Latin Jazz Conversations: Mark Weinstein (Part 2)

by chip on March 4, 2010

As the road into the future becomes clear for a young musician, they become ready to make a serious artistic statement. Hard working musicians naturally develop their own ideas and become driven to create a personal statement; leading their own projects allows them to do this. Their artistic choices generally reflect the experiences of their early musical career – in many cases an artist may build upon their previous artistic direction, expanding upon current ideas. At other times, musicians will explore an absolutely new direction, giving them the opportunity to explore something that peaks their interest but was unavailable in earlier gigs. Most importantly, these original statements give the musician a chance to rise from the obscure fog of sideman work and present their identity in a very public space. This presents a real risk for the musician – the public will either accept or reject their project. Acceptance generally feels great, but rejection can shatter the new clarity for the musician. Regardless of the nature of the reaction, it fundamentally changes the musician’s future as they reconsider their prospects. Once again, the musician wades into a murky and unclear future, filled with uncertainty over their upcoming direction.

In the mid-sixties, Mark Weinstein was in the midst of a thriving career as a trombonist on New York’s active music scene. He worked professionally as both a bassist and a trombonist in his late teens, making connections with Larry Harlow and Harvey Averne. His reputation spread quickly and Weinstein soon found himself playing with one of the most vital Latin dance bands of the early sixties, Eddie Palmieri’s La Perfecta. Weinstein became fast friends with the group’s lead trombone player, the legendary Barry Rogers, who provided an inspiring musical role model. Weinstein’s musical tastes reached far beyond the Latin music world though, and driving him to pursue additional directions, including big band jazz and the avant-garde. After several years performing in multiple ensembles, Weinstein brought all the pieces of his interests together with a groundbreaking combination of avant-garde jazz and folkloric Cuban rhythms. The resulting album, Cuban Roots, showed strokes of brilliance far beyond its time – a little too far for much of the music community in the sixties. The album received little support from Musicor Records, resulting in a rough recording, minimal promotion, and no radio play. Over the following decades, Cuban Roots became a treasured album in the Latin Jazz world and beyond, but the initial rejection of the recording discouraged Weinstein. His path changed dramatically at that point, as he left music, returned to school, and entered the academic life of a college professor. As one door closed, another opened though, as Weinstein started on the road towards musical reinvention.

In the first part of our interview with Weinstein, we looked at his early musical development as well as his time with Palmieri and Rogers. This set the stage for Cuban Roots, a seminal milestone in Latin Jazz history that boldly looked ahead at the future of the genre. Although this should have been a highpoint in Weinstein’s budding career, the initial response turned him in the opposite direction. Today’s installment of our interview digs into the Cuban Roots recording session and Weinstein’s rejection of the music business.

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LATIN JAZZ CORNER: After you came back from Europe, you were playing in the height of that Fania era, with the whole salsa craze. Between there and Cuban Roots, it seems like you developed an advanced harmonic sense and refined improvisation abilities. How did that come together since you were spending so much time playing dance music?

MARK WEINSTEIN: I never thought of myself as a Latin trombone player, I always thought of myself as a jazz trombone player. When I was playing jazz, I was part of the New York avant-garde movement. I remember there were these jam sessions with Pharoah Sanders and all of these great guys. I played with some of the weirdest avant-garde guys; a lot of really, really avant-garde bands. I played with trumpet player Bill Dixon – I’ll never forget one gig, it was a mass brass gig, and there were about five brass players, all in different parts of a church. All we had were goose egg notes, and the goose egg note wasn’t what you played. It was what anchored your playing and then you played completely free! So there were these five guys playing completely free who couldn’t see each other all at the same time, echoing in a church! So this was the kind of music that I was involved with. I was stretching myself harmonically, although it’s hard to do that on trombone because you can’t play fast enough to play the substitutions. So I was actually playing a lot of polytonal music. I was experimenting just playing what people hear as normal now. We were actually playing half-step substitutions and even in other keys.

