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District Jazz

Joe McCarthy & The Afro-Bop Alliance

By Published: June 8, 2004

Being from the Hartford scene...there was a big Art Blakey influence goin —Joe McCarthy

Not many Latin bands are making it these days without a singer. If you live in an urban area, you may notice the plethora of channels on your car radio playing salsa, meringue and cha-cha... they all feature a heaping dose of vocalists. Vocals may be an important part of the tradition, though it's the instrumentalists that appeal to this writer, and I'm happy to report that there are a few bands out there struggling to make it in an all-instrumental Latin vein.

Most of these groups have succeeded in combining Latin rhythms (especially the five-beat clave patters) with jazz repertoire and harmonies to create what we call “Latin jazz.” Some well-recognized names in this genre include Chucho Valdes and his group Irakere, Jerry Gonzalez and the Fort Apache Band, Michel Camilo’s trio, Paquito D’Rivera’s group, and Dave Samuels’ various incarnations of the Caribbean Jazz Project. Most jazz lovers will attest to this music’s broad appeal since it is heavy on both the jazz and the Latin beat.

I recently caught up with a guy whose name and day job do not suggest in the slightest that he would be pursuing the leadership of a kick-ass Latin jazz group. Joe McCarthy is a principal percussionist in the Naval Academy Band stationed at Annapolis, MD. His Navy duties include playing at military functions, graduations, and anything else that goes on around town. A graduate of the University of Hartford’s Hartt School of Music and the University of North Texas, this percussionist is no amateur when it comes to Latin jazz. He is steeped in the tradition but is also trying to chart his own path with a fine group of local players, several of whom are also “service cats.” Here is Joe McCarthy in his own words:

AAJ: You grew up in Connecticut. I assume you weren’t listening to Afro-Cuban music as a kid. Tell me how you got from the life of a regular Connecticut kid to where you are now.

JM: Well, my high school band director, who I’m still very close with. His name is Carl Coomy. And uh, he’d always have jazz music playing in the band room, you know between classes and whatnot. And that’s what really got me started as far as jazz. My mother had a great record collection. She had all these old Ellington records and Errol Garner records and stuff and I used to check out all that stuff. I didn’t really seriously get into it until...(trails off on a long tangent). Anyways I didn’t decide until – I believe it was the end of my junior year in high school – that I wanted to go into music school, which my parents were a little freaked out about. So I went to the Hartt School of Music in West Hartford, Connecticut and began studying there. From there I went to the University of North Texas and did my masters.

AAJ: When you were at Hartt, who were your teachers?

JM: My path was somewhat different than what it is I’m doing now. I was actually playing as a classical percussionist. I did play drum set and stuff. But I would say that my real emphasis when I got there, was trying to get the classical thing together and I studied with a great teacher named Alexander Lipak, who ran the department and was a world-famous timpanist, percussionist, and educator. But I also began to study with Ed Soph on the side who was the drummer with Woody Herman for many years and countless others. He was the one who really started perking my interest in the drum set.

AAJ: Wasn’t he down at North Texas though?

JM: Well later and that’s the reason I went down there. When I studied with him, he had been living in Connecticut for quite a while. He used to come up and teach at a drum shop in Weathersfield. I would study with him once a week and then he’d go play with a big band on Monday nights nearby and I would go check him out – he is just a fantastic player. We became pretty close while I was an undergrad.

So when I got outta school it’s like “What am I gonna do next?” And he said “Why don’t you come down here?” So I went there and it just kinda went from there. The Latin thing was...I always enjoyed the music but it was never the main focus at that time. One of the guys that I went to Hartt with though, is the person who really got me into Latin music. He’s a guy by the name of Ed Fast. The title track of our new CD Encarnación , is one of Ed’s originals.

AAJ: Who are some of the artists he turned you on to?

JM: One person he was turned me on to Cal Tjader. Ed plays a lot of vibes. He’s transcribed tons of Cal stuff.

AAJ: And you have several of Cal’s tunes in Afro-Bop Alliance’s book.

JM: Yep. Ed also was the first one to turn me on to Fort Apache. Being from the Hartford scene with Jackie McLean and Steve Davis, there was a big Art Blakey influence goin’ on up there and you can hear that in our band with the three-horn front line. That was definitely an influence. So it’s just basically taking that...I mean that’s really what we’re trying to do.

AAJ: Explain.

