Jazz Caliente: Meet The Rhythm Makers, Part Five

Aug 18, 2017

This week's Jazz Caliente includes music from conguero, composer and bandleader Ray Barretto.  One of the first musicians to introduce Latin percussion to American be-bop, he was known as Manos Duras (Hard Hands), a true power-hitter of the congas. 

Ray Barretto fell in love with the jazz he heard on the radio as a child growing up in the Bronx.  He discovered be-bop while he was in the Army in the 1940s. 

By 1957, Ray had replaced the legendary Mongo Santamaria in Tito Puente's mambo orchestra.  At the same time, he was becoming known as the first-call studio percussionist for such notable jazz players as drummer Art Blakey, guitarist Kenny Burrell, and saxophonist Lou Donaldson.

"What I did as a player was develop a style that suited jazz players...that worked in a straight ahead swing context." --Ray Barretto

Or, as I once overheard one veteran jazz DJ explain to another:  The conga drum enhances the swing.  I think Ray would have approved of that description.

Ray's dance band Charanga La Moderna had a huge national hit in 1962 called "El Watusi," which later achieved cult status in the soundtrack for the 1993 Al Pacino film "Carlito's Way."  

The album cover that inspired a generation of conga players: Ray Barretto's "Indestructible"
Credit Fania Records

During the 1960s and 1970s Ray Barretto was part of the Latin Soul and Boogaloo explosion promoted by the Fania record label.  Ray spent nearly 30 years as a band member and eventually became the music director for the label's famed Fania All-Stars. 

Weary of the constant touring and hoping to recapture his love of jazz, Ray left Fania and formed a band called New World Spirit in the early 1990s.  Recording and touring with this jazz-focused, rhythmically adventurous band brought him a whole new audience. 

Ray Barretto was highly regarded by jazz and salsa musicians alike, especially those who worked in his bands.  Considered the most widely recorded conga player in jazz, he received the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master award in 2006, just a month before he died.

Listen for Ray Barretto's "New York Soul" on this week's Saturday Jazz Caliente, and check out Ray and New World Spirit in the video:

Jazz Caliente airs Saturdays at 5:00 p.m.  The show is hosted by Robin Lloyd and produced by KNKX Public Radio.