When looking for the most responsible party in any Latin Jazz group, most eyes will fall upon the little known, but always loved bass player. This musician often stands hidden behind the wind players, percussionists, and pianist, but they represent the glue that holds each ensemble together. Just like any good percussionist, the bass player needs to navigate through a variety of Cuban, Brazilian, Peruvian bass rhythms, locking into a rhythmic groove. A bass player’s tumbao is the heartbeat of any Afro-Cuban based group, adding the right amount of syncopation and harmonic tension to overall groove. The bass player needs to find a spot within the piano player’s montuno, pushing the harmony forward with the right combination of chord tones and leading notes. Any good bassist will outline the form, hitting accents with the timbales and highlighting section changes throughout the song. All these tasks lie at the most basic level of a bassist’s job; great players will take these roles and expand on them with character and style. With all these responsibilities falling square upon the shoulders of the always reliable yet severely overworked bass player, many groups often overlook the opportunity to spotlight bass solos.
The best bassists handle these responsibilities with ease and have highly developed solo skills as well; although bassists don’t get featured as often as sax or piano players, the best band leaders regularly give their bassist an opportunity to improvise. When they do, an incredible voice generally pops into the forefront of the ensemble, playing with the melodic beauty of a wind player and the percussive intensity of a drummer. It’s an amazing experience that can often create an unforgettable album highlight. These bass solos also share a common language that has been developed and passed through a number of important musicians – Latin bass soloing follows a defined lineage that continues to evolve today. We’ve got recordings of the bassists that began this tradition, and in most cases, there are numerous outstanding examples of their work. The top contemporary bass soloists in the Latin Jazz world have studied their mentors and follow in their footsteps with a personal twist. A great Latin Jazz bass solo holds a place in this musical world and when it’s executed with skill and taste, it just can’t be beat.
I’ve gathered seven examples of unforgettable Latin Jazz bass solos. Many of these recordings feature the most important names in Latin bass playing – musicians that set the tone for Latin bass improvisation. At the same time, there are some younger names that are taking the art form into the next generation. Regardless, these 7 tracks represent outstanding work by bass soloists that can’t be missed. Check out these unforgettable tracks – you’ll be glad that you did!
“Descargas de Contrabajos”
Descargas Live at the Village Gate, Vol. 3, Tico All-Stars
Bassists: Israel “Cachao” Lopez & Bobby Rodriguez
Every bass player involved in Latin music needs to hear this recording at least once in their lifetime. It features two of the most important bass players in the Latin music world that influenced generations of players from the 1950s until today – Israel “Cachao” Lopez & Bobby Rodriguez. The two musicians step into the front of the Tico All-Stars, setting up a ferocious groove based upon the classic Cachao piece “Descarga Cubana.” While the two bassists combine plucked notes and strummed chords into a blistering bass line, flautist Johnny Pacheco kicks off the descarga with a quick solo. The real fireworks begin when Cachao takes the spotlight, applying his aggressive and percussive approach to a mind-boggling statement. After a screaming moña, Rodriguez moves into center stage, flying over the groove with a more fluid and melodic approach that sticks to the clave like glue. As the two players indulge in improvisations, the contrast between their styles becomes more apparent and their individual strengths rise to the surface. Things only get hotter as the two bassists continue to trade ideas, with Cachao picking up the bow and Rodriguez displaying some serious chops. Cachao and Rodriguez don’t hold back for a second, providing over 18 minutes of exciting bass magic. There’s a lifetime worth of study in this track, the true textbook on Latin Jazz bass improvisation.
