Steven Kroon: Looking Beyond
“ Besides just meaning beyond, it means when you transcend to the other side. So in doing this CD, as the material was coming along, Mongo died, Patato died, Ray Barretto died . . . It's been amazing how many good percussionists have passed away. ”
Percussionist Steve Kroon has spent many years walking through a variety of musical worlds. He spent his childhood years surrounded by all sorts of musical figures, with connections to jazz, Cuban music, rhythm and blues, Brazilian music, and more. His deep involvement led to local performance and recording jobs, and eventually a high profile gig with singer Luther Vandross that lasted twenty years. At the same time, Kroon began an association another musical icon, jazz bassist Ron Carter; their musical connection continues to the current day. Despite a full load of musical work with these two musicians, Kroon found time to record and perform with Spyro Gyra, Diana Krall, Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, Jimmy Heath, and many more. Kroon walks through each of these worlds with ease, adding musicality and insight to every situation.
At the turn of the century, Kroon began another journey, moving into the role of bandleader. His first album, In My Path (World Blue, 2000), reflected the diversity of his background, tying together Latin rhythms, jazz harmonies, and commercial leanings. His vast musical associates joined him on this album, with Carter, vocalist Jon Lucien, saxophonist David Sanchez, and many more making appearances. He returned as a bandleader with Se ñor Kroon (Pony Canyon, 2006), a more traditional Latin Jazz recording. Kroon collaborated with pianist Oscar Hernandez on several tracks, bringing a distinct New York flavor to the album. Kroon began performing with his own band following his second release, establishing that the bandleader role remained a piece of his future.
Kroon third album, El Mas Alla (Beyond) (Kroonatune, 2008), finds him simultaneously looking back upon his journey while peering into his future. The album pays tribute to several legendary percussionists that died in the years leading up to the recording. At the same time, Kroon looks back upon the influence of his father, who exposed him to Latin music at an early age. The album displays the depth of these influences upon Kroon's musical personality and serves as his strongest solo statement to date. He gathered a strong group of musicians to help him complete his vision, including Hernandez, bassist Ruben Rodriguez, and drummer Vince Cherico. Kroon seems more intent than ever upon making a statement as a solo artist, presenting the world with a full picture of his musical evolution and current artistic concept.
All About Jazz: You were born in Harlem and then moved to Queens and it seemed like you had a lot of different music around you.
Steve Kroon: In that neighborhood that was so amazing, there was a man down the corner by the name of Henry Glover. He did Joey and the Starlighters, he produced honky tonk, he wrote "Drown In My Own Tears" for Ray Charleshe was almost like a Quincy Jones of that time. He did Heart and Soul (Gee, 1961) for the Cleftones...numerous stuff. The thing that was amazing was that he lived right down the block. When I was 12 years old, me and my brother had a singing group. We used to always run over to his house and try get a record deal, you know? And he took a real liking to us. He liked all the kids on the block, but he took a real liking to me. He became like an uncle to me. I used to go there and watch the rehearsals with the Cleftones, and stuff like that. It was an incredible experience being around him.
At the same time, around the corner was Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis. About four blocks away was Arthur Price. Another four blocks away was Lester Young, Prez. About six blocks over on Linden Boulevard was Count Basie and James Brown, Book Benton...wow, the names just go on and on and on.
AAJ: That must have been pretty inspiring.
SK: It was very inspiring. My brother Bobby, he was the one who had me really excited about the music stuff. We had a singing group together, we started playing percussion together at the same time, he was a great influence on me. At a really young age11 or 12, we really felt like we wanted to be musicians. So we would look at these guys and kinda idolize them. You know, we knew who they were. It was beautiful, because they could see how...we reflected to them too, you know? It was nice to get to know them. I got to know Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis and Prez. I knew his [Lester Young] son, we went to school together. So, you know, sometimes he would say, "Hey, my father's coming home from Europe, man." So we would be sittin' out, waiting on the street, waiting for the cab to come, to see him coming out of this cab, 'cause he was so cool, you know? The hat, and saxophone, we were like, "Look at your Dad"I mean, how cool is that? And then you see an album cover with him and Billie Holiday, and you're like, "Wow, that's your father, man." I mean, that stuff was really bigger than life to us. I had a very well rounded introduction to all kinds of music.
