Latin Jazz Conversations: Jose Rizo (Part 4)


Sign in to view read count
Radio personality and bandleader José Rizo built upon his years of experience with Latin Jazz to reveal a new perspective on a legendary figure. Growing up in Oxnard, California, Rizo flirted with music but didn't dive deeply into the art form until he started college at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Discouraged by the representation of Latinos on the radio, Rizo found a spot on local station KIST in a public affairs show and began training his peers to do the same through an organization called Radio Chicano. Inspired by a budding love for jazz and Latin music, Rizo established a music show on UCSB entitled Barrio Salsoul, helped organize local concerts, and made connections with the area's musicians. Life altered Rizo's path and he left radio for many years, until he noticed a lack of smart programming around Latin Jazz. He organized an audition with Los Angeles station KLON, and impressed the station with his smart programming; they quickly integrated him into their schedule. Rizo's show, Jazz On The Latin Side became one of the station's most popular programs, and after ten years, Rizo organized an event to celebrate the show's success. The best Latin Jazz artists in Los Angeles jumped into a jam session organized around music composed by Rizo, CuBop Records captured the event, and the live recordings became Jazz On The Latin Side All-Stars Vol. 1 and Vol. 2. As the albums started getting extensive airplay, Rizo started receiving multiple phone calls requesting the band for performances. Rizo organized a working band, whose reputation grew in leaps and bounds. Ten years later, Rizo's Jazz On The Latin Side All-Stars had two more studio albums to their name, The Last Bullfighter and Tambolero. Despite the success of the band, the realities of a tight economy made a smaller ensemble more practical and Rizo turned towards one of his other interests—Mongo Santamaria's charanga-jazz band La Sabrosa. Together with high profile Los Angeles musicians saxophonist Justo Almario, flautist Danilo Lozano, percussionist Ramon Banda, pianist Oscar Hernandez, and more, Rizo formed Mongorama. The band combined Santamaria's classic repertoire with original songs from Rizo and a loose jam session mentality, resulting in a powerful tribute to the legendary percussionist. Their resultant 2011 album signaled a new musical era for Rizo and a fresh look at Santamaria.

The appearance of Mongorama resonated with new opportunities, but most importantly, it offered the chance to look at the past and future with an equal respect. On the one hand, Rizo developed a thoughtful and poignant homage to one of his heroes and one of the most revered figures in Latin music. On the other hand, he gathered a power house band capable of delivering awe inspiring performances and unforgettable albums. In Part One of our interview with Rizo, we delved into his early musical experiences, his bold move into radio in college, and his newfound appreciation for jazz. We focused on the creation of Rizo's show Jazz On The Latin Side in Part Two of our interview, as well as his role as music director at KKJZ, and the current state of public radio. Part Three of our interview dug into the development of The Jazz On The Latin Side All-Stars and their subsequent albums. Today, we take a look at Rizo's latest project, Mongorama, their connection to Santamaria's original group, and their 2011 release.

LATIN JAZZ CORNER: When talking about Mongo Santamaria, it's so easy to jump into the more funk influenced stuff that he did later in his career, but you focused upon the repertoire from his La Sabrosa period. What was it that focused you in upon that one era of Mongo's career?

JOSÉ RIZO: My close musical brothers—Justo Almario, Danilo Lozano, and Poncho Sanchez—we've always loved that stuff. When Poncho and I used to hang out, we would listen to records just for the fun of it, and we would always go back to Live At The Blackhawk from Mongo Santamaria. We'd listen to that, I'd play a little congas, and Poncho would get on the timbales; we'd hang out and just have fun listening to the stuff. So I fell in love with that period; it was close to all of us.

It was especially close to Danilo (Lozano), because his Dad played flute on those records (Danilo's father, Rolando Lozano, was an original member of Santamaria's charanga-jazz group La Sabrosa). Danilo is my close musical brother, and I said, “Danilo, one day, we're going to revisit that so that you can go back to your roots and travel through a lot of the things that your Dad was doing in a band setting. You can play at that level too." We got excited talking about it.

I finally told Danilo and Justo, “I think that I'm going to do this." I had my little plan on paper, just like I always did. They asked what I was going to do and I said, “I'm going to have a flute and a violin. Justo, you're going to play Chombo, but you're only going to play his instrument—I don't want you to play just like Chombo, you're going to sound like Justo Almario. You'll be on tenor within this new make-up of the band. Danilo, you're going to play all your influence that your Dad had on you.

The piano chair was a little tough, but then Oscar Hernandez came around—he would play with Jazz On The Latin Side All-Stars every once in a while. I told him about it, and he said, “I'd like to be part of something like this." I said, “Are you kidding me? That would be an honor." I gave him some charts and asked him to arrange some of the tunes, so he started arranging some of the material. Francisco Torres, who has always been a close friend—he's grown into an amazing arranger—he arranged some of the other stuff.

I called Ramon Banda and said, “O.K., guess what? I explained what we were going to do, and when I told him that we were doing the old Mongo stuff, he said, “Call me when you get close, I'm in."

The early recordings always had the percussionists yelling out the coros and the vocals were really rough. I didn't want to do the same thing; I wanted to let it evolve a little bit. I thought that we could create some really nice harmonies with the violin, flute, and tenor in between the open sections—the open sections had to be there; that was part of the magic.I thought that we could also include a lead vocalist and support him with really strong coros. We could really keep the swing of that music, but bring it into today and create a sound. I think that we were able to do that. I listen to it and there's a very unique flavor that it has with that harmonic make-up of that instrumentation. The groove is there, because it's all the right people.