Earthdance, Jerry Gonzalez and the Fort Apache Band
Bassist: Andy Gonzalez
There are few bassists that can claim a true connection to both the jazz and Latin music worlds, playing each style with an authentic flair and a genuine melodic vocabulary; when it comes down to an authentic performance in both styles, there’s no one better than bassist Andy Gonzalez. A long time fixture on New York’s Latin music scene, Gonzalez has played with the best of both worlds, ranging from bebop trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie to legendary timbalero Manny Oquendo. As a member of The Fort Apache Band, Gonzalez has engaged his influence from hard bop and modern jazz artists with Latin rhythms, as seen here on Ron Carter’s “81.” Gonzalez opens with a short unaccompanied solo that remembers the rhythmic vocabulary of Cachao before settling into a funky bass line over a cha cha cha inspired by Carter’s work on the original recording with Miles Davis. The rhythm section plays around Gonzalez’s groove with slight rhythmic embellishments and sharp hits, all the time giving him space to improvise around the original idea. The group imbues the melody with an airy spaciousness, allowing Gonzalez to sit in the center of the mix. As his brother Jerry jumps into a trumpet solo, Gonzalez and the rhythm section fall seamlessly into a mid-tempo swing. Gonzalez continues to drive the rhythm section with a return to cha cha cha behind tenor saxophonist Carter Jefferson and then guides the group back into swing mid-improvisation. As pianist Larry Willis starts his solo, Gonzalez once again pushes the group into a cha cha cha rhythm before leaping into a full throttle double time rumba. Alto saxophonist Joe Ford begins his improvisation with Gonzalez providing a solid cha cha cha groove before he explodes into a double time swing. Drummer Steve Berrios slows to a medium swing tempo as Gonzalez starts his improvisation with straight ahead swung notes. The group dramatically disappears, leaving Gonzalez in the spotlight, sliding between pitches with a slow and understated grace. Gonzalez loads a lot of meaning into only a few notes, choosing each pitch carefully and speaking volumes through his musicality. Gonzalez plays upon this spacious texture until the band explodes into a double time rumba giving him the opportunity to cut loose and eventually work his way back towards the original bass line. There’s a lot of intelligent musicality in Gonzalez’s work, as he pulls together the best of jazz and Latin music into a brilliant statement.
“Una Descarga A Cachao”
Ahora Si!, Cachao
Bassist: Israel “Cachao” Lopez
After decades of setting the Latin music world on fire with his danzones, descargas, and all-around bass mastery, Cachao delivered one last album before his death, the 2004 release Ahora Si!. Longtime Cachao supporter Andy Garcia wrote and directed “Una Descarga A Cachao,” a high-powered jam session right in the spirit of the maestro’s former work. Cachao opens the piece with an unaccompanied groove, combining pieces of a montuno, chords, and syncopated embellishments into an unstoppable momentum. Once the band enters, they can’t go wrong with this powerhouse groove, kicking the band into high gear as vocalists enter praising Cachao’s influence. Saxophonist Justo Almario follows, riding the crest of the band’s energy with assertive focus until flautist Danilo Lopez tears into a percussive improvisation. Garcia digs into a conga improvisation with high spirits until timbalero Orestes Vilato gives a master class in percussion soloing. The bulk of the track goes to Cachao’s extended bass solo though, and he makes good use of it. There’s no stopping the master as he attacks syncopated notes and thick double stops with wild attacks. He grabs the bow and pulls it aggressively across the strings before hitting his instrument with the bow like a drum. Cachao inserts plenty of awe-inspiring runs and even experiments with his bow above the bridge, bringing out sharp, scratchy melodies. While this solo doesn’t hold the historical significance of some of his earlier recorded improvisations, like the bass solo on “Descarga Cubana” perhaps, it shows an 85-year-old Cachao playing with the spirit, energy, and enthusiasm of a young man. This dedicated and powerful quality made Cachao an incredible role model and one of the most important bass soloists in Latin Jazz history.