AAJ: That seems like you would have a big respect for music. I read as well that your Dad was a big Latin music fan?
SK: Well my father was a music lover. And us being Puerto Rican, my father was first generation, he and my mother. He loved his music, and he was so well versed in it, he would buy all the top records at the time. I mean he had Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez, and Machito. Since he was a merchant seaman, he was traveling to places like Brazil and Cuba, and he would come back with those records. Then he went to Cuba, he came back with some records by Beny More, I mean real incredible stuff. My father passed about a year and a half ago, and I got his collectionsome 78s are amazing, just incredible. When he saw that we were interested in the Latin music, he really started buying all kinds of stuff; he wanted us to know about our culture.
AAJ: Are there any particular albums that you heard from that era that stand out as particularly influential?
SK: Back in that time, my father, when he brought home his records, the first one that really knocked me out was Tito Puente, man. He had all these records, with "Babarabatiri," "Oye Como Va," (the original)Dance Mania (BMG, 1958)! That's a classicthe thing about Dance Mania, every song is a hit. That album really stood out to me. And also when Cachao came out with Descargas [Cuban Jam Sessions] In Miniature (Panart, 1957)I think that just changed the whole world, you know. The rhythms and the tumbao...and he had Tata GÈ¼ines playing congaI mean, this guy spoke a whole different thing. Everybody was used to Mongo, Armando Peraza, and Patato...this guy just came out and...what is this? That's another language, man.
So, at that time there was so much good music. We used to go outmy father took us to the Palladium when we were 16he put our suits on and dressed us up. I'll never forget the first time that he took meI walked up the stairs, and I hear this big orchestra...I ran to the stage, and it was Machito! Can you imagine seeing Machito as the first band you've ever seen? It was incredible.
When he saw that we liked it so much, he took us to a show that I'll never forget. Symphony Sid used to give these incredible showsevery once in a while he used to put together these "spectaculars." He'd do it at different places, but this one he did at the Apollo. I'll never forgetMongo Santamaria had just left Cal Tjader's band and started his own band, and he put out that album with "Watermelon Man" on it, and he had La Lupe singing with him. He had that bandthat was the one that I saw. Tjader was there; Tajder had his new conga player who was Armando Peraza. Willie Bobo had his own band there, and his conga player was Patato! And the Joe Cuba SextetI mean this show was off the chain. I'll never forget, my father told me, wait till you see Mongo, cause I saw Tito and I was crazyhe said, wait till you see Mongo Santamaria. And man, me and my brother flipped. I mean Mongo was like bigger than life, I mean the power, the sound, and then that big beautiful smilethe guy looked like he loved what he was doing.
AAJ: A little later you started studying percussion with Tommy Lopez, right?
SK: Yeah man, 'cause Tommy played with Eddie and La Perfecta. I used to watch him playhe played with one drum, and what he got out of it. He was just such a masterful playernot flashy, I mean, just a gut player.
I'll never forget the day that I walked up to him and said, "I want to study with you." He said, "OK, fine, I have classes at Skin on Skin on Thursdays." It was a class, but I wanted private lessons. He said, "Man, I don't give private lessons." I came back the next week and said, "Man, I want to study with you." He said, "You're a persistent guy aren't you? OK, I'll do it." Not only did I get to play with him, but I hung out with him, and he took me to some different placesrumbas with all the top cats manPatato, Totico and all these guys. He took me where they used to go and just sit around and play man. And I saw some incredible stuff with Tommy, man
AAJ: He was such an influential part of that Afro-Cuban scene in the sixties and seventies right?
SK: Besides all the great Cuban drummer that we hadMongo and Potato, Peraza, and Tatayou had (Puerto Rican drummers) Tommy Lopez and Frankie Malabe. I mean they had some great Puerto Rican drummersthey really had an incredible sound, incredible groove, very knowledgeable. I'd say that New York developed its own kind of Latin Jazz sound tooand it's own Latin too. Pacheco, Charlie Palmieri, Alegre All-Stars, Joe Cuba, they did some marvelous stuff man, and that was New York. When you heard that, you knew that it was New York.
AAJ: During that time you studied with Dom Um Romão too?
