaborations resulted in some important albums that still resonate with vitality. In Part One of our interview with Matos, we looked at his early connections with music, his involvement with New York's Latin Jazz legends, and his first performance experiences. Part Two focused upon Matos' newfound love for the timbales, the impact of the draft, and his beginnings as a bandleader. We dug into the creation of My Latin Soulin Part Three and delved into the origins of his unreleased second album. In Part Four of our interview, we discussed Matos' move to the West Coast, his entry into Los Angeles' recording circuit, and the development of his new band. Today, we examine Matos' work as a producer for Cubop, leading to work with Costanzo, Armando, and more.

BOBBY MATOS: When we were doing Jack Costanzo's first album, there was a section of a song where the reeds were going into this guajeo, playing behind a trumpet solo. I didn't feel the excitement, so I stopped everything. It was a perfectly good take, but I wasn't feeling the excitement. I said, “When you come to this section, I want the whole reed section to stand up." They all looked at me like I had lost my mind. They said, “What are you talking about? Why should we stand up?" I said, “Because the air comes out of your lungs differently when you're standing and the sound of your horn is different when you're standing. I can play you Machito records and I can tell you at what point the reed section is standing up. You can hear it." They had to change the position of the mic so that it would work when they were sitting down and standing up; they had to move everything around—all these guys were groaning. But the final result was what it should have sounded like; I think you can hear on the record when these guys stand up.

Working with Ray Armando was another story. He had his concepts and they were kind of fixed. I was just trying to see what he was doing. He was an old friend of mine so I had an idea of where he was coming from. I didn't do anything radical to change anything, any of his ideas. With all the artists that I worked with, if I could hear something that maybe they weren't hearing or seeing, I might suggest it and then we might try it. Getting the opportunity to work with all these artists that were so different was great.

Dave Pike was a totally different concept, but at the same time, he would turn to me and say, “What do you think goes here? What should I do with this?" Dave Pike's expertise is really in playing straight-ahead. He's done a couple of nice Latin albums, but it's been because of the people that he's worked with. He gave me the opportunity to shape some of his things. But then he would tell me very clearly, “No, I don't want you playing cowbell on this number. It clashes with the key of the song that I'm in. I want you on the cymbal." He would have very definite ideas that might clash with one of my ideas. That's when my engineer would tell me, “Bobby—what's your job as a producer? Make the artist sound good."

Cubop also gave me the opportunity to be heard worldwide on a much wider level than I ever thought possible. My experience with record companies was not very good before Cubop. So Ubiquity/Cubop put me in a different arena. All of a sudden, my music was being heard in England—not as a collector's item, but as a new release. My Latin Soulis very, very big in England as a collector's item; I don't see a nickel for that. The collectors sell their LPs that they've been hanging onto or that they picked up at swap meets. Now Cubop gave me a different arena to play in. Now I could go to different cities and now I was touring. I wasn't touring all the time, but I was able to appear in Connecticut, Nevada, San Francisco, Canada, or Mexico.

Even though I had been on another label for years, it was the Cubop CDs that got me into Latin America. When we went to Colombia for the first time, I didn't think anyone in Colombia would know who we were. I thought that they would say, “Who's this guy, Bobby Matos? Let's go see if we like him." But everyone knew who I was and they knew all my music. They knew the whole catalog. We went to a concert the night before we played at the same venue during the Barranqui Jazz Fest in Barranquilla, one of the radio people asked me, are you going to play “Kimbisia"?" I said, “No, it's not in the show." He said, “I think that you better change your mind. That's one of the biggest songs down here in Colombia, one of the biggest songs that you ever recorded. We love that song, we play it on the radio all the time." I'm thinking, “Really?!?" So we had to go back to the hotel and put a sketch together before the next night. I didn't even have the music with me. I didn't take my whole book; I cut everything down to just what we were going to play. It makes it lighter to travel with. Fortunately, I had a recording; we put it on and we wrote a sketch from the recording. The point is that the Colombians knew all our music, and that was due to Ubiquity.

LATIN JAZZ CORNER: There was another album that you did on Cubop that I really liked, and that was Mambo Jazz, that you did with John Santos and many members of The Machete Ensemble—it was like the All-Stars of the West Coast.