“Tres Tigres Tristes”
40 Years of Cuban Jam Session, Paquito D’Rivera
Bassists: Israel “Cachao” Lopez, Enrique Hernandez, and Nicky Orta
When alto saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera organized his 1993 album 40 Years of Cuban Jam Session, he saw the opportunity to bring together the large community of displaced Cuban musicians in Miami. The city fortunately held some of the best representatives from three generations of Cuban bass playing – Israel “Cachao” Lopez, Enrique Hernandez, and Nicky Orta – D’Rivera recognized the importance of these musicians and arranged a bass descarga just for them. The percussion section lays down a solid rhythmic foundation as Orta jumps into a funky songo line on electric bass. The other bassists soon join on the melody, Cachao bowing his double bass and Hernandez plucking his electric. The three bassists sound like a full group over the drummers, hitting breaks and providing strong harmonies around a catchy melody. Orta and Hernandez play a combination of bass line and chords behind Cachao’s solo, as he pulls his strings so strong that they percussively bounce off the instrument. Cachao indulges in some deep rhythmic lines, sounding like a drum as he spins an unforgettable improvisation over the groove. After a slight return to the melody, Orta takes the spotlight with an immediately ear-grabbing melody. Orta combines the best guitaristic qualities of the electric bass together with vast rhythmic vocabulary, connecting the instrument’s history with a distinctly contemporary sound. His considerable chops are always present, but never abused, as he plays wild chromatic lines up the instrument at high speed, hitting accent points around the clave. The track serves as a Latin bass player’s dream – nothing but bass against a thick line of grooving drummers – but at the same time, it represents a historically significant meeting of bassists that shows us the deep lineage between Latin bassists.
“Ode To Cachao”
Goza Mi Timbal, Tito Puente
Bassist: Bobby Rodriguez
The legendary Bobby Rodriguez worked with many salsa and Latin Jazz artists throughout his career, but his steady gig for decades remained with the king of Latin music, Tito Puente. Not many bassists can hold their own in the harmonically and rhythmically complex world of Puente’s music, but Rodriguez’s superb bass skills allowed him to go above and beyond the call of duty; we can hear this demonstrated on a tribute to his friend, peer, and colleague, “Ode To Cachao.” A classic Puente sound opens the tune with huge band hits moving into a piano vamp and a powerful horn mambo – there’s a slight spin this time though as Rodriguez sits center stage with a melodically intriguing bass line. The wind players continue their strong forward motion with a coro enthusiastically sings the praises of both Cachao and Rodriguez. The coro ends after a few repetitions, and then the fun starts with a solo from Rodriguez, showcasing his advanced sense of melody and thematic development. The cha cha cha foundation allows Rodriguez to play with a more straight jazz sensibility here, highlighting a well respected side of his musical vocabulary. Another coro honoring Cachao flows into a huge mambo until the coro returns making way for more of Rodriguez’s strong improvisation skills. Rodriguez gives a nod to Cachao’s rhythmic style of improvising with his next solo that combines his defined melodies with a time-stretching dose of syncopation. The tension builds with a layered mambo that increases in volume until the band shrinks into a virtuosic display by Rodriguez, who keeps the groove moving forward with constant stream of arpeggiated notes. The full sound of the coro and the winds transition into one more solo from Rodriguez who cleverly uses the full range of his instrument to create shape and form across his improvised statements. The coro ends on a high note with a recognition of both legendary bass players while the horns explode into a classic Puente mambo and Rodriguez continues his long stream of featured ideas. This track has everything that a Latin bass player could want – a healthy dose of Puente’s arranging style, a tribute to Cachao, and several minutes of bass solos from the great Bobby Rodriguez.
