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Interviews

Mark Weinstein: Cuban Roots

By Published: December 22, 2005

I dont feel constrained by what is going on around me in popular dance music or even contemporary Latin Jazz. I play how the music moves me.

Flautist/trombonist/Professor Mark Weinstein is a first generation Jewish American of Ukranian descent. He was raised in Brooklyn and grew up in a multi cultural atmosphere, listening to the music of Felix Chappotin, Chocolate Armenteros, Miles Davis and Charles Mingus.

Prior to taking up the flute, Weinstein made his mark as a trombonist and member of Eddie Palmieri's (original) La Perfecta.

In 1967, Weinstein shook up the music community with Cuban Roots, an innovative recording that fused elements of traditional Cuban folkloric music, free jazz and West African Yoruba music. As a trombonist, Weinstein has performed with Chick Corea, Cal Tjader, Tito Puente, Larry Harlow, Herbie Mann, Maynard Ferguson, Thad Jones, Mel Lewis, Lionel Hampton, Clark Terry, Larry Harlow, Louie Ramirez, Charlie Palmieri and La Playa Sextet.

From 1971 to 1974 Mark took a hiatus from the music scene to pursue a Master's Degree and a PHD in Philosophy. He is currently a professor and chairperson of the Department of Educational Foundations at Montclair State University in New Jersey.

In 1996, Mark returned to the music scene. These days, he is active in the New York jazz scene, playing flute with chamber-jazz ensembles and in diverse styles such as North Indian, Brazilian and Klezmer. Weinstein is currently celebrating the release of Algo Más, his third installment in the widely acclaimed Cuban Roots series. My conversation with Mark Weinstein proved to be lively, informative, and humorous.

All About Jazz: You've said that you do not necessarily think of yourself as playing Cuban music and that you reinterpret the music through "the heart and ears of a jazz musician.

Mark Weinstein: Two things are pretty obvious from the three versions of Cuban Roots when contrasted with much of Latin jazz. The first is that my music is rooted in deep Cuban folkloric traditions. I play traditional melodies and use folkloric rather than dance band drums. The second is that the music has very little to do with mainstream Cuban dance band music or salsa or even most Latin Jazz (no drums, no timbales). And I also don't play charanga style flute. But most important I don't feel constrained by what is going on around me in popular dance music or even contemporary Latin jazz. I play how the music moves me and I am a jazz musician, heart, ears, soul and chops. And I am a jazz musician of the '60s brought up in an era when jazz musicians were expected to be innovators.

AAJ: After so many years as an established trombonist, what prompted you to take up the flute?

MW: I was pretty bitter after Cuban Roots came out. I got almost no airplay and the guys who I looked up to, Barry and Eddie, never really gave it any energy. I played for a minute with Mike Bloomfield and Buddy Miles and got an offer to put a horn section together for Janice Joplin. I turned it down and turned my back on the music business. When I started playing again my standard line was that "flute will keep me out of the music business (which compared to trombone is certainly true). But, if truth is to be told, in 1973 I went to Greece and here I am on this nude beach and there are two guitar players and a flautist in the middle of this circle of gorgeous people. And I said to myself, "Put your self in that picture. The next summer I went back to Greece with a flute. An old Armstrong that turned black from all the playing I did on beaches, and parks and the street.

AAJ: Let's start by going back to the year 1967 and Cuban Roots.

MW: I had been working with salsa bands for some time and was always intrigued by folkloric percussion, which I thought would be suited to free jazz soloing because of the internal complexity of the patterns. I had some source albums of folkloric material that Barry Rogers had turned me on to, so I picked the strongest melodies and made a demo of 3 charts with some friends of mine including Eddy Martinez on piano and Phil Newsum from Larry Harlow's band on drums. Al Santiago, of Blessed Memory, had the courage to let me record it [on Musicor Records].

AAJ: I understand the entire album was recorded in one three hour session and all of the tracks are complete first takes. Tell me about the making of Cuban Roots.

