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Mark Weinstein: Cuban Roots

Tomas Pena By

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Flautist/trombonist/Professor Mark Weinstein is a first generation Jewish American of Ukranian descent. He was raised in Brooklyn and grew up in a multi cultural atmosphere, listening to the music of Felix Chappotin, Chocolate Armenteros, Miles Davis and Charles Mingus.

Prior to taking up the flute, Weinstein made his mark as a trombonist and member of Eddie Palmieri's (original) La Perfecta.

In 1967, Weinstein shook up the music community with Cuban Roots, an innovative recording that fused elements of traditional Cuban folkloric music, free jazz and West African Yoruba music. As a trombonist, Weinstein has performed with Chick Corea, Cal Tjader, Tito Puente, Larry Harlow, Herbie Mann, Maynard Ferguson, Thad Jones, Mel Lewis, Lionel Hampton, Clark Terry, Larry Harlow, Louie Ramirez, Charlie Palmieri and La Playa Sextet.

From 1971 to 1974 Mark took a hiatus from the music scene to pursue a Master's Degree and a PHD in Philosophy. He is currently a professor and chairperson of the Department of Educational Foundations at Montclair State University in New Jersey.

In 1996, Mark returned to the music scene. These days, he is active in the New York jazz scene, playing flute with chamber-jazz ensembles and in diverse styles such as North Indian, Brazilian and Klezmer. Weinstein is currently celebrating the release of Algo Más, his third installment in the widely acclaimed Cuban Roots series. My conversation with Mark Weinstein proved to be lively, informative, and humorous.

All About Jazz: You've said that you do not necessarily think of yourself as playing Cuban music and that you reinterpret the music through "the heart and ears of a jazz musician.

Mark Weinstein: Two things are pretty obvious from the three versions of Cuban Roots when contrasted with much of Latin jazz. The first is that my music is rooted in deep Cuban folkloric traditions. I play traditional melodies and use folkloric rather than dance band drums. The second is that the music has very little to do with mainstream Cuban dance band music or salsa or even most Latin Jazz (no drums, no timbales). And I also don't play charanga style flute. But most important I don't feel constrained by what is going on around me in popular dance music or even contemporary Latin jazz. I play how the music moves me and I am a jazz musician, heart, ears, soul and chops. And I am a jazz musician of the '60s brought up in an era when jazz musicians were expected to be innovators.

AAJ: After so many years as an established trombonist, what prompted you to take up the flute?

MW: I was pretty bitter after Cuban Roots came out. I got almost no airplay and the guys who I looked up to, Barry and Eddie, never really gave it any energy. I played for a minute with Mike Bloomfield and Buddy Miles and got an offer to put a horn section together for Janice Joplin. I turned it down and turned my back on the music business. When I started playing again my standard line was that "flute will keep me out of the music business (which compared to trombone is certainly true). But, if truth is to be told, in 1973 I went to Greece and here I am on this nude beach and there are two guitar players and a flautist in the middle of this circle of gorgeous people. And I said to myself, "Put your self in that picture. The next summer I went back to Greece with a flute. An old Armstrong that turned black from all the playing I did on beaches, and parks and the street.

AAJ: Let's start by going back to the year 1967 and Cuban Roots.

MW: I had been working with salsa bands for some time and was always intrigued by folkloric percussion, which I thought would be suited to free jazz soloing because of the internal complexity of the patterns. I had some source albums of folkloric material that Barry Rogers had turned me on to, so I picked the strongest melodies and made a demo of 3 charts with some friends of mine including Eddy Martinez on piano and Phil Newsum from Larry Harlow's band on drums. Al Santiago, of Blessed Memory, had the courage to let me record it [on Musicor Records].

AAJ: I understand the entire album was recorded in one three hour session and all of the tracks are complete first takes. Tell me about the making of Cuban Roots.

MW: At first none of the drummers I knew would touch the project since playing toques de santos with jazz instruments seemed sacrilegious. But when Julito Collazo said he would do it I was able to get the most knowledgeable drummers in the city, although they played on conga drums rather than batá. I picked Arnie Lawrence to play alto since he is a mambo dance instructor as well as a demon alto player, and so I know he wouldn't get thrown by the rhythm. Mario Rivera was the baritone saxophonist in Latin music (and still is). Chick Corea was playing with me in Herbie Mann's band and I know he had the best timing and the best ears. Bass was a problem since I needed someone who would stay out of the way of the drums and who had an open mind. Bobby Valentin had just switched from trumpet to bass and I had enormous faith in his musicianship.