SK: What happened is that I got meet him and I was so fascinatedI just fell in love with Brazilian percussion. I don't know what it was that drove me there, but I just liked the fact that these guys had so much freedom with sound. This was in the early seventies. I got meet Domwe played one time; he had a nice little set-up in his house, in the basement. We started jammin' and he said, "Hey man, you've got a real good feel for this, come on back!" So we would play a couple of times a week and just jam. He gave me some great insight in what you look for with the colors...and the proper way. There's a proper way of playing almost everything. You know, even a shaker...it's supposed to be a round sound, you know. I learned so much with him.
He was starting his own group, which was called Hotmosphere. He told me, "Hey man, you play in the group. I'll be the drums and you be the percussion." At that time, all these guys were coming from Brazil. Portinho came into town, Claudio Roditi came to town, Dom Salvador, the pianist, and Savuka, the accordion player. When I got together with all these guys, I was like, "Wow, look at this." Actually at that time, the only non-Brazilians that were playing with them were myself, Stevie Thornton, and Ray Armando.
SK: It's a killin' album, man. That 's where I got to meet Ron Carter. Mauricio Smith was on it; Mauricio was an incredible flautist, man. I just had a very good time with Dom.
I also had another person who helped me a lot, playing congas tooJose Hernandez. He was a real good friend of my brother's. After I started studying with Tommy, he started studying with Tommy too, but he was very advanced. He added a lot to my repertoire, and he cleaned up a couple of things for me too. I've always got to mention him, because he helped me immensely.
AAJ: And then in 1981, you started with Luther Vandross.
SK: A percussionist by the name of Crusher Bennett did the record with Lutherhe was on that Never Too Much (Epic, 1981) record. He doesn't like to travel, he likes to just stay in town and do all the records. So when it came time to travel, they offered him the gig, but he didn't want to go. He was good friends with me and he said, "Hey Steve, you play great, I'll look out for you." He would send me; he would recommend me, first call. So he recommended meI went and auditioned, and I got the gig. Then I turned around and it was twenty years later.
And the same thing happened with Ron Carter. Around 1985, while I was still playing with Luther, he [Crusher Bennett] started recording with Ron. The same thing came up with the traveling, and he said, "Hey man, this guy's going to Japan and Brazil, and places like that," and I said "What?!? Yes!" So he turned me on to that. What was good about it was I worked with Ron all those twenty years too. So whenever I wasn't working with Luther, I'd be working with Ron.
AAJ: You must have been pretty busy.
SK: I was having a ball! What was so unique about the situation was that it was two completely different types of musictwo different sounds, two different heads. That was what was so refreshing about it.
AAJ: One of the things that I've really noticed about your work is that you really jump between different musical worlds a lot. Do you ever find your heads spinning between different musical approaches or different ideas?
SK: Noit's like you have a real great wardrobe, you know what I mean? When you're going to Black Tie Affair, you got the right tux. When you're going to the place that's casual, you got the great suit and jacket pants. All you do is, whenever you go into that type of mindset, you go dressed for it. And everything just kind of falls into place if you just think about it in a certain way. That's how I think about it.
Another thing too in playing percussionI always think about what I do as being a chef. In music, you've got the melody, you've got the harmony, all that is there. What I'm supposed to do is enhance it. So in doing that, I've got to know flavors. So if I hear something that has more of a Brazilian sound, I use those kinds of spices. If I hear something that's more R&B, it's a different instrument that you're going to heara tambourine. Everything goes with the colors that it goesit's like codes. If you figure those kinds of things out, it's better for you. It makes it simpler, and it makes it more sensible to you. Cause you don't want to go in and change somebody's groove. You want to go in and make it groove, you know what I mean?
AAJ: I think back to hearing you perform with Ron Carterone very vivid memory that I have is hearing you play "Samba de Orfeu"it's just you and Ron. There's this telepathic communication between the two of you that I guess comes from years of playing together.
SK: Well, when you play with someone for a prolonged time, you get to know them, but one of the most important things is learning to trust the person, and the person learning to trust you. You know what the person likes; you know how to get underneath. When you see them go to a certain place, you know what you can feed them, so that they can go there. You don't trip them; you try to something to take it to the next level. Enhancing all that stuff just comes from playing for a long time and listening.