MW: At first none of the drummers I knew would touch the project since playing toques de santos with jazz instruments seemed sacrilegious. But when Julito Collazo said he would do it I was able to get the most knowledgeable drummers in the city, although they played on conga drums rather than batá. I picked Arnie Lawrence to play alto since he is a mambo dance instructor as well as a demon alto player, and so I know he wouldn't get thrown by the rhythm. Mario Rivera was the baritone saxophonist in Latin music (and still is). Chick Corea was playing with me in Herbie Mann's band and I know he had the best timing and the best ears. Bass was a problem since I needed someone who would stay out of the way of the drums and who had an open mind. Bobby Valentin had just switched from trumpet to bass and I had enormous faith in his musicianship.

I wrote all of the charts with plenty of room for blowing. We had one rehearsal and played the entire album in one session. At the very end I saw the head of Musicor Records screaming at Al [Santiago], but the date was already in the can and with very little mixing or concern for the sound it was released.

AAJ: Julito Collazo gave his permission for the drummers to play the rhythms for the toques de santos in a secular/commercial setting. For the benefit of those who may not have a knowledge of the religion, could you comment on toques de santos?

MW: These are the songs and rhythms that are played for the Orishas in the Santeria religion. When I first brought the project to Tommy [Lopez] and he heard I was playing the melody for Chango he packed up his drums and left. But Julito was a santero and when he said it was OK, Tommy was thrilled to get a chance to play with him. But they played on dance band drums not the blessed drums that were used for religious purposes.

AAJ: And the end result?

MW: The album is incredibly raw, the sound bordering on ugly but the playing is amazing. I don't know how much influence the record had, but Chick [Corea] was playing in a style unheard of at the time, although I hear a lot of that freedom in the generation of piano players that came up in the 80's. When I listen to early Paquito [D'Rivera] and the way sax players play today I can only say Arnie [Lawrence] did it in 1967. I'm not sure how much of an influence I had on trombone players, but to this day whenever I meet a Latin trombonist he treats me with a lot of respect. The drums were and are a unique powerhouse. The swing is enormous; no trap drums, no timbales, no cymbals, just the real deal.

AAJ: As I understand it, only 500 copies were printed.

MW: I believe that was the number. I never received any royalty statement. Although I got paid for the date as a leader and arranger. Those were the days.

AAJ: Cuban Roots was quite progressive for its time. How was the recording received?

MW: The album received almost no air play. Billy Taylor played a few cuts once or twice [on the radio]. But worse, the musicians who I respected the most seemed unimpressed. That was a big part of my leaving the business and becoming a college professor. In 1976 Larry Harlow asked me if I had a sealed copy and it became the basis for the Artol Records release which was the version that most musicians heard. Sadly the master had a skip right at the beginning of Chick's solo.

AAJ: Did you ever imagine that you would return to the music scene?

MW: I only really stopped playing from 1971 to 1974. I tried to get back on the scene with Orisha Suite in 1977 Although I'm proud of the music which is finally available on the CD of Cuban Roots in 1976, I had a lot to learn as a flautist. I scuffled as an academic for 10 years teaching part-time and doing consultant work because full-time college teaching jobs in NY are too hard to get and I wasn't about to leave town. I did a lot of playing with street bands in the '80s and jammed a lot with guitar players. I love playing in the street and in parks. I studied here and there and put in hours and hours every day playing with Jamey Aebersold records. When I finally got a tenure track job at Montclair State University I started self-producing records and did a lot a small gigs in New Jersey and in town.

Algo Más is my eighth CD on flute. Of course to get tenure I had to put in time and energy. Teaching and publishing takes a lot of time and energy and since I don't have to make a living at music I play much less than I'd like to. I'm a lot like the Maytag man, the loneliest guy in town. I'll know I'm back on the scene when the gigs start happening.

AAJ: Prior to Cuban Roots, none of the musicians had played jazz with folkloric rhythms...

MW: No one to my knowledge had ever done that before except for some short sections on some Machito records. When Herbie Mann died I saw in his discography that he made an early record with African drums, but I didn't know about it at the time. Chick had never even heard drumming like that and Bobby was a salsero, unfamiliar with rumba. That gave them the freedom to respond outside the box and not interfere with the complex counterpoint of the drums. Arnie, like myself, considered himself a free jazz player and so, to us, having all of that power and complexity to play with was sheer pleasure. Although I played free, I did know the tradition and tried to play like a sonero. I was also influenced by a Cuban trumpet player, La Florecita who was famous for his playing with drum and voice ensembles in the Carnaval in Havana.

