Latin Jazz Conversations: Bobby Matos (Part 6)


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Bobby Matos
Artists spend the lives in the creative realm of the world, overflowing with new and exciting musical ideas. In fact, they rarely spend a day in search of new ideas or possibilities. The only issue becomes reconciling their abundance of creative energy with a world that doesn't see the same possibilities. The reality of this clash can be enough to send an artist spiraling out of their creative world. The truly visionary artist that applies their creative energy to a solution has much to give the world and ends up sharing the wealth of their imagination with the world.

Percussionist and bandleader Bobby Matos has spent his entire life thinking creatively, from his first musical explorations in New York to his current career on the West Coast. He gained a wide appreciation for music as a child, and as a teen, Matos made connections with a number of Latin Jazz legends. He dropped out of college to dedicate his life to performance, only to be cut short when the army grabbed him through the draft. A connection with Washington D.C. percussionist Paul Hawkins got Matos through his army years; when he was discharged, he returned to school and dived into a deep study of music. His new skills allowed him to form The Latin Soul Combo and perform original music, eventually catching the attention of Philips Records. Matos recorded the instant classic My Latin Soul, but Philips didn't support the release, leading to poor sales. Matos left the label and signed with Speed Records, recording a solid album with a crack band of New York's finest professionals. Unfortunately, Speed Records went bankrupt, and much of the album was lost in the financial shuffle. Discouraged, Matos dropped his bandleader responsibilities and found extensive work as a sideman and in the studios. Although he worked steadily, Matos still needed a larger change, inspiring a move to West Coast. The transition into the Los Angeles recording scene was slow for Matos, leading him to form a new group, The Heritage Ensemble. After recording a couple of albums, the group evolved into The Bobby Matos Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble, and signed a deal with Cubop Records. Matos recorded a number of outstanding albums during his time on Cubop, but he also served as one of the label's prime producers, working with Jack Costanzo, Ray Armando, Dave Pike, and more. Looking for more control over his own work, Matos joined Lifeforce Jazz, a collective record label that helped him retain rights to his work. Matos recorded a number of high quality Latin Jazz albums for Lifeforce, including his latest release Beautiful As The Moon. The recording captures his current band live in concert, performing everything from standards like “Maiden Voyage" to an arrangement of Yiddish theater music. The recording provides a perfect opportunity to hear the experience and creativity of Matos, revealing the promise of future endeavors.

A life deeply entrenched in the creative realms has allowed Matos to look deep into the rich tradition of Latin Jazz while constantly exploring new possibilities. This wide perspective explodes from Beautiful As The Moon, showing the depth of Matos' past and the open road into his future. In Part One of our interview with Matos, we looked at his early exposure to music, his connection with Latin Jazz legends, and his first steps into performance. We followed Matos into the army in Part Two, and explored his first steps as a bandleader. In Part Three of the interview, we discussed the creation of The Latin Soul Combo, the recording of My Latin Soul, and Matos' unreleased second album. We talked about Matos' move to the West Coast in Part Four, and got into the development of his new band. In Part Five of our interview, we dug into Matos' work as a producer on Cubop with artists like Jack Costanzo and Ray Armando. Today, we conclude our discussion with Matos with a focus on his new album Beautiful As The Moonand future possibilities.

LATIN JAZZ CORNER: Beautiful As The Moonis a fantastic album, so that was a live recording?

BOBBY MATOS: It was from a live concert, but we did put one studio track on there, which is the last track on the album, “Buena Gente." It was the exact same personnel as on the live recording.

LJC: Is this a reflection of the band that you play with now?

BM: This is exactly the band that we play with now. The only difference being that sometimes my son plays with us. He's very focused on getting his education, and he doesn't play with the band if the gig conflicts with schooling. That's the reason that he doesn't appear on Beautiful As The Moon—it was a school night for him.