BM: That was so much fun to do, there were so many creative guys on that album. The biggest problem was figuring out who was going to play what on each tune, because we had two pianists, two bassists, a bunch of sax players, and more. I think that the only trombone player that we used on there was Wayne Wallace. John Calloway was the pianist with Machete at the time, but I think that he was happy to get off the piano and pick up the flute. John is a very talented guy—he plays flute, piano, and very nice congas.

LJC: What is that West Coast sound like for you and how would you compare Latin Jazz from the Bay Area and Los Angeles?

BM: The Bay Area has always been very, very close to the Cuban sound, the African sound, and the Brazilian sound. They've been very, very open to those kinds of influences. When the musicians here in L.A. were first starting to hear the Cuban bands and songo, the bands in the Bay Area were already playing that stuff. To me, it always seemed like with the Bay Area's Latin sound, the bands were more progressive. Batachanga was happening, Ascencia was happening—there were a lot of great bands in the Bay Area. The creative energy in San Francisco was just at another level. There are great, creative guys living down here as well, but we'd always kind of look to San Francisco to get validated. The Cuban bands would come to the West Coast and they wouldn't play L.A.! They'd play in the Bay Area and people from L.A. would have to travel to San Francisco to see Los Van Van or Irakere.

Although it didn't seem like it when I first came here, Los Angeles started to develop into a very heavy dance band scene. There are more places that you can go in L.A. on any given night to salsa dance. There are more bands playing that music now and working, than there are in New York right now. New York used to be the mecca for this music. The demographics have changed so much, as they should—things should always evolve. They should always take the best of whatever's new and keep the best of whatever's old. Still, the scene seems to be more lucrative for dance bands in L.A.

LJC: Your last few albums have been on Lifeforce Records, which is a very different label than Cubop; it's a collective. How did you make that move?

BM: Lifeforce is a collective that believes in music as a healing force. They believe that music can regenerate the mind, the body, and the spirit; it's a very African concept, and it's a very Asian concept. Anyone who goes out dancing feels the exhilaration after they've been shaking it to whatever music is playing. Any kind of connection to the music transforms them and they feel different when they come off the dance floor. I knew one of the guys that was a founder of Lifeforce, he's an alto player—Dawan Muhammad. He and Billy Higgins were the ones that started Lifeforce Jazz. He was telling me about his label and he was asking me if I wanted to be a part of that.

I was able to record a live concert that we did. It was a great move, because it's a very economical way to get a CD out. We went into this concert with the idea of “Let's record a bunch of stuff that we haven't released before. Let's do a lot of new music. Since we're going to get a decent recording out of that, let's see if we can put it together and make a commercial album." When I came up with the master, I talked to Dawan about how we were going to do this.

It's totally different with an artist collective label. In most cases, it's the label that owns rights to the master recording. The composer might own the rights to composition, if he doesn't surrender them to the label. If you write a song and you publish it yourself, you own all the legal rights to that music, but you don't own the rights to the recording—the record company does. When you own the rights to the recording, the licensing fees and royalties come back to us. That's a whole source of income that you don't see a nickel of when you're signed to a label. The label gets all of that. I found that a lot of the music that I was recording for Ubiquity was being licensed for films and T.V. Unless I wrote one of the songs and had the publishing on it, I wouldn't see a penny for it; I didn't own the rights to recording. Ubiquity has been very, very good to me, but they also understood that there was more money to be made in licensing than there was in CD sales.

That was one of the stipulations of Lifeforce—the recordings would be released on Lifeforce and Lifeforce would be distributing it, but all the rights belong to the artist. That made a world of difference. Now that I own the rights to all these recordings, we're licensing stuff to films and T.V., as well as compilations on other labels, and the licensing fees go to us. One of my partners and I started a production and publishing company called Cafe Con Bagels Music. We have a piece in the fourth season of Dexter. I have a piece in a comedy/adventure film that came out a year ago. I've got songs in different commercials and cooking shows. All of a sudden there's income from songs that you've already got in the can, and all you have to do is issue these people a license to use it. Then you collect money. It's not that we go into Latin Jazz to get rich, we realize that we're playing niche music. But it's nice to get a few rewards, and if a few rewards are gong to happen, it's nice to get them ourselves instead of giving them up to the label all the time.

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