I've played with a lot of different drummersthat's interesting too. You play differently with different drummers, like Lewis Nash, Harvey Mason, Bernard Purdie, Portinho...everyone's got their own kind of power, their own kind of groove, and you've got to kind of figure that out. They're going to make you play different. The most important thing is finding your spaceyou don't want to fight the person. You can hear some guys play together and it sounds like a boxing matcheveryone's swinging, but ain't nobody hitting nothing.
AAJ: You've got this magical way of choosing from all these different colors. I remember seeing your set-upyou had just like tons of percussion at your will to play there on stage, and it wasn't like you were playing all of them all the time.
SK: No, nothe important thingI don't get paid per instrument, so I don't have to play all of it. And if I don't its O.K., I can play it tomorrow, you know what I mean? One thing that I learned from Domhe told me, "You've got to figure out the proper sound with the proper things. Certain things ask for wood sounds and wind sounds, or darker colors, mysterious stuff. Certain things ask for triangles and light stuff, bells and all, because of the light sound. Certain things ask more for shakers, move movement. Back to the cooking thingif I'm going to make a Gumbo, I'm not going to over spice it; I'm going to make it so it tastes like a Gumbo. So, these things kind of work for me.
AAJ: It was about 2000 that you released In My Path, your first solo album. You seemed pretty busy, it didn't seem like you had any issue getting work, so what inspired you to make that jump?
SK: Deep from the days with my brother, I always wanted to do my own thing too. This is why now I'm concentrating more on my career. Because now, I really like playing what I like and my tunes. I like the guys I choose to be in my band. This stuff is really exciting to me. A lot of this music in my past was stuff that I had accumulated. That CD is not as straight-ahead Latin jazz, it's got a little bit of everything.
AAJ: You've got a pretty stellar group of musicians on that.
SK: During that time, I produced it with one of the guys in the group, Ivan Hampden, the drummer, and man, we just worked great together.
AAJ: Didn't you guys work together with Luther?
SK: Yeah, right, so a lot of this stuff we were doing on the road. After the gig, or something, "Hey, man I've got this idea, I've got the keyboard in the room, come on man." And so that's how the first date became. It was really great, because, if you listen to it, even now, you could play that ten years from now and it would be timeless.
AAJ: I remember listening to an interview that you did with Martin Cohen from Latin Percussion, about the time where you were talking about the challenges about stepping out as a bandleader as a percussionist.
SK: Well, you know, you always try to watch what you say, because people can take things the wrong way. But the norm for most people as a front man is saxophone, or guitar, or pianothe person that plays the melody. The drummers, they're always a little hesitant about it. If you make a record, they expect you to solo on every song, even it's a ballad, you know what I mean?
But they don't realize that a lot of drummers are really great leaders because we're always in the background playing. We keep that groove, our job is very important to make the music feel good. You look back in time, and I think some great leaders were drummers. Mongo was a leader for years, Tito Puente, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, I mean, it goes on and on. An endless group of really incredible leaders that are drummers.
AAJ: Another misconception that I think a lot of people have is that drummers or percussionists are not songwriters. You've definitely been a strong songwriter on all your albums
SK: Each one of my CDs, I do three or four tunes. Me and Ivan collaborated very well on the first one. The one that Jon sings, "Our Love Is Like The Wind," "Lucricia," I think those are beautiful songs. And then on the second CD, Señor Kroon, Oscar Hernandez co-produced with me and I started collaborating with Oscar...and wow, man, Oscar's amazing. Cause you write with him, and he' already thinking of an arrangement. He's really good. On this one (El Mas Alla), I did two tunes with Oscar, and he did one of his own. My main keyboard player when we play live is Igor Atalita; he's on the CD too. I started writing with him. He's really good too. We got a nice vibe. That's how we did "Bobo's Blues" and "Steppin.'" It's really good to know him; I'm going to have a lot of really good stuff coming from him too.
AAJ: Listening to all three albums, I've noticed that there's been a change from a more crossover approach on In My Path to a very straight, traditional Latin jazz by the time you're at the current album. Has that been a conscious thing or something that you've kind of steered towards?
SK: Yea, I got closer to myself. The first CD is from the experience of me just playing with a lot of people. So I would do vocals and I would do something that has a little more funk to it or something that has a different groove. I wasn't worried about that. And at that time, they had more radio stations that were playing everything.
