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Gumbi Ortiz: Stepping Out With Miami

Woodrow Wilkins By

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I equate everything with cooking. If you overcook it, it
Gumbi OrtizGumbi Ortiz's passion for jamming helped launch the percussionist's professional career. Blending his Afro-Cuban heritage with various styles of music, he's followed the lead of Carlos Santana in mixing Latin sounds with pop. Although he started playing the sax when he was a child, to honor his sax-playing father, he preferred percussion instruments.

After playing with local Latin bands in his native New York, Ortiz stepped up to doing gigs with drummer and timbale player Chuckie Lopez. That relationship led to performances with the Salsoul Orchestra, Ashford & Simpson, Tito Puento, Charlie Palmieri and others. In 1986, jazz guitarist Al Di Meola found Ortiz jamming at a club in St. Petersburg, Fla. Ortiz settled there and began working with Cuban acts in and around Miami and became a regular member of Di Meola's band.

Although Ortiz has led a band, The Gumbi Band, he had never released a solo album— until now. With Miami, Ortiz assembles a talented and diverse cast that includes Di Meola, Jeff Lorber, Eric Marienthal, Dave Weckl, and Spyro Gyra members Jay Beckenstein and Scott Ambush. Ortiz compares the project to a culinary enterprise. "It's kinda like opening up a restaurant. You think of the menu and what you wanna serve people. I come from this culture: 'I want some of this, and some of this, some of this,' and now we're ready to open the store.

Ortiz said the creation of new music is a phenomenal experience. Artists may have a low expectation of everything—worried that things don't pan out as they were planned. However, when it works, the result can be mind boggling. "You try to do the best you can, he said. "Then you're overwhelmed by people liking it, and you go, 'Oh, wow!'

The cover of Miami, for those who were around in the 1980s, evokes images of Miami Vice. Ortiz, who has lived in south Florida for many years, said the theme was designed to attract people to typical Miami colors—pastels and neons. One of the tracks, appropriately, is titled "Pastel Days & Neon Nights.

The album includes an all-star cast of sidemen. Although each brought something unique to the studio, Ortiz says that didn't take anything away from the music. "What you hear is almost exactly the way I wrote the music, he said. "It's kinda strange when that happens. Usually, a lot of people get involved; there's changes. The composition sounds exactly how I envisioned.

Some of the artists were selected for certain tracks, but not all of them. "There's some of that that goes on, but there's also, 'What do you guys want to play on?'

Saxophonist Jay Beckenstein, founding member of Spyro Gyra, appears on "On the Grove. "It sounded like him, Ortiz said. "I didn't write it with him in mind, but when we got to the studio, I realized that would be great to have Jay Beckenstein. You want to make sure they like the songs they play. After a pause, Ortiz added, "You also want to make sure you've got enough money, laughing as he said it.

One musician, however, was selected for business reasons. "I chose Al, not because he's better or worse, but because he's my boss, Ortiz said.

Continuing on the topic of selecting musicians, Ortiz said, "It's like picking the right wine with steak. Some people are like, 'You don't drink white wine with this.' Shades of a frustrated restaurateur? Ortiz delivered an infectious laugh. "I equate everything with cooking. Every day, I cook—hams, chicken, pork chops. We have a mixture of Southern cooking and Cuban cooking in this house. If you overcook it, it's nasty. If you undercook, it's nasty, too. It's the same way with music.


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