AAJ: I understand that trombonist Barry Rogers was an invited guest, however, he failed to participate. I can't help but imagine how the recording might have turned out had he been a participant.

MW: I originally wanted two bones and alto. I played some of the basic harmonic sketches for Barry and he said that it was my baby. It would have been a very different album with Barry. He never would have put up with the awful recording conditions or the unconcern for the sound. I was not even invited to the mix. But then Musicor might have killed the whole thing. I would have loved to make a record with Barry. And I think he is one of the few people who would have understood what I was doing with Algo Más. But more of that later.

AAJ: Aside from the bootleg (Artol) version, Cuban Roots was unavailable to the public for twenty-five years. Any idea why? Is it currently available?

MW: The person who controls the master refused to release it or even license it to me. Although he did license one track for a Masters of Latin Jazz compilation [on Rhino records]. That really blows me away. Here are all these Latin jazz classics by legends who recorded hundreds of hit albums and sold hundreds of thousands and in the middle is Mark Weinstein and a record that sold a few hundred copies at most. Go figure. A benefactor arranged for a limited CD run of a remastered version of Cuban Roots on the best available vinyl. The CD is available through my web page, www.jazzfluteweinstein.com.

AAJ: In addition to Cuban Roots, my copy includes the Orisha Suite. Tell me about the Orisha Suite.

MW: When I heard about the possibility of a CD version of Cuban Roots I asked that it include a never-released recording I made in 1977 when I had just begun to play flute. This is a very different approach to the material. It is a suite of two toques sung by Olympia Alfara, backed by batá and chorus and multi-tracked keyboards played by Eddy Martinez. There is an instrumental introduction with flute, classical guitar, three cellos and me playing a bass line on the marimba. A long interlude which is a free composition for flute and classical guitar with 4 French horns and an instrumental coda with me playing 3 layers of marimba locked in with the batá drums and 3 tracks of flute, two playing very fast and free and a lyrical flute solo on top of all that. Ah, to be young again!

AAJ: Any idea why Cuban Roots came to be known as the "Green Album."

MW: The color of the cover!

AAJ: Let's fast forward to Cuban Roots Revisited, which was recorded 32 years after Cuban Roots. As the story goes, Michael McFadin, the co-founder of Cubop Records, attempted and failed to acquire the rights to Cuban Roots. As an alternative, he commissioned the making of Cuban Roots Revisited. What was your initial reaction when he approached you with the idea of recording Cuban Roots Revisited?

MW: I said a small prayer of thanks. By that time I had recorded two albums on flute including Jazz World Trios, which is still one of my favorite albums and I saw this as a way back into the music. My nephew Dan Weinstein is responsible for doing the leg work getting us all hooked up.

AAJ: As the title implies, you "revisited" your original concept. How did you approach the project and what was your vision for going in?

MW: The revisit was basically the material. We did the same songs, except for the Beatles tune and adding "Ellegua. Dan [Weinstein] orchestrated my trombone solo on "Just Another Guajira for the three bones. Otherwise the concept was very different. Because Dan was involved, I wanted to use trombones. I had written for trombones extensively in the '60s and '70s. I used the trombones as a choir utilizing the bass trombone to get a broad orchestral sound against which the flute could stand out. LA has a great folkloric tradition and Lazara Gallaraga is one of the most important teachers, along with Francisco Aguabella, that induced the best drummers in town to participate in the project.

We rehearsed the horns and then went into the studio. But what really made the date was Omar Sosa. Omar responded immediately to the arrangements, and the two bassists, Carlitos La Puerta and Eddie Resto followed his lead. I had never heard Omar before, and during a break early on the first day when everyone else was eating, Omar and I jammed. That convinced me that I was dealing with a giant and convinced him that my head was as open as his. I consider his playing on the album to be as innovative as Chick's was on the original. The difference being that Omar is a master of Cuban music, having studied all aspects of rumba and being deeply immersed in Santeria. His playing is deeply connected with the drums but never duplicates or gets in the way of the drum conversation.

