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Steven Kroon: Looking Beyond

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Besides just meaning beyond, it means when you transcend to the other side. So in doing this CD, as the material was coming along, Mongo died, Patato died, Ray Barretto died . . . It's been amazing how many good percussionists have passed away.
Percussionist Steve Kroon has spent many years walking through a variety of musical worlds. He spent his childhood years surrounded by all sorts of musical figures, with connections to jazz, Cuban music, rhythm and blues, Brazilian music, and more. His deep involvement led to local performance and recording jobs, and eventually a high profile gig with singer Luther Vandross that lasted twenty years. At the same time, Kroon began an association another musical icon, jazz bassist Ron Carter; their musical connection continues to the current day. Despite a full load of musical work with these two musicians, Kroon found time to record and perform with Spyro Gyra, Diana Krall, Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, Jimmy Heath, and many more. Kroon walks through each of these worlds with ease, adding musicality and insight to every situation.

At the turn of the century, Kroon began another journey, moving into the role of bandleader. His first album, In My Path (World Blue, 2000), reflected the diversity of his background, tying together Latin rhythms, jazz harmonies, and commercial leanings. His vast musical associates joined him on this album, with Carter, vocalist Jon Lucien, saxophonist David Sanchez, and many more making appearances. He returned as a bandleader with Se ñor Kroon (Pony Canyon, 2006), a more traditional Latin Jazz recording. Kroon collaborated with pianist Oscar Hernandez on several tracks, bringing a distinct New York flavor to the album. Kroon began performing with his own band following his second release, establishing that the bandleader role remained a piece of his future.

Kroon third album, El Mas Alla (Beyond) (Kroonatune, 2008), finds him simultaneously looking back upon his journey while peering into his future. The album pays tribute to several legendary percussionists that died in the years leading up to the recording. At the same time, Kroon looks back upon the influence of his father, who exposed him to Latin music at an early age. The album displays the depth of these influences upon Kroon's musical personality and serves as his strongest solo statement to date. He gathered a strong group of musicians to help him complete his vision, including Hernandez, bassist Ruben Rodriguez, and drummer Vince Cherico. Kroon seems more intent than ever upon making a statement as a solo artist, presenting the world with a full picture of his musical evolution and current artistic concept.

All About Jazz: You were born in Harlem and then moved to Queens and it seemed like you had a lot of different music around you.

Steve Kroon: In that neighborhood that was so amazing, there was a man down the corner by the name of Henry Glover. He did Joey and the Starlighters, he produced honky tonk, he wrote "Drown In My Own Tears" for Ray Charles—he was almost like a Quincy Jones of that time. He did Heart and Soul (Gee, 1961) for the Cleftones...numerous stuff. The thing that was amazing was that he lived right down the block. When I was 12 years old, me and my brother had a singing group. We used to always run over to his house and try get a record deal, you know? And he took a real liking to us. He liked all the kids on the block, but he took a real liking to me. He became like an uncle to me. I used to go there and watch the rehearsals with the Cleftones, and stuff like that. It was an incredible experience being around him.

At the same time, around the corner was Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis. About four blocks away was Arthur Price. Another four blocks away was Lester Young, Prez. About six blocks over on Linden Boulevard was Count Basie and James Brown, Book Benton...wow, the names just go on and on and on.

AAJ: That must have been pretty inspiring.

SK: It was very inspiring. My brother Bobby, he was the one who had me really excited about the music stuff. We had a singing group together, we started playing percussion together at the same time, he was a great influence on me. At a really young age—11 or 12, we really felt like we wanted to be musicians. So we would look at these guys and kinda idolize them. You know, we knew who they were. It was beautiful, because they could see how...we reflected to them too, you know? It was nice to get to know them. I got to know Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis and Prez. I knew his [Lester Young] son, we went to school together. So, you know, sometimes he would say, "Hey, my father's coming home from Europe, man." So we would be sittin' out, waiting on the street, waiting for the cab to come, to see him coming out of this cab, 'cause he was so cool, you know? The hat, and saxophone, we were like, "Look at your Dad"—I mean, how cool is that? And then you see an album cover with him and Billie Holiday, and you're like, "Wow, that's your father, man." I mean, that stuff was really bigger than life to us. I had a very well rounded introduction to all kinds of music.

AAJ: That seems like you would have a big respect for music. I read as well that your Dad was a big Latin music fan?

SK: Well my father was a music lover. And us being Puerto Rican, my father was first generation, he and my mother. He loved his music, and he was so well versed in it, he would buy all the top records at the time. I mean he had Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez, and Machito. Since he was a merchant seaman, he was traveling to places like Brazil and Cuba, and he would come back with those records. Then he went to Cuba, he came back with some records by Beny More, I mean real incredible stuff. My father passed about a year and a half ago, and I got his collection—some 78s are amazing, just incredible. When he saw that we were interested in the Latin music, he really started buying all kinds of stuff; he wanted us to know about our culture.

