Steve Berrios: Latin Jazz Innovator
AAJ: Let's talk about that. How did the Fort Apache Band get started?
SB: Well, I first met Jerry and Andy [Gonzalez] when I was playing in Mongo's band. When I was out on the road, Monguito [Mongo's son] used to stay at my crib and Jerry and Andy would come by and hang and check out my record collection. It was definitely when I wasn't there 'cause a lot of my records got stolen! [laughs]. But, we didn't really start to hang together until I left Mongo's band in '80 -'81, somewhere around there. I wasn't doing that much and about two blocks away from here, where I live right now, there was a club called Soundscape. Jerry was having jam sessions I think on a Thursday night and whole bunch of cats started coming around, which was during the Mariel era so Puntilla, Daniel Ponce, Igancio Berroa, a lot of those cats were coming around. So that's how that developed. Then Jerry decided to form a band, a big band, and then we went to Berlin, I think it was, but it was a thousand guys [laughs].
AAJ: That was when you did The River Is Deep (Enja, 1982) and those records when you had vocals, trombone, a timbalero, guitar...
SB: Right, it was a million guys. So we huddled and said if we want to make some money we've got to cut this band down. So it turned into a quintet and eliminated a lot of unnecessary stuff, well not unnecessary, but we just dwindled it down to the core of what the band was trying to do. And it really worked out, the first record we did wasRumba Para Monk (Sunnyside, 1989) and I think that's a classic record. The group was Carter [Jefferson], Larry [Willis] Jerry, Andy and myself. Then we added Joe Ford, I wish he would've been on the first one. That was a good record. Since then it's always been five or six pieces.
AAJ: I know Jerry's name is on the band but you're an elder to Jerry and Andy and I've always felt that you've had as much influence on that band as the Gonzalez brothers.
SB: Oh, I know so, and not patting myself on the back but more influence then they have. It's just because of politics, either they take the credit or it's been heaped on them but if anybody knows anything about music, they know why certain things are the way they are in that band. I think I've been a major influence on that band. Not I think, I know.
AAJ: What would that be? What elements did you bring in?
SB: Well before I was in the band they made a record called Ya Yo Me Cure (Sunnyside, 1980) and they never went to 4/4 straight ahead jazz swing, so I brought that in.
AAJ: What about the folkloric rhythms? I think Fort Apache might be the first band, at least out of New York or North America, that utilized rumba and other Afro-Cuban folkloric rhythms.
SB: Oh, I think so, yeah. But I can't take all the credit for that they were doing some of that before I joined the band but I just kept it up, so we're still doing that but there's only two of us playing percussion so it's a little different than if you have a whole rhythm section but we keep that element in there.
AAJ: Do you feel like you found your voice within that context?
SB: I'm still looking for my voice.
AAJ: Yeah, but you definitely have a sound.
SB: Well, you can tell if it's me playing on record or not. But I'm still searching for different things. I don't play the way I did on the Monk record. I don't play like that anymore, thank God. You don't want to play the same way you did twenty years ago. I'm still searching and looking for different ways to do things but if you don't have a place where you can expound on things it's a drag. It's sad to say but there's not that much work for a band like Fort Apache.
AAJ: Why do you think that is?
SB: Because of the powers that be. And the music is too honest and raw. It can't be controlled. They'd rather have something a little more watered down and then they can dictate what to do and what to play and who should be on the record, stuff like that. It's a drag; it doesn't allow the music to grow. At one point, when we were really busy we influenced a lot of other groups to play in that vein but then it just dwindled out. I don't hear it anymore.
AAJ: Who were some of the bands you might have influenced.
SB: Lemme see. David Sanchez, Danilo Perez, the pianist that's with Wayne [Shorter] now, even Ray Barretto, Eddie Palmieri and Tito Puente. I think Fort Apache are like the unsung heroes, though most people who are in the know, know who's who when it comes to talking about Latin jazz.
AAJ: What do you think is unique about Fort Apache?
SB: Well, the versatility and authenticity of our playing is pretty special. I haven't really heard anybody else do it.
AAJ: Yeah, a friend of mine here in [Washington] D.C. says, "Fort Apache doesn't play Latin jazz, they play jazz Latin.
SB: Okay, that's a good way of putting it. I understand what he's saying. Nobody can say, "Oh, these Spanish guys are trying to play some be-bop, or, "These American guys are trying to play some claveÌ stuff and I think that's exclusive to New York. I've heard some bands from the West Coast and it sounds like the West Coast, and it's cool, if you like that kind of stuff. I think we're a little more knowledgeable about the two languages, which are basically the same; it's just another way of making rice and beans.
AAJ: One thing about Fort Apache is you, Larry and Andy do a lot of unique turnarounds in the music. Was that something you consciously worked on, or was it just something that came out on the gig?
SB: It just happened from being on the gig. We never talked about it and we still don't talk about it, it just happens. We follow each other, whoever initiates where we wanna go, that's where we go. Sometimes we stumble but that's part of the music. It keeps it honest and it keeps it fresh. That's what's unique about that band; we can go in a lot of different places. A lot of cats say, "Man, you cats must rehearse cause you guys are so tight. We rehearsed once, for that Monk record, two days to make that record and that was it. Everything else is just on the gig.
AAJ: One thing that's unique about your style is that you've applied some bataÌ rhythms onto the drum set.
SB: Right, sometime I apply some bataÌ stuff and it makes it sound different on the drum set. Sometime when me and Jerry are doing drum solos we play a couple of bataÌ rhythms, "Tui-Tui and "Sheshe Kururu, but people don't know what they are and especially on congas and drums it's sounds brand new but there's nothing new under the sun. Even when we're playing the rumba stuff, I'm playing gua-gua on the bells and Jerry's playing five drums and it sounds different from a regular rumba rhythm section, but we're playing basically the same parts with a little embellishment.
That's another thing with the Apaches, most Latin jazz bands are playing a mambo with jazz melodies on top of the rhythm. What we do is play rumba with jazz melodies, that makes it a little different. And mambo's cool for back then, but we've taken it where it should be taken, if not, we could stay back in 1955. It's cool, I still like some music from 1955. I like music from 1945. I'm sure if Bird or Trane were alive they wouldn't be playing the way that they played before they died. Even take Miles, a lot of people said he sold out but I can understand why he wouldn't play the way he played with Tony [Williams] and Wayne [Shorter] and them later in his career. He'd rather sacrifice himself in order for the music to grow, that's pretty romantic to me.
AAJ: Took a lot of courage too.
SB: Exactly. To sacrifice himself just for the sake of the music, that's so loving.