On Sunday February 28th, we celebrate the 76th birthday of legendary Latin Jazz percussionist Willie Bobo, a major voice in the development of the style. This seemed like an ideal time to revisit Bobo’s work, but in reality, any day is a good deal to discuss Willie Bobo. The iconic percussionist supported some of the greatest Latin Jazz artists of the fifties and sixties, most notably working for band leaders Tito Puente and Cal Tjader. His reoccurring collaborations with conguero Mongo Santamaría set the standard for outstanding rhythm section work in the realm of hard driving Latin Jazz. His work in the seventies became increasingly funky, as he reached out to soul audiences and found ways to blend his love of Latin dance music, jazz, and modern sounds. Although Bobo died in 1983 at the young age of 49 after a battle with cancer, his legacy lived on among the younger generation. His playing remained an inspiration for upcoming percussionists and his addictive funky grooves became favorites among the DJ crowd. The world of Latin percussion remembers Bobo every day and modern Latin Jazz constantly draws upon his influence – he was an important figure that contributed a lot to the art form.
Throughout his career, Bobo fluctuated between several different musical worlds, but hard driving Latin Jazz was deeply ingrained. As a young boy, Bobo worked as a band boy for Machito And His Afro-Cubans, soaking in the sounds of one of the genre’s most important ensembles on a daily basis. When the band worked late into the night, Bobo sometimes got the opportunity to join on bongó, testing his young skills among the best. His time among the Machito band set the sound of mambo jazz permanently in his head, but his best education lay ahead. When conguero Mongo Santamaría moved from Havana, Cuba to the United States, Bobo quickly befriended him and acted as his translator. In exchange, Santamaría spent a good deal of time with Bobo, showing him the ins and outs of Afro-Cuban percussion. The two musicians formed a bond that traveled with them throughout most of their careers. As they moved through bands with great Latin Jazz artists such as Puente and Tjader, they became attached to the style. Bobo performed and recorded lots of different music throughout his career, but Latin Jazz became a defining style for the percussionist.
I’ve gathered five classic recordings that highlight Bobo’s work as a Latin Jazz percussionist throughout the early part of his career. Bobo recorded extensively throughout his life, this represents a very small slice of his total output. Still, these recordings paint a good picture of his development as a Latin Jazz artist before he grew into the amazing leader that we remember. Take the time to track all five of these albums down and you’ll have a fantastic collection of music – a fact guaranteed by the fact that Willie Bobo sits at the core of each session. Enjoy!
Cuban Carnival, Tito Puente (1956)
After years of hanging out on New York’s lively Latin music scene and studying with Mongo Santamaria, Bobo earned the highest profile gig of his early career, a place in Tito Puente’s rhythm section. In one of his first recordings with Puente, Bobo sits among a group of some of the best percussionists in Latin Jazz history; Mongo Santamaría, Candido Camero, Carlos “Patato” Valdes, John “Dandy” Rodriguez, and the illustrious Puente all add their percussive expertise to the album. The result is an explosive example of danceable Palladium mambo big band at its best, driven by the unstoppable force of a master rhythm section. The ferocious mambo groove behind “Yambeque” sends blistering high trumpet notes sailing over stuttering saxophones, clearly the way for some great horn solos. The coro trades phrases with the aggressive attacks of the wind section over a break-neck groove on “Pa Los Rumberos,” setting the stage for an unforgettable series of traded percussion phrases. Puente delivers the classic melody to “Cuban Fantasy” on vibes before soloists stretch out over a steadily cooking groove. Some great vocal work winds through the smart arrangement on “Oye Mi Guaguancó,” balanced by exciting percussion features and assertive mambos. Every track is a winner on this recording, guaranteed by some of Puente’s best writing in his early years and the all-star percussion line-up. As one of Bobo’s earliest Latin Jazz recordings, Cuban Carnival highlights the lessons that Bobo received through his early gigs that set the stage for a brilliant Latin Jazz career.
Latino, Cal Tjader (1958)
After a four year run with Puente’s band, Bobo recorded The Shearing Spell with West Coast pianist George Shearing, catching the eye and ears of Shearing’s former drum kit player, Cal Tjader. Now an up and coming vibraphonist on the thriving San Francisco jazz scene, Tjader had developed a passion for Afro-Cuban rhythms. He offered a job to Santamaría and Bobo, who both quickly relocated to accept Tjader’s position. The collaboration between Tjader, Santamaría, and Bobo led to defined career paths and higher visibility for all three musicians, due to a series of classic recordings. Most people might point towards the 1964 Tjader album Soul Sauce as the definitive example of bobo’s work with the vibraphonist; it certainly is a great album, but there were a lot of earlier examples that highlight Bobo in a more real way. This 1958 recording presents Tjader, Santamaría, and Bobo performing live with different musicians from a variety of concerts. The musicians play with a raw intensity that sometimes escaped their studio efforts and brings some of the best elements of Bobo’s musicianship to the surface. The drummers light a fire beneath Tjader’s solo on “Night In Tunisia,” until Jose “Chombo” Silva jumps into the spotlight with a burning assertion that brings enthusiastic interaction from Bobo. The group storms through Tjader’s classic composition “Mamblues” with a tastefully bluesy improvisation from the vibraphonist and an absolutely attention grabbing timbale solo from Bobo that spotlights his skill for thematic development. Bobo swings with a funky undertone on Santamaría’s tune “Para Ti” and pushes a serious 6/8 pattern behind the conga player on “Afro Blue,” with both tracks giving a preview of future work. Bobo stretches out again on an extended timbale solo over “Cuban Fantasy,” combining classic licks with smart construction and a crowd pleasing dose of showmanship. Bobo’s relationship with Tjader and Santamaria defined his career, and Latino offers a perfect example of the strength of their musical bonds.
