Gumbi Ortiz: Stepping Out With Miami

Woodrow Wilkins By

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I equate everything with cooking. If you overcook it, it
Gumbi 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.

Most fans are familiar with traditional lead instruments like bass, saxophone, guitar, piano, etc. But a percussionist as a bandleader is bit off the beaten path. Ortiz says that's part of what made the recording of Miami fun. "A percussionist—think of it as Santa's workshop. In Santa's workshop, there's all sorts of stuff. In African cultures— Cuban, Puerto Rican, Haitian, Dominican—they can take anything and make it an instrument. Our people are resourceful. In Trinidad, they made the steel drums. That's the most inventive thing. Even the conga drum is an invention of people being displaced from their homeland—without their instruments. With all the trials and tribulations, they still have that creativity. The Caribbean, Mississippi, Brazil—wherever there are African people, we are resourceful.

In poor regions of the world, people have been known to use anything that makes a sound when they don't have instruments. The oil barrel, for example, evolved into a musical instrument when drums, that had been associated with street violence, were outlawed. Some percussion ensembles employ some interesting devices, including an automobile brake drum. Ortiz's setup includes several drums, including congas, bongos and the bata, which he said is used in Nigeria to praise the gods. Ortiz also plays piano.

Ortiz explains a delicate balance between an artist's creative freedom and playing what audiences like, the latter of which may involve a bit of compromise. He says it's fine for an artist who feels something for the music he writes to record that, even if the recording is so weird that nobody wants to listen to it. However, such an artist should be prepared for negative responses. "Don't complain to me, Ortiz said with a laugh, "I told you not to make elephant noises records!

It's a lesson in futility to ask Ortiz about the inspiration behind certain song titles, apart from the self-explanatory ones like "T-Back and "Miami. "That means nothing to me because those are not the working titles, he said. "And then, when it's on, it's got a name. Man that is the worst; I am the worst at this. You know what I mean? I have a list of 15 songs, and then next to them, I can't remember what they're called now. I always have to go back to my iTunes over here. When people ask me, 'What about this one?' I stutter. I have to go look it up.

Sometimes, that doesn't help. "Even on my iTunes, it just says, 'Track 1.' The Janet Jackson song, we did the song, but we never knew what it was. It was always 'the Janet Jackson song.' That song, incidentally, is "Together Again. The other 13 tracks are originals, penned by Ortiz or members of the various lineups, including Lorber, Miles, Rodriguez and Weckl.

Ultimately, Ortiz will become more familiar with the titles. "At the end of two years, I'll know all the songs, he said. However, he hesitated when asked if he'll still be playing them in two years. "I don't know, but I'll know the songs, he said, laughing. It's an infectious atmosphere about the album. Whether you're a picky or insatiable, the smorgasbord that is Miami is sure to sate any musical appetite.

Selected Discography

Gumbi Ortiz, Miami (Kwip, 2006)
Al Di Meola, Vocal Rendezvous (SPV UK, 2006)
The Latino Projekt, Soy De Aqui (Independent, 2005)
Los Hombres Calientes, Vol. 4: Vodou Dance (Basin Street, 2003)
Al Di Meola, Flesh on Flesh (Telarc, 2002)
The Latino Projekt, La Cura (Self Produced, 2000)
Al Di Meola, The Grand Passion: World Sinfonia (Telarc, 2000)
Al Di Meola, Orange and Blue (Bluemoon, 1994)

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