That was the reason that I quit Herbie Mann’s band – it’s actually a funny story. We were recording the album that came out as Monday Night at the Village Gate. I had a number of features with Herbie’s band, including a feature on the tune “Summertime.” I had just recorded Cuban Roots with Chick on piano. Chick and I had a very intuitive relationship – listen to the way he comps behind my solos on Cuban Roots. So we were playing with Herbie’s band and I start this solo on a G# when the first chord is an Amin7. Chick ends up playing a Dbmin7 and Herbie cut the solo – it was too out for his band. When he cut the solo, I quit the band. After the recording, at the next gig, he told me, “Look, I’m sorry, I have to cut that solo. I really think that you’re playing too out for the tune.” And so I refused to play any more solos with his band. He had these things where the two trombone players would solo together and I would just stand there. The second night I did it, he came up to me and said, “I guess you just put yourself on notice.” And I said, “Right.” But by that time, I was starting to get enough of a reputation in New York that I felt that I could manage.

What had happened was I had so many Latin dance club gigs that I frequently had doubles. So I started giving my subs to jazz trombone players, mainly Julian Priester and Garnett Brown. In those days, you had to pay back, and the way they paid me back was to give me these big band gigs. After the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band started Monday nights at The Village Vanguard, a couple of the clubs – especially a club called The Half-Note – had started to put in big bands, trying to capture The Village Vanguard scene. So Joe Henderson had a big band, Clark Terry had a big band, Duke Pearson had a big band, and Kenny Durham had a big band. The trombone sections for all these big bands were me, Garnett Brown, and Julian Priester, plus a bass trombone player. So I was really getting a reputation. I started to work some subs with the Thad Jones band, I worked with Maynard (Ferguson) for a minute, and then I did some subs with Lionel Hampton. I was moving out into jazz and I was always a very loud trombone player, because I still had the concept from the Latin bands of the trombone being a very forceful instrument. And I was always a very avant-garde player and I was always searching for ways to extend music. And then Cuban Roots was the way that I put all that stuff together in my head.

LJC: Cuban Roots was such an amazing record. If you put into context of the time, it was so different as to what else was going on . . .

MW: It still is!

LJC: Yea, definitely. It’s amazing how forward thinking that was. What was the process of putting Cuban Roots together and how did it come about?

MW: I loved Cuban drums and that’s why I made Cuban Roots. Again, it was partially me trying to be Barry Rogers. When Barry introduced me to Cuban folkloric music, I thought that drumming was so much more interesting than salsa band drumming of that period. Eddie had an amazing rhythm section, especially when they had Manny Oquendo and Tommy Lopez, Sr. – but still, I always wanted to play with rumba and I always wanted to play with the Toques De Santos because that’s where I thought Latin Jazz should go. I thought that drumming was want you needed for the sophisticated music that jazz players were playing. There are really two albums that Cuban Roots is based on – one of the very first LPs of folkloric music, the one that I mentioned, Carnival In Havana. Then there was an album of Toques De Santos, on a Cuban label called Orfeo that Barry also turned me onto. I really fell in love not only with the drums, but I fell in love with those melodies. I thought that those melodies were amazing – the melodies of the Toques De Santos, the prayers, and the rumba melodies. What I really wanted to do was transform that music by giving it an avant-garde setting. By re-harmonizing it and then to use the power of the drums in order to propel the kind of avant-garde playing. I made a demo CD, not with the guys that are on the record, but with some friends of mine, of a couple of the tunes. Edy Martinez, the Columbian pianist, played piano on it. I played it for Al Santiago, who was the producer behind Alegre Records. I had done quite a bit of work for him. I had done a number of recordings and arrangements for Kako, who was kind of the guy that he was pushing. When he heard the demo, he gave me a record date. So I hired the best guys I could get.