We went into that concert knowing that it was going to be a live broadcast and knowing that they would give us the recordings. So we carefully chose music that we had never recorded. We did do a couple of tunes that we had recorded before, but we did not put them on the album.

LJC: One of the tunes that I love is your version of “Maramoor Mambo" by Armando Peraza. Is Armando someone that has influenced you?

BM: Armando is one of the most beautiful people on the planet as far as playing percussion or being a great dancer. All you need to do is spend a day with Armando, especially if he's playing anywhere—that's like a master's degree! Armando is the man. In addition to being a wonderful cat, he's just a fabulous percussionist and he's the best dancer that I've ever seen.

LJC: Another track that I love on there is “Just Another Guajira," Mark Weinstein's tune from Cuban Roots. It seems like that tune just doesn't get played enough—how did that tune get into the mix?

BM: I always liked that tune, from the first time that Mark recorded it. Mark Weinstein was an old buddy of mine from New York. We used to work together with a composer/player named Ray Rivera. We would travel out to Brooklyn together from Manhattan on the subway to go to Ray's house for rehearsals. So I knew Mark's music early on. I called Mark and I asked him to send me a lead sheet and he did. I did a sketch on it and I wasn't thrilled with the sketch that I did. So I took it to Danny (Weinstein) and he said, “What if we added a vamp to it as well?" He played with it; it was one of those composite arrangements. I was the one that called Mark and asked him for a lead sheet, because I liked that tune a lot. I still like that tune a lot.

LJC: The Yiddish tune, “Beautiful As The Moon," that you arrange, it provides such a beautiful and unexpected combination. How did you take that tune and translate it into Latin Jazz?

BM: That came to me as I was watching a documentary about Gustavo Dudamel, the Venezuelan conductor. In this documentary, he was presenting a symphonic version of some folkloric music from Venezuela. He had guys playing cuatro, cajon, and stuff like that. He had this very typical folkloric Venezuelan tune that started with the cuatro and the cajon, that's all. Then the orchestra came in a little bit later. I thought, “Wow, that's what I should do with Beautiful As The Moon." Instead of doing it on cajon though, I wanted to do it a little bit differently. I added the bass and just the conga, and kept everyone off their instruments until the bridge. I wrote a tenor background for the bridge, and the piano, timbales, and everyone else came in on the bridge. I felt that idea of keeping it very acoustic sounding and almost folkloric would work for that Yiddish melody.

It sounds like it's an old European Jewish melody, but it's actually a new world tune. The composers probably had big time roots in Europe, but that actually comes from the Yiddish theater in New York. So I would imagine that the composers evoked the folkloric feeling of the Yiddish tunes from Russia, Poland, and stuff in their writing, but it was a theater tune. By stripping it down and making it just violin, bass, and conga, it has more of a folkloric feeling.

I felt that Danny, who has played in Klezmer bands on both trombone and violin, would understand that. Danny has got such a unique background—he loves classic jazz, he can tell you any trombone or fiddle player that played with Ellington, anybody—he knows all those cats. He also knows Klezmer music and he also knows Latin music really, really well. He knows the blues and bebop. So I figured that he'd be the perfect guy to interpret that.

LJC: You've done so much between the East and West Coast as a leader and a sideman—what do you still want to pursue?

BM: I want to be creating more narrative music. I've done this before, but I want to do it more often. I want to collaborate with dance companies, with choreographer, and with playwrights. It's not necessarily that I want to write a Broadway show, I don't. But I do like the idea of doing narrative music. We just did a CD release party and I used dancers, spoken word artists, vocalists, and all sorts of people to enhance the music that we were doing. I love doing that. I love having it all happen on the stage at once—having the dancers, the spoken word, and the band all performing at the same time. I think that's from my days at the theater in New York. They always had musicians on the same stage as actors. So I want to collaborate with dance companies more, and that's starting to happen.

I would like to create projects that have a narrative thread that can be looked at, listened to, and enjoyed on more than one level—like ballets, operas, or something like that. But not in the classical vein, in the Afro-Latin Jazz vein. I think that's something that I really am very interested in.

