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District Jazz

Joe McCarthy & The Afro-Bop Alliance

By Published: June 8, 2004

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.



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