JM: Taking the jazz background or jazz education (if you want to call it that) that we’ve had and combining it with the rhythms. That’s what it’s all based on. The rhythms are so exciting. We’re trying to make the music fit the clave. We’re novices compared to some of the people that have been doing it for a really long time. But we’re really not trying to...I mean...the style is definitely our own. We’re tryin’ to take what we have and put it to what has already been done. You know what I mean? The composers that have attracted me are guys like Michael Mossman – very modern harmonically and that’s the sound that I envisioned the band having. ( Three of Mossman’s tunes are featured on the record and he has appeared with the band as a guest soloist ). That’s a great starting point for us and you know some of the stuff that Dave Samuels has done rhythmically. So all that has been very appealing to us as a band.

AAJ: After your time in Texas, you auditioned and got a position in the Navy. What year was that?

JM: That was ’94 that I came to this area here. Actually I taught down in Texas for two years at a small college – Texas Wesleyan University ( laughter ). And I was playing a lot around that area – both legit and drum set. My wife was and is also a musician - a violinist - and she wanted to get back to the East Coast. She’s from Pennsylvania so when this opportunity came up it was a chance for us to get closer to the water (and to our friends and families).

AAJ: What was the scene like when you got here.

JM: Well, while I was doing the day job I was studying Cuban and Caribbean music and I realized after a few years of gigging on the side that there was no outlet. I mean there’s a lot of Latin musicians in the region but I didn’t really see or hear exactly what it was that I wanted to do. And that was to incorporate the drum set into a...kind of a Ray Barretto, Fort Apache kind of thing. That sound was really killin’ to me but nobody was doing that around here.

I was in a three-horn band at the time, which again was very much like Art Blakey. That band was playing mainly straight-ahead music and I figured that would be the perfect opportunity to start experimenting. You know, the same instrumentation, but with a conga player. I wanted to try to cover the rest of the percussion parts myself because it’s just a different sound than the traditional Latin percussion section.

AAJ: There really aren’t that many players who are doing what you’re doing. Obviously Steve Berrios and El Negro come to mind. And, now that we’re on the subject, just this past weekend I saw this cat, Adam Weber, who was with Ray Vega . He was great.

JM: Yeah.

AAJ: He was doing that multi-tasking kind of thing.

JM: It’s a different sound. And also economically and logistically, adding two percussionists to a band that’s already seven pieces ends up being less cash for each individual. So that was another reason I wanted to pursue the group the way it was originally conceived. However, as I went further along into the project, I realized it’s very tough to book gigs for a seven-piece band. Getting our band into some of the smaller venues has been a big problem. But for me personally it’s been a blast trying work out these parts and to make them sound as authentic as I can. And Felix [ Contreras ] is a good partner partly because he’s from the West Coast and he has a style that’s similar to Poncho’s. He’s a time-oriented player, which gives me more freedom to break away from the time. You know what I mean? He lays the foundation down.

AAJ: Like the opening of the CD. He’s kind of leading rhythmically there and you’re kind of going crazy on top of that.

JM: Well, I had an idea – a rhythmic idea for a percussion intro when Ed first wrote the tune. Once I started fooling around with it, I came up with the whole thing and I just taught it to Felix. It’s mainly in unison except for one spot where we break away. But it’s just different groupings of numbers. Four over three, five over four...so it gives an illusion of different time signatures all at once even but it is modulating at different times. It’s all based on the clavé, which is really what this music is all about.

AAJ: Only two of your band members are Latino.

JM: Our saxophonist Luis Hernandez ( a monster tenor player in the DC-based Navy Commodores – the Navy’s top jazz ensemble ) is Cuban, but grew up in Miami. And Felix Contreras, our conga player, is Mexican.

AAJ: But he’s a wannabe Cuban.

JM: Yeah. ( cracks up ) Actually Felix, before he moved here, had a job in radio in Miami ( Contreras’ day job is in the cultural programming unit of National Public Radio. He’s recently become a contributing writer for Jazztimes ).

AAJ: And the rest of the cats?

JM: Dan Drew ( trombone ), James Fowler ( bass ), and myself – and Tim Stanley until recently, all worked together as part of the Superintendent’s Combo at the Naval Academy. So that part of the band being around each other more often made it a little easier in terms of getting together. You know Tim is actually in the Commodores now too.

AAJ: Oh really? That’s great!

JM: Yeah, he just got a job there recently – probably about a month ago.

AAJ: At the saxophone show in January, when I first heard you guys, I heard him play, and I was like “ What?

JM: Yeah. (smiles)

AAJ: I came into the auditorium and I immediately recognized Luis. But there was this trumpet player just blowing my mind with bop confidence and a great jazz conception.

JM: Tim started out in the Navy for two or three years in Newport, RI before he came to Annapolis. Great player – always practicing, heavily into the bebop stuff and ya know I don’t think he had ever done any Latin stuff before this. But his style, again, fits perfect for what we do. He’s not a Latin trumpet player.

AAJ: But he brings that jazz background.