AAJ: Are there any particular albums that you heard from that era that stand out as particularly influential?

SK: Back in that time, my father, when he brought home his records, the first one that really knocked me out was Tito Puente, man. He had all these records, with "Babarabatiri," "Oye Como Va," (the original)—Dance Mania (BMG, 1958)! That's a classic—the thing about Dance Mania, every song is a hit. That album really stood out to me. And also when Cachao came out with Descargas [Cuban Jam Sessions] In Miniature (Panart, 1957)—I think that just changed the whole world, you know. The rhythms and the tumbao...and he had Tata Gȼines playing conga—I mean, this guy spoke a whole different thing. Everybody was used to Mongo, Armando Peraza, and Patato...this guy just came out and...what is this? That's another language, man.

So, at that time there was so much good music. We used to go out—my father took us to the Palladium when we were 16—he put our suits on and dressed us up. I'll never forget the first time that he took me—I walked up the stairs, and I hear this big orchestra...I ran to the stage, and it was Machito! Can you imagine seeing Machito as the first band you've ever seen? It was incredible.

When he saw that we liked it so much, he took us to a show that I'll never forget. Symphony Sid used to give these incredible shows—every once in a while he used to put together these "spectaculars." He'd do it at different places, but this one he did at the Apollo. I'll never forget—Mongo Santamaria had just left Cal Tjader's band and started his own band, and he put out that album with "Watermelon Man" on it, and he had La Lupe singing with him. He had that band—that was the one that I saw. Tjader was there; Tajder had his new conga player who was Armando Peraza. Willie Bobo had his own band there, and his conga player was Patato! And the Joe Cuba Sextet—I mean this show was off the chain. I'll never forget, my father told me, wait till you see Mongo, cause I saw Tito and I was crazy—he said, wait till you see Mongo Santamaria. And man, me and my brother flipped. I mean Mongo was like bigger than life, I mean the power, the sound, and then that big beautiful smile—the guy looked like he loved what he was doing.

AAJ: A little later you started studying percussion with Tommy Lopez, right?

SK: Yeah man, 'cause Tommy played with Eddie and La Perfecta. I used to watch him play—he played with one drum, and what he got out of it. He was just such a masterful player—not flashy, I mean, just a gut player.

I'll never forget the day that I walked up to him and said, "I want to study with you." He said, "OK, fine, I have classes at Skin on Skin on Thursdays." It was a class, but I wanted private lessons. He said, "Man, I don't give private lessons." I came back the next week and said, "Man, I want to study with you." He said, "You're a persistent guy aren't you? OK, I'll do it." Not only did I get to play with him, but I hung out with him, and he took me to some different places—rumbas with all the top cats man—Patato, Totico and all these guys. He took me where they used to go and just sit around and play man. And I saw some incredible stuff with Tommy, man

AAJ: He was such an influential part of that Afro-Cuban scene in the sixties and seventies right?

SK: Besides all the great Cuban drummer that we had—Mongo and Potato, Peraza, and Tata—you had (Puerto Rican drummers) Tommy Lopez and Frankie Malabe. I mean they had some great Puerto Rican drummers—they really had an incredible sound, incredible groove, very knowledgeable. I'd say that New York developed its own kind of Latin Jazz sound too—and it's own Latin too. Pacheco, Charlie Palmieri, Alegre All-Stars, Joe Cuba, they did some marvelous stuff man, and that was New York. When you heard that, you knew that it was New York.

AAJ: During that time you studied with Dom Um Romão too?

SK: What happened is that I got meet him and I was so fascinated—I just fell in love with Brazilian percussion. I don't know what it was that drove me there, but I just liked the fact that these guys had so much freedom with sound. This was in the early seventies. I got meet Dom—we played one time; he had a nice little set-up in his house, in the basement. We started jammin' and he said, "Hey man, you've got a real good feel for this, come on back!" So we would play a couple of times a week and just jam. He gave me some great insight in what you look for with the colors...and the proper way. There's a proper way of playing almost everything. You know, even a shaker...it's supposed to be a round sound, you know. I learned so much with him.

He was starting his own group, which was called Hotmosphere. He told me, "Hey man, you play in the group. I'll be the drums and you be the percussion." At that time, all these guys were coming from Brazil. Portinho came into town, Claudio Roditi came to town, Dom Salvador, the pianist, and Savuka, the accordion player. When I got together with all these guys, I was like, "Wow, look at this." Actually at that time, the only non-Brazilians that were playing with them were myself, Stevie Thornton, and Ray Armando.
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