Latinsville, Victor Feldman (1959)
By the late fifties, Bobo’s work with Tjader and Puente had built his reputation as an essential percussionist in the style, leading to work with a number of bandleaders. Already an established musician at a young age in England, Victor Feldman moved to the States in the late fifties, diving deeply into the West Coast scene. He worked extensively at the Lighthouse, where Tjader also spent a good deal of time performing; this influence must have been an inspiration for this very Tjader inspired album. Feldman even hires many of Tjader’s top sidemen to complete his concept, including Bobo, Santamaría, and Armando Peraza. Although he draws upon Tjader’s approach, Feldman builds his own repertoire, arranging a number of popular songs around Afro-Cuban rhythms. Bobo’s identifiable push on timbales provides momentum for the likable “South Of The Border,” inspiring a an improvisation from trombonist Frank Rosolino and some ferocious bongó riffing from Peraza. While the open blowing session on Gillespie’s “Woody’N You” lends itself to solos from Rosolino, Feldman, and trumpet player Conte Candoli, the arrangement leaves some room for some great solo spots from the percussionists. Santamaría and Bobo create a classic Latin Jazz sound behind a great arrangement of “Lady Of Spain,” which includes a memorable solo from Feldman and virtuosic flights of improvisation from Peraza. While a skillfully constructed arrangement and some creative solos bring “Poinciana” to life, the rhythm section work takes this track to another level. Bobo’s increasing ability to deliver top-notch Latin Jazz expertise in a variety of settings comes across strongly on Feldman’s Latinsville, and his rhythm section work beside Santamaría and Peraza make this album an undeniable winner.
At the Black Hawk, Mongo Santamaria (1962)
The sideman stint with Tjader sent both Santamaría and Bobo into the spotlight, but Santamaría was the first to turn the notoriety into a career as a bandleader. Fronting diverse projects that ranged from folkloric percussion groups to charanga bands and Latin Jazz, Santamaria started recording in the late fifties and never stopped. Bobo joined Santamaría on a number of these early albums, building upon the massive groove that the two percussionists developed in the Tjader and Puente bands. At the Black Hawk brings together two Santamaría albums – Mighty Mongo, a Latin Jazz focused recording and Viva Mongo, a charanga release. Bobo plays mostly timbales, but also some drum kit, on the Latin Jazz set, providing some inspired interaction. “Descarga At The Black Hawk” captures the spontaneous nature of this live date, including enthusiastic improvisations from flautist Rolando Lozano and trombonist João Donato, as well as a massive solo from Bobo that brilliantly builds into a climatic finish. As the wind players take solos on the now classic “Sabor,” Bobo injects subtle changes into his cymbal work and perfectly placed hits to kicks, helping drive the improvisations. The classic jazz standard “All the Things You Are” serves as a showcase for Jose “Chombo” Silva, who effortlessly creates long streams of ideas, matched in creativity and intensity by Bobo’s accompaniment. Bobo plays drum kit on “Bluchanga,” displaying a solid ability to play traditional swing with the same type of interactive vigor and steady pulse. At the Black Hawk once again finds Bobo and Santamaría working in a live and improvisatory context, a place that always inspired some of their best work.
Bobo’s Beat, Willie Bobo (1964)
Bobo’s unforgettable performances had an undeniable hand in the success of Tjader’s Soul Sauce, a fact that finally convinced Blue Note to give him a recording date as a leader. Having worked extensively with a number of jazz greats at this point, Bobo calls upon some top notch musicians to fill his band – Clark Terry covers trumpet duties while tenor player Joe Farrell burns on the saxophone. Bobo uses the date as an opportunity to showcase his diverse command of the Latin Jazz language playing both timbales and drum kit through a repertoire that covers both Afro-Cuban and Brazilian rhythms. Strong horns lines infuse a mambo feel into “Bon Sueno” which comes to life with a fiery bop infused solo from Farrell and a brief but lively statement from Bobo. Organist Frank Anderson provides “Bossa Nova In Blue,” creating long streams of melodies over Bobo’s churning drum kit groove. An understated samba rhythm accompanies a steady bass groove on Freddie Hubbard’s “Crisis,” which heats up behind solos from Terry and Farrell, due to some nice interaction from Bobo. There’s a slow and funky feel behind “Timbale Groove” as Bobo holds a classic cha cha cha rhythm behind a cleverly arranged horn part. Bobo’s work as a leader after Bobo’s Beat capitalized upon the blend between Afro-Cuban rhythms, funky soul music, and jazz – a sound that became his signature and resulted in some amazing music. On this release Bobo plays it straight-ahead, which makes for some amazing traditional Latin Jazz played with the verve and flair that only Bobo could provide.
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