AAJ: It must have been incredibly gratifying to record your material in a state-of-the-art environment.

MW: It's a good thing we had great equipment and great engineers. By the time we finished two days of recording and a half day of fixing parts, we mixed the whole thing in one of the most intense afternoons of my life. Fortunately the board was completely automated—this was before Pro-Tools—and so we could mix very efficiently, saving moves on the board in a primitive computer so that we could move quickly from mix to mix and tune to tune. We had everything going for us except for time and budget. I had to be back in New Jersey to teach and the budget only paid for 3 days in the studio.

AAJ: How does Cuban Roots compare to Cuban Roots Revisited?

MW: Thirty years later, Cuban Roots Revisited reflects a more mature attitude towards composition and a much more secure relationship to the source material. Everyone there had an understanding of the folkloric elements and an openness to innovation. I was no longer a power player and Cuban Roots Revisited is much more thoughtful. The tempos are slower and the textures rich and evocative. Omar's solos are spectacular and I especially love him and Dan on violin on "Ochún.

AAJ: I understand that percussionist Francisco Aguabella played a major role in the making of the album.

MW: When I came LA a few days before the date, Danny had me meet Francisco in a donut shop over a cup of coffee. I reminded him that we had played together with Eddie Palmieri during one of the many times when Barry was into other projects and I would take over for him. He remembered playing with me and agreed.. Since he was one of the master drummers of the Carnaval in Havana that gave us the depth we needed. The two comparsas on the date are among the best recordings of Carnaval drums ever made in the US. We recorded with 4 drummers and then re-recorded 4 more layers on top. I have to mention John Santos who ended up playing an essential role in keeping things together through his wonderful gentility and sense of humor.

AAJ: All of the musicians hail from the west coast. Was this by choice?

MW: Cubop is a west coast company and Dan did all of the contracting

AAJ: How was Cuban Roots Revisited received?

MW: It got decent play and some good reviews, but it wasn't a working band and so after the first period of interest it faded into the background.

AAJ: Nonetheless, you must have been pleased with the end result. For one thing, it gave you the opportunity to tie up some loose ends. Secondly, the sound quality is superb.

MW: Yes, I'm pleased with the results. The engineers did a wonderful job, given the time pressures we were under. I'd like to do another album like it, that is an orchestral approach to rumba, but this time with strings. I'm just beginning to move in that direction and hope to get Omar involved. Meanwhile I am finishing another project with Omar on marimba and vibes with a baliphone player from the Ivory Coast and African drummers. But that is another free-blowing album. The follow-up to Cuban Roots Revisited will be compositional.

AAJ: I look forward to hearing the results of that project. Any final thoughts on Cuban Roots Revisited?

MW: I don't think the album has reached the audience it deserves and I'm hoping that with my latest album, Algo Más, my work will be seen as a whole. Of course, this interview is evidence that it is already happening.

AAJ: Absolutely. Before we discuss Algo Más, let's talk about your relationship with Barry Rogers. Obviously, Barry had a tremendous impact on you, both personally and professionally.

MW: Barry was my best friend and my mentor. He will always be my model of what it means to be a musician. He had the best and broadest taste in music of anyone I knew. He had the most inventive mind, but was always disciplined and thought about the music, rather than show off. And he could swing a band. When Barry got going and the whistles started blowing and the Palladium was jumping—and I got to play the same damn riff over and over for a million times. Jose Rodriguez was a saint. I had to leave that band and be a jazz musician. Barry stayed tight with me and gave me a lot of gigs. Me, Barry and Jose did all the Tito [Puente] albums during the '60s and he turned Herbie Mann on to me.

AAJ: You stated that Barry Rogers is one of the few people who would have understood the concept of Algo Más. How so?

MW: Barry is in my head when I play, especially when I play Cuban music. After I made the album I missed him like crazy. Not being able to play it for him breaks my heart.

AAJ: A few years ago, I saw you perform at El Taller Latino, a performance space on 104th Street and Broadway [New York]. At the time you were experimenting with the material for Algo Más. I would be remiss if I did not mention the fact that the performance was produced by Mappy Torres.

MW: That was the third gig that I played with Cuban drummers in preparation for the record date. I had done it twice before with different guys and wasn't quite satisfied. Mappy gave me the best audience and total spiritual support. That gig gave me the courage to do the record.