I think what happened too is I wasn't performing with a band either. With Señor Kroon I started performing with a band. Things start crafting more, cause then you want to get a sound. It just kind of developed and evolved, and I think for the most part, I kind of found my sound. I really feel good about what my band sounds like, and what my music sounds like now. I mean, I love all of it, but I really think this is what I'm really going to be doing; this is what my focus is. And I'm getting I'm good response.
AAJ: Well, the new album it's spectacular. I noticed on the latest CD, you've dedicated that to some percussionists who've transcended to the other side . . .
SK: If you don't' mind, I'll explain to you exactly what El Mas Alla is...
AAJ: Please do!
SK: El Mas Alla, what it means, is also beyond, but in Spanish they have double meanings to things. Besides just meaning beyond like we know in English, it means when you transcend to the other side. If someone passes away, they say he went to the other side. So in doing this CD, these last couple of years, as the material was coming along, Mongo died, Don Alias died, Patato died, Ray Barretto died, Dom Um Ramao died, Tommy Lopez died, Tata...It's been amazing how many good percussionists have passed away.
I was saying when I wrote this tune with Igor, I said, "Man, I'm going to name this Bobo's Blues." It's amazing how that came to me man. I felt Bobo played with this kind of a groove.
And then Mongo..."Don Ramon" is for Mongo Santamaria. When he passed away, a couple of weeks later, I was sitting in my car and that melody came to me, I thought about him. I went Oscar, and I said, "Check this out man, I'm thinking about this for Mongo." And he said, "OK, you know what would be a great name, let's not just call it 'Mongo,' let's call it 'Don Ramon.'" Because Don is when you respectfully say to someone who's an older person, you call them "Don," like your father or something. His real first name was Ramon. So we named it "Don Ramon," out of respect.
I was saying, man this is really getting a vibe about all these percussionists. I'm going to have to find a way to include this all into this experience. So I went to my father, and since all my CDs have dual English and Spanish titles, I said to my father, "Hey, Pop, you know, what does beyond mean in Spanish?" He said, "Well, beyond is a little different, it has another meaning too, it means El Mas Alla."
So what happened is, a little over a year ago, my father passed awayI was with him, it was really kind of deep, so in stead of naming it just beyond, I named it El Mas Alla because of himbecause he transcended, you know. So, if you notice, a lot of it is dedicated to him too.
AAJ: I was really noticing that you've got a couple of inspired choicesthe Jaco tune, "Used To Be A Cha Cha," and the Stevie Wonder tunes, "Superwoman" and "Where Were You When I Needed You." I was wondering what was your inspiration to choose those tunes?
SK: That comes from that great range of knowing a lot of different music. There are so many different songs out there. Stevie, man you could do a whole Latin jazz record playing his songs, because all his songs are counted in clave. All his songs you could put into some sort of a form of a clave. It's amazing, you can see he has a great love for that. He's very much a percussive writer. Some of this, when I was thinking about this CD, I was thinking about that era, you know. There was so much good music coming out in so many different ways...Weather Report, Return To Forever, Santanaeverybody was doing some great work. So, I wanted to get some of those kinds of songs. I knew that they were good song, but that they weren't hooky, trendy songs. I want a song that has substance to it.
"Used To Be A Cha Cha,"the guy that arranged that was James Shipp, a young vibraphonist who works with my band when Bryan Carrott doesn't. He brought that arrangement to me and said, "Steve, I think you're going to like this, man." He brought it to my attention, and I said, "Oh man, I love itit's different!" It's risky, it's modern. If you notice on this CD too, a lot of the bass lines are a little bit different; they're not all straight-up tumbao and stuff. We got a little more creative and funky with it, because I think that's kind of interesting.
SK: They're very big names and they're great guysthey're friends, and I got really comfortable in the studio with them. Those guys really know how to lay down records. You get Ruben and Vince on a session man, you've got concrete and steel. And then with Oscar doing some arrangements, it's going to be good. And then I've got Igor Atalita on a lot of stuff too. Igor's a fine player man. He's a great player. The live stuff, I usually use this guy named Donald Nicks on bass, who's really excellent. Bryan Carrott's in the band, and Bryan, he sounds so melodic, so nice. He's such a great player.
