Joe McCarthy & The Afro-Bop Alliance
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.
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 ).