AAJ: At its core, Algo Más combines jazz, contemporary dance music and Cuban forms in a spiritual and funky context. The sound is very distinctive and radically different. I like to think of it as Chappotin meets [Jimi] Hendrix! How do you think of it?

MW: That's quite a compliment. Barry made listening to Felix Chappotin and Miguelito Cuni a condition for my playing with the band. But the Cuban trumpet players that influenced me the most were La Florecita, a trumpet player who was the master of Comparsa and Conga and Chocolate, who I played with for years in Larry Harlow's Band. To me Algo Más is the elders meet the children. The combination of the deep wisdom of the drums, the range of the vocals, from Africa to dowop and all those vocabularies—jazz, blues, soul, funk that we bring to the table, it's a family reunion over space and time.

AAJ: You stated that you searched high and low to find the right musicians for the project. Tell me about who you chose and why.

MW: The first gig I played at the Knitting Factory [New York], just a free jazz bassist and drummers, then at Cornelia Street with a free guitarist, Bruce Eisenbeil and drummers, and then with Ben Lapidus and Harvie Swartz at Mappy's. Each group taught me something about what I needed. Jean-Paul [Bourelly] had heard Cuban Roots Revisited and asked me if I would put together a date with a similar ensemble. He had gotten a taste of Cuban drums when he recorded two tunes with me and Milton Cardona on Jazz World Trios. But I had him playing twelve-string, cooking like Richie Havens with the subtlety of Monk, but not doing his thing—playing out of Chicago blues guitar, which is his home base.

He was living in Berlin and had a week in town so I asked Bobby Sanabria to recommend a drummer to put the section together for me. Bobby knows my music so he picked the absolute right man for the job, Pedro Martinez. Pedro has the deep knowledge of rumba and bata and a totally open mind. He brought up his main man from Miami, Nani Santiago, and called on two of the best drummers in the idiom, Gene Golden, who goes all the way back to Olatunji, and Skip Burney, another of the African American masters of the tradition. Jean Paul-had turned me on to Santi when I recorded Jazz World Trios and Santi knows drums. And there it is.

AAJ: One of the most notable differences between Algo Más and Cuban Roots, is the addition of the electric guitar. It adds another dimension to the music.

MW: Jean-Paul is a monster. We did the toques the first day and rumba the second. The studio was very tight and we were isolated. Pedro went into Jean-Paul's booth and sung "Ellegua. Santi came in when Jean-Paul had the changes and picked them up. I told Jean-Paul to put something in front. He played some really wild Hendrix and Pedro just shook his head. I went in a told him to "stop show boating and play some music. I thought he was going to punch me out or leave, but it worked. He then played that magic introduction and Pedro comes in on the one note that is in the key, but that Jean-Paul had never played. Jean-Paul was playing in E major with an F natural and C natural—sort of Flamenco blues and Pedro's first note is C#. Man oh man. Every tune was the same routine. Pedro singing it to Jean-Paul, who comes up with something completely different from the vast bag of African-American music. That's the magic, he finds a different vocabulary for each of songs that complements the drums but never competes with them. And those solos...

AAJ: Let's go through the tracks. "Ellegua Abierto (Open Ellegua) is obviously a nod to the Yoruban deity and gatekeeper...

MW: I always start with "Ellegua out of respect. Plus they are always great melodies. I had never heard the one that Pedro used but it had a rough beauty that fit the sound I get on alto flute. That was the first tune that I worked on with the overdubbed flutes. I'm trying to get an Eddie Palmieri bone feel in the background flutes, but using the texture of the two alto flutes to give it almost an Andean vibe. It worked great with the fairly "tipico solo I take on soprano flute.

AAJ: You penned "Mis Consuelos (My Consolations) . This is your interpretation of a popular rumba, "Consuelate Como Yo ...

MW: That's my favorite cut. My entrance is where I expect Barry to crack up the way he did when he heard something that really tickled him. And the way Jean-Paul answers me. That's why I play "Ellegua. The whole thing is pure magic. I really like the sound of the vamp with the bass and alto flutes, simple and kicking. I play with the melody, laying it in the clavé in all sorts of odd ways, but the miracle is that when I overdubbed the coro flutes later it fit together as if I had written it out.

