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Steve Berrios: Latin Jazz Innovator

By Published: October 30, 2007
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Larry Willis and Hilton Ruiz

AAJ: Can you talk about Larry Willis? It seems like you guys have a special relationship.

SB: Larry and I grew up together. When we were teenagers we used to play in little bands together. He's my senior by about two or three years and I used to hang out in his neighborhood, around 154th and 8th Avenue. I used to hang there a lot, I wasn't from there but everybody thought I was; Al Foster's from that neighborhood. But we have some ESP happening though we don't really talk about it or anything.

AAJ: Did you recommend him for the Apaches?

SB: No, he started hanging around us at the same time, and I knew Larry well so it was no problem, it worked out great. Since then, Jerry should be grateful that all these cats have hung in throughout the years.

AAJ: Larry seems like he's another bilingual cat.

SB: Right, exactly, because he lived that era too. He would go to the Palladium and Birdland at the same time I was doing it.

AAJ: When he plays so called Latin music he sounds really unique to me.

SB: Sure, that's what makes the Apache Band what it is, 'cause he's not playing standard montunos, which is great in a Salsa band but if you hint at that, which is the way the Apaches play, it opens it up more. You get a better feeling than having it locked up like on a Salsa gig. We're still playing in clavé and playing the authentic beats but the piano players role is more open than if you were playing on a Salsa gig.

AAJ: Yeah, to me he sounds like Herbie Hancock playing over a Latin rhythm section.

SB: There you go. And that's done deliberately too. Those are little subtleties that only musicians would appreciate.

AAJ: Another pianist you've worked with a lot is Hilton Ruiz

SB: Well, he was much younger than me, 'cause I think he was only fifty-four when he died. We never hung much until the mid-to-late '70s. but we hit it off great 'cause he was a real be-bopper, a real jazz cat. His forte wasn't the Latin side of the shit, though much later he joined Tito Puente's band. It was great playing with him; we did a lot of records and tours together. He was a talented cat, may he rest in peace.

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An Apache Goes Solo

AAJ: You did a couple of albums as a solo artist. Can you talk about how that came about?

SB: That's when our manager/producer at the time [Todd Barkan] who recorded the Apaches during that period approached me after we did two records, because on the Apache records I do all the percussion overdubs.

AAJ: Jerry doesn't hang around in the studio for that?

SB: No. [laughs]. I do it all, and I do most of the mixing too. Then Todd Barkan asked me if I'd be interested in doing a record. I said of course, and I was surprised. I thought, no one is gonna ask me to do a record. Then he said do whatever you want to do. So I had no limitations on the music I wanted to do or the players I wanted to have.


My first record First World (Milestone, 1995) was more like a biography of all the different things that have influenced me and I think it came out pretty good, it's a little different. It's a small group but it sounds big. It's only five people, at the most, playing together at the same time. On the second one And Then Some (Milestone, 1996), I did most of the overdubbing, either percussion or singing or whatever, and surprisingly enough that one was nominated for a Grammy. That record had even less musicians. I liked them both for different reasons.

AAJ: What would those be?

SB: On the second one I had to do more work, I had to do all of it. Some of it sounds a little sloppy 'cause it was rushed, of course after the first one the budget got smaller and it still got nominated for a Grammy. I don't know if that's good or bad [laughs].

AAJ: Well, I guess it's good to know that somebody was listening.

SB: Well, I don't even know about that, I don't know if that's how you get nominated. But both of those records made some noise for a little while. Also, there where two poems that were supposed to be on the second one. There's a poet named Felipe Luciano've heard those right?

AAJ: Yeah, I thought those turned out nice, especially "Madness.

SB: Well, the Fantasy company panicked when they heard those. They refused to put them on the record; they thought they were too controversial. So the record sounds incomplete to me 'cause I was hearing it with those two tunes. The way I was gonna program it, the album would've made more sense. At the same time they were recording some hip-hoppers at the same studio in Berklee where I did all the overdubs. I know where there coming from...but since then no one has offered to record me anymore.

AAJ: Yeah, that's too bad. I think the first record is one of the most versatile records I've heard. Someone with a command of all those idioms, you have the hard-bop stuff, the rumba stuff, Palo tunes.

SB: Well, like I said that was like my musical biography. That's all the stuff I've been influenced by and all the stuff that I do.

AAJ: How did you pick the sidemen for those records?