JM: Yeah and that’s exactly what I envisioned. Same with Luis...Luis is just...as you have said to me on numerous occasions, has a very special voice and it’s so different from a lot of the jazz that you hear.

AAJ: Unwillingness to compromise to...

JM: Yeah – his own sound. Dan is a fantastic arranger. He knows what it is we’re looking for. He knows what the sound is. And as time goes on we’re working on some different stuff; we’re trying to open it up a little more and go in some new directions, but he’s really helped the sound of the band.

AAJ: His arrangement of Caravan is especially nice on the album - very different from all those famous versions out there.

JM: He’s obviously a great player – great arranger. He can quickly come up with solutions for tunes for us. That’s helped us a ton – having someone in the group who can actually put it all together compositionally. James Fowler is from Oklahoma actually. No Latin experience at all.

AAJ: He looks like your standard military cat.

JM: He’s a great guy. Sweet, gentle guy. He’s a time player. He loves to play time. And this kind of music, that’s the job for a bassist. So he definitely holds the fort down. Extremely consistent. He’s also a great classical player. He and I work together a lot. We both play in the big band over at the Academy. He knows what his role is...he’s one of those guys. He’s not unhappy playing time and it’s nice to work with a bassist who likes to play time. And then of course that brings us to Harry Appleman, the pianist. He’s very strong. He’s actually done a little bit of Latin. He plays with the Rhumba Club every once in a while. I don’t think he’s their regular player. He’s their first call sub though. He’s just got that angular thing goin’ on, which I enjoy very much. He’s not a Latin pianist but he has studied the music and he brings a different voice to it. He’s much sparser than an Arturo O’Farill. And I dunno if that will change over time. But, it’s definitely different.

AAJ: He’s one of the most in-demand session players around DC and Baltimore.

JM: Yeah he plays everywhere; on a lot of recordings. He’s actually written a lot of music and we’re exploring some of his stuff right now to try and work that in. The recording we did...we wanted the first one to be really strong so we used stuff that we knew was strong.

AAJ: You have some very distinguished guests of this genre on the record. Namely Arturo O’Farrill, Ray Vega.

JM: Well yeah, that’s kind of a very interesting story. When Felix went to the Smithsonian Jazz Café and gave Randall Kremer, the guy who’s in charge there, a copy of our demo CD he called me and he really liked the disc. He wanted us to come in and play there a couple of times. He decided that last summer was gonna be like a Latin jazz summer. And he wanted to bring in three heavyweights. And Randall is very friendly with a woman named Laura Hartman, who is Ray Vega’s manager. And at that time she was also managing Arturo. So we had Ray come down and Arturo seemed to be interested too and I had gotten some music from Michael Mossman for the band and I asked him if he wanted to play and he said sure, he’d love it. So each time we would play, word would get back to other musicians that our band was great. That lead to Dave Samuels guesting with us. Ray was playing in his band at that time and so I guess he told him about us and so he wanted to come play. So a lot of that stuff just kinda fell together and we really owe a lot to the people at the Smithsonian. They opened the door for us and a lot of people heard us there.

AAJ: You had the classical training to play vibes and marimba but you also are an exceptional set player. Is it possible in this music to be both a set player like ‘El Negro’ and a vibes player like Samuels? Or do you have to make the choice?

JM: That’s a good question because I had made a decision a while back (after seeing guys like Dave Samuels and Gary Burton and other who play at that level) that as far as the keyboard playing, I was gonna only take that as far as my classical training because I knew that to really master it, I would need another lifetime. I mean, Ed Fast, is a very good vibes player and a very good drum set player. I decided after getting’ into the military and having to make a living playing classical music that I wasn’t gonna have enough time to play well enough on both of ‘em to satisfy myself. So I let the experts handle the mallets. I mean, I can play fine in a classical or band setting, and I do work out a lot of things at the piano, but I still need another two lifetimes just to get the drum set together.

AAJ: The last thing that I personally find both hilarious and a total drag is that you guys had to change the name of your band very recently.

JM: Without going into too much detail, basically, I picked a name for the band that was previously occupied by a record company on the West Coast – Cubop. And I was advised that it would probably be a smarter move in the long run to come up with a new name. We decided to come up with a name that still encompassed the same vibe but was definitely unique. And behold: Afro-Bop – obviously a combination of the Latin and the jazz; and the ‘Alliance’ thing just being a group of guys committed to make something happen musically. Since the record was supposed to be a springboard for the group, we started with a clean slate. Granted, it’s a harder name to remember – longer name.

AAJ: A-A-B-A. Song form just without the second ‘A’.

JM: That’s right. Or ABBA. Without the other B. ( both crack up )


To find out more about Afro-Bop Alliance, visit their website which is curiously still www.cubop.com .



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