AAJ: "Aguas De Ochun (Ochun's Waters) fuses modern rock and traditional Afro-Cuban rhythms...

MW: Right, but it is the melody that is pure '50s rock and roll. The tune ends up being a '50s grind with two bars of the 6/8 turning into a slow 4/4 with triplets. I try to keep the '50s bag with the background flutes like a do wop chorus and a very romantic style in the solo flute. Jean-Paul changes the bag in the montuno and the background flutes build to Jean-Paul's solo, blues guitar with Pedro singing coro and response.

AAJ: "Mamita Baila (Mamita Dances) sounds more traditional and danceable. I love the flute chorus and Pedro Martinez's chants. This track took me away. "Jete Dlo (Pure Waters), pure percussion and electric guitar. Rumba and merengue?

MW: Pedro whistled the melody to me and told me that people love the tune. That was good enough for me. That track has gotten the most radio play. Santi takes a great solo and the flutes screw around with the minor 7th on the bottom while the solo flute plays major 7th. It is just modern enough without losing the happy rumba feel.

AAJ: "Cantando con Agayu has a French Caribbean feel...

MW: Jean-Paul is of Haitian descent and he plays with African musicians in Germany. I believe you can find a whole lot of different elements in his playing that complement the Cuban drums by showing their connection to all sorts of other music from the Caribbean. That was part of what playing the gig at Mappy's showed me. That a Cuban feel on the guitar and bass actually detracted from the drums since it echoes their patterns. Jean-Paul plays across the patterns and brings out a whole new dimension in the rhythms. Santi also stays away from covering the tumbador which the standard salsa bass does since it replaces a missing conga drum.

AAJ: "Fantasia Malanga is your third take on the tune "Malanga. "Malanga also appears on Cuban Roots and Cuban Roots Revisited.

MW: The first version is pure balls. Fast and furious. The second version is mellower, bringing out the meaning of the melody, which is after all about the death of Malanga, one of the all time great congeros. On Algo Más I have my cake and eat it. The drums are playing a fast columbia and I play the melody twice as slow so that the funeral dirge is emphasized. There is a musical joke. After I play the melody twice as slow, we play one coro (with three flutes) up to tempo and then I play the second coro even slower laying a two bar phrase against 8 bars of rhythm with bass and alto flute. That's jazz, brother.

The solos move us back into the columbia and we go for broke. The drums are so full that Santi gets out the bow and just drives the basic rhythm, no point in playing a tumbao with so much fundamental in the tumbador. The alto and bass flute play the coro and me and Jean-Paul just go off.

AAJ: What's next for Mark Weinstein?

MW: I recorded a Brazilian album with Romero Lubambo who also recorded Jazz World Trios and with Nilson Matta and Paulo Braga who played on my Brazilian album of music by Hermeto Pascoal, Tudo de Bom. The album has two additional percussionists, Guilerhme Franko and Jorge Silva. We play a wide range of Brazilian forms including the choro. It is due out in early spring, 2006. I also have three hours of music I recorded in Berlin with African musicians, Jean-Paul and Omar Sosa that I'm trying to sculpt into an album. Plus a straight ahead Latin jazz project I hope to record with Mark Levine this spring and then for something completely different...

AAJ: From you I expect nothing less! Before we close, congratulations!. I understand, Algo Más made Jazziz magazine's "Critics Picks of the Year" and "Latin Jazz Network" singled out Algo Mas as one of best recordings of 2005. What better way to end our conversation?

Visit Mark Weinstein on the web.


Selected Discography

Mark Weinstein, Algo Más (Jazzheads, 2005)
Mark Weinstein, Shifra Tanzt (LKC, 2003)
Mark Weinstein, Tudo de Bom (String Jazz, 2003)
Mark Weinstein, Milling Time (Rastok, 2002)
Mark Weinstein, Three Deuces (LKC, 2000)
Mark Weinstein, Jazz World Trios (LKC, 1999)
Mark Weinstein, Seasoning (LKC, 1996)
Mark Weinstein, Cuban Roots Revisited (Cubop, 1996)



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