SB: I just picked all the guys that I wanted to work with and I deliberately left out Andy and Jerry, not because they weren't qualified, but for it not to sound like the Fort Apache Band or for them to take credit for my influences. And they didn't understand that at the time, they felt like they were slighted, but what can I say? Everybody's gotta do what they gotta do. But I deliberately made that decision because I thought people were gonna say, "Aha, I knew Jerry and Andy taught him everything he knows. But I think both of those records have some valid music on them.

AAJ: Most definitely. You mentioned overdubbing in the studio. How do you approach that if you're going to do a multi percussion piece? How do you decide what you're going to lay down first?

SB: It depends on the tune. Like on the rumba tunes I always start with the clavé. On the first record in the studio I had the bassist, the lead singer and the tres player, that was what we laid down. So, on all those rumba tracks it was basically clavé, bass and the lead singer.

align=center>Steve Berrios></br> l:r: Steve Berrios, Franciso Aguabella, Julito Collazo, Carlos

AAJ: What about the solo track "Talkin' To Myself ? There's a lot of stuff going on in that and it's all you.

SB: On that one I started with an ostinato on floor toms, and then I laid down the tympani and after that the trap set.

AAJ: Do you hear everything in your head before you lay in down?

SB: Yeah, I heard all that stuff in my head and then I just layered it. I like doing that stuff. It makes things pretty easy because I know what to play on the initial tracks, and what not to play, so I don't step on myself.

AAJ: You also did a version of "Lonely Woman, combined with a Lukumi chant for Yemaya.

SB: The way I laid that was with the batás and the lead singer, then I laid down the tympani, then the bassist came in and then we put the horns on top of that.

AAJ: How did you decide to combine those two tunes?

SB: That's an Ornette Coleman tune. When I first heard it was on his record The Shape Of Jazz To Come (Atlantic, 1960). It always reminded almost has an identical melody to the tune for Yemaya, "Acolona. So I said, "Wow, I think these two tunes would fit. I like that track because I think it has a haunting vibe to it. I'm happy with that one.

AAJ: Around the time you did your solo records you also worked with Chico O'Farrill's big band.

SB: We did a record at that time called Pure Emotion (Milestone, 1995) I thought that was a hip record.

AAJ: How is it different playing with a big band as opposed to a small group?

SB: You have to put yourself in another head. It's a little more rigid than playing with a quintet or something. That was my first big band experience. I've listened to big bands a lot but that was my first time actually playing with one. So I dug that, especially with Chico, may he rest in peace; he was beautiful man, a great arranger.

AAJ: Prior to your solo records you did an instructional video Latin Rhythms Applied To The Drum Set (Alchemy Video, 1992). I've always liked it because it has kind of a loose format.

SB: Well, that's usually my approach in general. Because Mark can't play like Steve and Steve can't play like Mark. I can give you pointers, a direction, to get you to sound more like you. Playing the music that we're playing but...You know, as opposed to—it must be done this way and you have to use matched grip, etc. To me that's not music, because music is personal but it's also impersonal.

You need to leave cats room to find their own voice. If you're gonna imitate every little beat I play, why? For what? What's the purpose of that? When I see some of those videos you're talking about I don't really get anything out of them, maybe because of my approach to life and music in general. A lot of people who are used to a stricter format when they see a video like the one I did they say, "This cat doesn't know what he's doing. I feel sorry for them, because they may never reach their potential.

Steve AAJ: Right you can't sum up a whole style of music in a couple of "beats.

SB: Or in one video. It doesn't go that way. It's a whole life experience; it never stops, so people look at music in that way. It goes back to what we were talking about before, that people think we don't work we "play. But if you play mallets in a symphony orchestra, then that's "serious music, because you have a tux on and you stand real stiff and then you turn a page, and then you wait twenty thousand bars, do another little roll, wait another twenty thousand bars then that's serious music. And on top of that, the funny part about it, is when you take the music away from them they can't play anything. They don't improvise, everything they play was written down five hundred years ago, and some of it is good, but it was meant to be improvised.

AAJ: Yeah, they say Bach improvised on his fugues.

SB: Right. Yeah, but now they just play everything note for note and some of it sounds stale and boring.

AAJ: Not to mention, the composers is really the artist in that situation. The musicians are more like interpreters, they don't put there soul on the line like a jazz musician does.

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