AAJ: The combination of the vibes and the sax, it's kind of like you're touching on that Cal Tjader sound, but there's modern edge to it too.
SK: Yea, well that sound, what I love about it, especially with sax, vibes, and flute or sax and vibesit's a nice, lighter, clean sound. It's not going to just knock you down, or blow you away. The melody just sounds so pretty ringing out. I just think that it makes the whole thing sound kind of sophisticated.
AAJ: It does, it's a beautiful sound on the album. Another track that really stands out to me is "I Wish You Love," with Freddy Cole singing over the bolero
SK: Oh man, that was a dream come true. I heard him [Freddy Cole] quite a few years back, and I became a fan of his. I love that whisky sound, besidesthe timbre of his voice, it's so rich, you know. And I said, man, if I could him on my new CD . . .
I saw Todd Barkin, who works at Dizzy's Coca Cola, while I was playing there with Cyrus Chestnut. So I said, "Hey Todd, I'd like to meet Freddy Cole." And he said, "Well, I produce him, as a matter of fact, I'm doing a CD with him now, and I'd like you to play on a couple of tracks. So you can get to meet him." I said, "Oh, my goodness." That album, Because of You, I got to play on it. His pianist is John Di Martino, he does a lot of arrangements for him. I told John, "Hey John, do you think I can get Freddy on my CD?" He said, "You worked with him, you met him, he's really cool, so let me see." So John called him and then he said, "He said to give him a call!" I said, "What?" So I called him and he was so cool and so nice. He was like, "Yes, let's do this man." I picked I Wish You Love," but you could have him sing anything manit could be "Mary Had A Little Lamb" and it would be great.
But this song, "I Wish You Love," going back to Symphony Sid when I was growing up, he would always play, you know Gloria Lynn had a huge hit on this, and I remember, he had this show that came on between 11:00 and 12:00. I would always have my little radio under my pillow. I was supposed to be going to sleep to go to school, but I'd be listening to it for this hour. Because in that hour he'd play Tito Rodriguez, Mongo, Gloria Lynn, Nancy Wilson, I mean, his thing was so diversified it was ridiculous...Monk, I mean this catI loved this! And "I Wish You Love," every time I heard it, I just said man, this would sound great coming from a male. And boy, did he tell a story man. It just lays under, what I love about it; I captured a lot of the memories of when I played these little bars at home. Years ago when the bar scene was really heavy, you'd hear small, little things like that. The cats would play stuff like thatnot overly arranged, just nice and tight and funky. Man, I thought that we really captured that, we nailed that good. John Di Martino was very instrumental in hooking up the arrangement on that, it just kind of worked.
AAJ: So you mentioned a few of the guys in your regular performing band, what are your plans? Are you going to get out there and promote the album?
SK: Yeah, not just promote the CD, but hopefully this time next year, we'll be doing a lot of festivals and stuff. I think this music should be played at festivals, 'cause it's great for that, it's got a happiness to it you know? That's what I'm looking forward to; this is what I want to do!
Steven Kroon, El Mas Alla (Beyond) (Kroonatune, 2008)
Steven Kroon, Señor Kroon (Pony Canyon, 2006)
Freddy Cole, Because of You (Highnote, 2006)
Ron Carter, Eight Plus (Dreyfus, 2003)
Ron Carter, When Skies Are Grey (Blue Note, 2001)
Steven Kroon, In My Path (World Blue, 2000)
Stephen Scott, Vision Quest (Enja, 1999)
Ron Carter, Orfeu (Blue Note, 1999)
Ron Carter, Bass & I (Blue Note, 1997)
Diana Krall, All For You (Impulse!, 1996)
Ron Carter, Mr. Bow Tie (Blue Note, 1995)
Mulgrew Miller, Getting to Know You (Novus, 1995)
Ron Carter, Friends (Blue Note, 1992)
Jimmy Heath, Little Man, Big Band (Verve, 1992)
Luther Vandross, The Night I Fell In Love (Epic, 1990)
Spyro Gyra, Carnaval (MCA, 1980)
Dom Um Romao, Hotmosphere (Pablo, 1977)
Top and Bottom Photos: David France
Center Photo: courtesy of Steve Kroon