LJC: You mentioned Danilo's dad Rolando, who played in Mongo's original La Sabrosa—does that bring something special to the music?

JR: It makes a huge difference. Danilo grew up with that. He was with his dad through all that. He remembers being a little kid when Mongo would come over and have dinner with them. They were all friends—Chombo, Mongo, Rolando . . . all of them. He was around these amazing musicians as a kid. He would be in the living room when they were listening to music, rehearsing, or planning music. It's in his blood. He knows the way that it should sound. Having him involved every part of the way was enormous. That's part of his legacy, because of his dad.

LJC: Mongo was such an influential figure, but I think that much of the jazz world doesn't understand his full legacy. What do you think that people should know about Mongo and his music?

JR: Mongo came into latin music with some very strong influences that he integrated into his style. His music was the Cuban stuff, that's undeniable. When he came to New York, he added to that his love for R n' B and pop music—he loved listening to that. He also loved jazz—he was a jazz guy and he loved listening to it. He would incorporate all of those influences into his music. There were a lot of charanga bands doing that stuff at the time—it wasn't only Mongo; Ray Barretto was doing charanga, there was La Duboney with Charlie Palmieri and Pacheco, and there was Joe Loco. But how Mongo was different was that the jazz element was already very strong for him. He threw that in there with Chombo Silva. He allowed Rolando Lozano to really just showcase the greatness in his flute playing. He didn't just have him play a few little melodies and then he was out; he would have long extended solos. On the original “Las Guajiras," I think that Rolando soloed through the whole tune and it sounded beautiful. These were all master musicians and Mongo showcased them as master musicians with the jazz influence. That's how he really separated himself from the other bands that were using that charanga flavor at the time.

Then he evolved—he adjusted to the times. Later on he got more R 'n B influenced. Then he got more into the salsa thing for a little bit. Then he went back into his Latin Jazz sound in the late seventies with all the Vaya recordings. He continued with that Latin Jazz sound. In the jazz festivals, he was recognized as the jazz representative of the Latin community. He established that for everybody else. Cal was first one to do it, but then when Mongo started to do it too, they opened the door for other Latin Jazz artists to succeed and be accepted by the jazz world.

LJC: I noticed that there are a couple of your tunes on the album that you co-wrote with Francisco—are you trying to channel Mongo or was this another chance to get some original tunes out there?

JR: It's a combination of both. I still have all my cassettes with all kinds of stuff in there. For the next CD, I'll probably have a few more originals. I only played trumpet up to high school, so I never really got into the arranging end. In the beginning, I would play my trumpet and write these melodies on a piece of paper, and then Francisco would take it from there. Francisco has been really patient with me; he listens to my ideas and now that he's been working with me for about twelve years, he knows what I'm looking for. We've developed a system of documenting this music. He helps me write these tunes out.

With “Asi Es La Vida," I kind of thought of it as a pachanga when I came up with it. If I'm listening to those instruments—the tenor, violin, and flute—I start thinking of the songs with all of those pieces in there. Then it just naturally comes out and fits that time. With the Jazz On The Latin Side All-Stars, I would be listening to big band music. Then those ideas would come. With Mongorama, all the tunes that I was listening to, they all had violin, flute, and tenor in them. So it was a natural thing.

On “Bubba's Boogaloo," I kind of thought about that for the All-Stars—I thought that a big band version of that would awesome. Then I started getting into Mongorama and I heard it differently. I heard it only with violin, flute, and tenor. So Francisco very patiently sat down and went through the details with me; he would make some suggestions, and that's how we would create the music.

LJC: Through your work in jazz radio, you've gotten to know the L.A. scene very well. How would you describe the scene?

JR: I think that in Southern California, we've been playing Latin Jazz so long . . . it goes back to the influence of Chico Sesma in the forties and fifties. His audience is still around—when we play, a lot of those veterans come around and let us know that they used to listen to Chico. His audience is still very strong. It was a few years later when I started Jazz On The Latin Side, but the program picked up from what Chico was doing here in L.A. I think with those two shows—and there's some good salsa shows here in town too—we've kind of kept the interest of the audience. They've been very supportive of Latin Jazz. There's been some wonderful concerts—the audience has always been very strong. They've been open to Latin Jazz. When a good band comes around, they'll come out and check them out. The support is there when people know there is Latin Jazz.

LJC: What does the future hold for Mongorama?

JR: This is a new beginning. I don't want to let go of The Jazz On The Latin Side All-Stars. I'm going to put them on hold temporarily. There's a lot of new stuff that people haven't heard that we've performed. I just can't do both groups at the same time—I'm also artistic director for the Central Avenue Jazz Festival, I teach, I'm at KKJZ, and I've got Mongorama . . . as much as I love them, I don't have space for Jazz On The Latin Side All-Stars.

So I'm going to focus on Mongorama for another couple of CDs. I'm already getting material together for the next CD. I'll always have Mongo material in there. I'm looking at how the CD does on the charts—hopefully it will draw some attention. I've gotten a lot of positive feedback from musicians. I think that we're doing the right thing. I think that it's a matter of time before we get on the road; with the help of my brothers Danilo Lozano and Justo Almario, we're going to keep the music strong—they totally believe in keeping this too. I'm going to keep writing new tunes and keep working on arrangements with Francisco and Oscar. We're in tough economical times, but our chances are better with the size of this group. We're gong to keep documenting the group and seeing where the opportunities come.

Continue Reading...


Jazz News


Get more of a good thing

Our weekly newsletter highlights our top stories and includes your local jazz events calendar.