“Yo No Como Camote”
Réplica, Eric Kurimski
Bassist: Edward Perez
Standing out in a fairly young style of music allows a bassist some liberties to develop a style, taking ideas from different artistic viewpoints and integrating them into their solo approach. Edward Perez stands at the forefront of New York’s lively Afro-Peruvian Jazz scene, and his work on guitarist Eric Kurimski’s Réplica displays his soloing style in grand fashion. Perez has a solid background in traditional jazz and experience with a variety of South American and Caribbean styles, which can be heard in his playing. He is also a strong composer, as can be heard on his one song contribution to Réplica, the festejo “Yo No Como Camote.” Kurimski plays the melody as guitarist Sergio Valdeos supports him with chords over this minor blues. Perez sits in the background at this point, foreshadowing his upcoming solo approach with a deep wooden tone that blends into the percussion section smoothly. Kurimski jumps into a commanding solo that mixes jazz phrasing, a bluesy undertone, and an inventive rhythmic approach – an assertive musical personality that starts to inspire some interaction from Perez. Valdeos follows Kurimski’s lead with a solo on acoustic guitar that cleverly plays around the rhythmic structure with a fluid melodic sensibility. Perez catches onto Valdeos’ rhythmic phrasing, stepping into a more conversational role with his bass line that very smartly builds the dynamic into his own improvisation. The guitarists disappear behind Perez’s solo, leaving him with only cajon as a background; this serves Perez appropriately as he opens into a very drum-like statement. He starts integrating longer phrases and jazz influenced runs that definitely open his solo to a larger thematic development, but he never looses his percussive focus. Perez seems well acquainted with cajon rhythms and the structure of the festejo style, allowing him to incorporate those concepts into his improvisation. Although his note choices reflect his connection to jazz harmony, his phrasing places him directly in a festejo – you couldn’t place this solo in an Afro-Cuban context, it is distinctly Afro-Peruvian. Throughout the course of the piece, Perez sees the big picture, fitting his performance into a purely Afro-Peruvian frame of mind while he establishes an individual and intriguing approach to improvisation in this context.
The Latin Side of Wayne Shorter, Conrad Herwig
Bassist: Ruben Rodriguez
Great bass players like Cachao and Bobby Rodriguez built a great deal of history into the New York Latin music scene, raising the expectation level for younger players that walk onto today’s scene. One of the finest members of today’s generation that has taken those expectations and raised the bar even higher is the outstanding New York bassist Ruben Rodriguez, a busy man who can be found on tons of salsa and Latin Jazz albums. Conrad Herwig found the right bassist in Rodriguez to complete his Latin Side Band, working through a number of complex arrangements that interpret the brilliant work of saxophonist Wayne Shorter. Rodriguez and pianist Luis Perdomo open “El Gaucho” with a syncopated vamp that the wind players soon double. As the Herwig and trumpet player Brian Lynch slide into the main melody, Rodriguez firmly maintains the core of the main groove while freely adding his personal embellishments. Listening to Rodriguez’s bass line behind the melody tells volumes about his ability as an improviser – while he has learned his lessons from the Latin greats such as Cachao and Bobby Rodriguez, there’s a deeply rooted freedom in his work that connects to bassists such as Jaco Pastorious or James Jamerson. That unique blend of solid Latin foundation coupled with an unhindered improvisational spirit drives Rodriguez to push the soloists to new heights. As Herwig jumps into an assertive solo, Rodriguez punches rhythmic accents with drummer Robby Ameen, moves chords with Perdomo, and replies to Herwig. Rodriguez plays with texture, altering his line to leave ample space and then becoming increasingly busy behind saxophonist Ronnie Cuber. The rhythm section comes down behind Lynch, but Rodriguez maintains the movement with a line that never stops exploring each corner of the rhythmic foundation. All of these accompaniment tactics add an addictive jazz spirit to the work, and help the main soloists find their ideas with an inspired passion. When Rodriguez steps into the spotlight with his solo, his strong ability to create captivating melodies and develop them into full thoughts leaps out of the speakers. There’s a melodic depth that reveals an influence from Bobby Rodriguez; his jazz fueled lines also show a serious study of traditional jazz musicians, much in line with Andy Gonzalez’s work. Without a doubt, Rodriguez knows his clave, and his improvisation follows the rhythmic structure with a natural ease that communicates his solo clearly. Rodriguez delivers a beautiful piece of improvisatory magic here, confirming the fact that the lineage of great New York Latin Jazz bass soloists is alive and well.
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