I wrote all of the charts with plenty of room for blowing. We had one rehearsal and played the entire album in one session. At the very end I saw the head of Musicor Records screaming at Al [Santiago], but the date was already in the can and with very little mixing or concern for the sound it was released.

AAJ: Julito Collazo gave his permission for the drummers to play the rhythms for the toques de santos in a secular/commercial setting. For the benefit of those who may not have a knowledge of the religion, could you comment on toques de santos?

MW: These are the songs and rhythms that are played for the Orishas in the Santeria religion. When I first brought the project to Tommy [Lopez] and he heard I was playing the melody for Chango he packed up his drums and left. But Julito was a santero and when he said it was OK, Tommy was thrilled to get a chance to play with him. But they played on dance band drums not the blessed drums that were used for religious purposes.

AAJ: And the end result?

MW: The album is incredibly raw, the sound bordering on ugly but the playing is amazing. I don't know how much influence the record had, but Chick [Corea] was playing in a style unheard of at the time, although I hear a lot of that freedom in the generation of piano players that came up in the 80's. When I listen to early Paquito [D'Rivera] and the way sax players play today I can only say Arnie [Lawrence] did it in 1967. I'm not sure how much of an influence I had on trombone players, but to this day whenever I meet a Latin trombonist he treats me with a lot of respect. The drums were and are a unique powerhouse. The swing is enormous; no trap drums, no timbales, no cymbals, just the real deal.

AAJ: As I understand it, only 500 copies were printed.

MW: I believe that was the number. I never received any royalty statement. Although I got paid for the date as a leader and arranger. Those were the days.

AAJ: Cuban Roots was quite progressive for its time. How was the recording received?

MW: The album received almost no air play. Billy Taylor played a few cuts once or twice [on the radio]. But worse, the musicians who I respected the most seemed unimpressed. That was a big part of my leaving the business and becoming a college professor. In 1976 Larry Harlow asked me if I had a sealed copy and it became the basis for the Artol Records release which was the version that most musicians heard. Sadly the master had a skip right at the beginning of Chick's solo.

AAJ: Did you ever imagine that you would return to the music scene?

MW: I only really stopped playing from 1971 to 1974. I tried to get back on the scene with Orisha Suite in 1977 Although I'm proud of the music which is finally available on the CD of Cuban Roots in 1976, I had a lot to learn as a flautist. I scuffled as an academic for 10 years teaching part-time and doing consultant work because full-time college teaching jobs in NY are too hard to get and I wasn't about to leave town. I did a lot of playing with street bands in the '80s and jammed a lot with guitar players. I love playing in the street and in parks. I studied here and there and put in hours and hours every day playing with Jamey Aebersold records. When I finally got a tenure track job at Montclair State University I started self-producing records and did a lot a small gigs in New Jersey and in town.

Algo Más is my eighth CD on flute. Of course to get tenure I had to put in time and energy. Teaching and publishing takes a lot of time and energy and since I don't have to make a living at music I play much less than I'd like to. I'm a lot like the Maytag man, the loneliest guy in town. I'll know I'm back on the scene when the gigs start happening.

AAJ: Prior to Cuban Roots, none of the musicians had played jazz with folkloric rhythms...

MW: No one to my knowledge had ever done that before except for some short sections on some Machito records. When Herbie Mann died I saw in his discography that he made an early record with African drums, but I didn't know about it at the time. Chick had never even heard drumming like that and Bobby was a salsero, unfamiliar with rumba. That gave them the freedom to respond outside the box and not interfere with the complex counterpoint of the drums. Arnie, like myself, considered himself a free jazz player and so, to us, having all of that power and complexity to play with was sheer pleasure. Although I played free, I did know the tradition and tried to play like a sonero. I was also influenced by a Cuban trumpet player, La Florecita who was famous for his playing with drum and voice ensembles in the Carnaval in Havana.

AAJ: I understand that trombonist Barry Rogers was an invited guest, however, he failed to participate. I can't help but imagine how the recording might have turned out had he been a participant.

MW: I originally wanted two bones and alto. I played some of the basic harmonic sketches for Barry and he said that it was my baby. It would have been a very different album with Barry. He never would have put up with the awful recording conditions or the unconcern for the sound. I was not even invited to the mix. But then Musicor might have killed the whole thing. I would have loved to make a record with Barry. And I think he is one of the few people who would have understood what I was doing with Algo Más. But more of that later.

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