Conrad Herwig: There's Nothing Else
AAJ: Your work in Latin music in particular is an important part of your career, including records you've made as a leader, such as The Latin Side of John Coltrane in 1996 and other recordings in your Latin Side series.
CH: Some people probably feel that I've made about five records, and they're all the Latin SideThe Latin Side of Coltrane, The Latin Side of Miles Davis (Half Note, 2004), The Latin Side of Wayne Shorter (Half Note, 2008), The Latin Side of Herbie Hancock. Or they only know me from playing with Eddie Palmieri's bandwhich is s a huge side of my life, because I've been playing with Eddie for 27 years I think. Eddie's my son's godfather, and we're like family. I was really happy that he was voted an NEA Jazz Master, which is so well deserved.
The trombone has had an integral part in Afro-Caribbean music and Afro-Cuban music. If you go back really to the '40s, Generoso Jiménez was an iconic trombonist in Cuba who was the musical director for Benny Moré band, which was the leading Cuban big band in its day. Barry Rogers was another great trombonist, who was influenced by Generoso. Barry burst on the scene in the early '60s with Eddie Palmieri, and the two of them really created the trombonga sound in salsa and in Afro-Cuban music.
It was amazing to be able to join Eddie's band and to play with him for so long. In the late '80s and into the '90s, we were doing hundreds of salsa gigs a year. I'm proud to say that Eddie Palmieri has told me that I earned my salsa badge. There were times when I wondered if I was a jazz player playing salsa, or was I a salsero playing jazz. It just becomes part of who you are. And Afro-Cuban rhythms really inform swing, too. The more you know about Afro-Cuban music, the more you're able to swing in jazz. Sometimes people ask me, "Have you quit playing jazz? Because all you're doing is playing Latin music." And I say, "No, it's all the same. It's all the same."
The whole "Latin Side" thing came together with Brian Lynch, Donald Harrison and me playing with Eddie Palmieri. Being jazz players, we'd be quoting tunes, and sometimes we'd take an Eddie tune, say, a D minor ride, and play "Impressions" on it. Or we'd play a blues and do "Blue Trane." And it worked so well that the idea came to do the whole concept. Bob Belden and I were talking about it one day, and we were saying wouldn't it be cool to do the Latin Side of Coltrane, and that was when it happened.
If you had told me when I was 18 that all I was going to be able to do was play the music of Coltrane, Miles, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Joe Henderson, I would have said, "I'll sign up for that. Any time." It just happened that it felt natural. And the thing is, it's really just a vehicle for stuff we like anyway. When you talk about playing "One Finger Snap" or "Impressions," or "Footprints"when I was coming up in the '70s, those are the tunes we were playing in jam sessions. So, there's nothing really hugely different. We're just putting an Afro-Cuban flavor and Afro-Cuban framework and using those compositions within that framework.
AAJ: The Latin Side of John Coltrane made a really pretty big splash when it first came outit got a lot of attention.
CH: It didn't surprise me, because everybody who loves jazz loves Coltrane. But you can't really say a lot of people love jazz. It's an aficionado's music. It's an insider's music. It's cool and it's hip, and that's why we love it. But, for example, with Eddie Palmieri, he's hugely popular. Millions of people love Eddie Palmieri's music in South America, in Mexico, in Puerto Rico, the whole diaspora of Afro-Cuban music and Hispanic culture. Back in August, we were in Bogota. There were 90,000 people downtown in the square at our concert with Eddie Palmieri. And the amazing thing is they are really knowledgeable and total fanaticsand this is in Bogota, Columbia. Once you've seen the power, it all really makes sense.
Eddie always talks about Afro-Caribbean jazz as the fusion of the 21st century. And it's coming into its spotlight right now, with people like Eddie, Paquito, Arturo Sandoval and Chucho Valdés. Afro- Caribbean music has the power to draw you and make you want to move and bring you to your feet. So, superimposing or grafting the jazz classics onto that was amazing to see.
I will never forget doing a tour in Europe, and we went to the Canary Islands. It was a Heineken festival, and I remember there was a Heineken blimp and there were four-story high beer cans. There we were, playing the Latin Side of Coltrane, Brian and me and all of the guys from the record. We were playing either "Blue Trane" or "Impressions." And when I looked out around the stage, there were a couple thousand people listening to music. But when I looked back on the beach, I saw a huge crowd of several thousand people, all dancing salsa on the beach to John Coltrane's music. And then it really struck methere's a power in this rhythmic form and in this music that's a serious force.