I'm very interested in the interaction of our music with other influences, other artists, and seeing what comes out of that. I'm a great believer that it's in the mix; that's where the most exciting things happen. When you're talking about Latin Jazz and mambo, you're already taking progressive jazz and Afro-Cuban music, dance music, and several different elements. Even when you take what is thought of as the “pure" Cuban music, it's really the combination of European music, English country dance, chamber music, and African ceremonial music, rumba, and all of those things. It's in the mix that all of the new stuff comes out, and it's just so exciting. That's what I want to see.

I'm open to doing collaborations. I've talked to Hubert Laws about doing some work with him. He's open to it; he loves doing Latin Jazz. We recently did a collaboration with Poncho Sanchez, that a real, real nice evening of music. One of the artists that I really want to work with is Sharon Jones from the Dap Kings. I love this woman from Cape Verde, Sarah Tavares, I'd love to do something with her. I recently collaborated with a Colombian singer, Yari More. He's got such a great voice that I want to do some stuff with him that he might not do with his own orchestra. I might arrange some things with just a piano and a string quartet behind him, doing clave-oriented music. I like doing that kind of thing, working with artists that we don't work with all the time, whether those artists are actors, dancers, choreographers, or musicians. I like the idea of taking the best of what we do and letting it grow. It's in the mix that it happens.

There are plenty of projects that I'd like to explore. I definitely want to do some more soulful things, some Ray Charles, Curtis Mayfield kind of things, but with our sound as a big part of it. I don't want to use their rhythm sections necessarily. I do want to use elements from those artists. I'd like to add chamber music elements back into our music. I want to do a trio recording, with just piano, bass, and conga. We've used this trio a few times when we wanted to keep a Latin Jazz sound, but we couldn't fit into a space with the horns and everything. So we've gone in with a trio and had so much fun doing it, that I want to record the trio. There's lots of possibilities.

I see a little bit more traveling. I'm not as excited by touring as I was when I was younger. I like being close to home, but I don't mind running out of town for a couple of weeks. I just don't want to be on the road all of the time. It's really hard; what every city that you're living in, you're a local band in that city. If the people can hear you all the time, they consider you a local band, unless you never play in the city that you live in

A few of us are trying to come together and start a non-profits arts organization as well. We want to find more ways to further this music and present this music. We want to let people know what this music is. This music suffers from a great underexposure. We're not played on the radio all the time. Usually if you hear us on T.V. or the radio, it's usually a diluted version. If you hear a conga drum on a recording and it's actually played correctly, you think, “Wow, a real tumbao on this record . . . but the rest of the recording is crap" Those days have to end, the whole record has to be up to par. It has to be musically first rate. We've been inundated with some wonderful musicians—we've seen Chucho Valdes, Eddie Palmieri, Tito Puente, Poncho Sanchez, John Santos, Jerry Gonzalez, and Andy Gonzalez. Why should we have to be doing junk that some people think is Latin music?

I actually wound up with eight tunes in a film because the composer was trying to write Latin music and he didn't know what he was doing. He knew what he was doing for the pop stuff, he certainly knew his harmonies, and everything that. He was just out of his depth when it came to writing anything in clave. Just as I would be if I was trying to write the pop stuff. It wasn't a shortcoming, it's just not what he was trained to do. My expertise is in handling the Latin Jazz, handling the Afro-Latin rhythms.

What I'd like to do—I'd like to expand and not be one-dimensional. I'd like to create music that has new dimensions and new vistas in it. Not that I'm going to be playing country-western, hip-hop rumba . . . but I'd like to not be doing something that is considered straight anything. I'd like to be open to cross-cultural and into different kinds of influences. The creative end is never a problem. The creative domain is where artists live.

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This story appears courtesy of The Latin Jazz Corner by Chip Boaz.
Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved.

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