I got Julito Collazo to basically give me permission, because he was the guy that almost everybody considered to be the most knowledgeable guy in terms of religious music. A lot of the initial drummers thought that I was being sacrilegious, playing the Toques De Santos. In fact, the first rehearsal that I had for Cuban Roots, Tommy Lopez was playing conga drums and when the horns started to play the melody for Toque Chango, he stopped playing and told the drummers that they had to leave. By that time I had the record date, so I ran into Julito Collazo, who I knew from the Catskill Mountains, and I asked him if we could record this stuff. He said, “Sure, as long as the drums aren’t blessed.” So I called up Tommy and said “Julito’s doing the record date; are your willing to play on it?” Tommy jumped at the chance, because Julito was the guy who knew more about this music than anybody. So it was Tommy, Julito, and the third drummer was Papaíto, the timbale player from La Sonora Matancera, who was living in New York at that time. So these guys went into the studio out to kill. Kako was playing bell and palito, and then a friend of mine, Papiro, was in the studio because he had lent the guys some drums – he lent Julito a bomba. So he played on some of the tunes as a forth drummer.

The amazing thing about that album was we did it with one rehearsal, just one rehearsal. I had these long piano parts written out, these long, fold-out piano parts, and Chick Corea is sitting there – I’ll never forget this as long as I live – Chick Corea is sitting there in this little rehearsal studio with his left hand in his pocket – literally! Just playing vaguely the charts that I wrote with his right hand, but listening to those drummers. Trying to figure out what was going on. He had never heard anything like this in his life. I didn’t know who to use on bass. I could have used Bobby Rodriguez, but I felt that Bobby would be too dominant. Bobby was like a Barry Rodgers type guy, a very dominant personality. I was good friends with Bobby Valentin; I had played trombone on his original album. I knew Bobby had switched to bass. Bobby was, even when he was a kid, what he turned out to be – this amazing musician with great ears and a wonderful concept. So I asked Bobby if he would play bass. When Bobby heard the drummers, he didn’t know what to do either. No one had ever played bass with drummers like that!

So we had the one rehearsal and then we went into the studio. We recorded the entire album – this is no lie – we recorded the entire album in three hours. Every single tune is a first take. The sound of the album is horrible; the actual recorded sound is horrible. When we played down the first tune for the mic check, the sax player Arnie Lawrence, went into the booth and said, “Man, the horns sound horrible.” And Al Santiago said the famous line, “We’ll fix it in the mix. Get back in there, we’ve got to do that date.” The reason that we had to do the date so fast was that Al knew if the guy from Musicor showed up during the recording and heard what we were playing, he would pull the plug. And when we were playing the last tune, which was the comparsa, I saw him. He came into the studio, and he was basically saying, “Shut this damn thing down!” By the way, it was the 1960s so it local 802; it was all union, and we would have had to pay for overtime. So he wouldn’t let us go into overtime and so Al knew that that was going to go down – he just pushed us. Every tune that we recorded, he would just say, “Great! Next tune.” Not only that, but we were in such a small studio that they couldn’t even mix stereo because there was no separation whatso ever. Everything was bleeding into everything else, and I was a loud player. I was blasting, so he put a primitive limiter on my track, and that’s one of the reasons why my trombone sounds even funkier than usual.

Whoever bootlegged it in Japan, where it sells for about fifty bucks, they actually improved the sound amazingly. Five or six years ago, a guy called me up and asked me if I had a sealed vinyl; around that time Cuban Roots was selling for about five hundred bucks on E-Bay. I said, “No” and we started to talk. He was a collector and he told me that he had a sealed vinyl. So he arranged to put that vinyl onto a CD. He tried re-mastering it, but he didn’t get as good a sound as the Japanese. They really brought the bass up and got rid of some of the distortion. So now, the Japanese bootleg is a better sound than the vinyl!

What’s amazing about Cuban Roots is that it still is the album that people think of when they think of me, no matter how many records I make as a flute player. I think that now guys are starting to touch the stuff that I did. But, for example, when Andy and Jerry (Gonzalez), who were very influenced by Cuban Roots, put out that record, Grupo Folklorico Y Experimental, it wasn’t nearly as experimental as Cuban Roots was. In many respects, even I can’t duplicate what I did on Cuban Roots, although I tried. I tried with Cuban Roots Revisited, but I just can’t get the kind of energy playing flute that I got on trombone. The drummers on Cuban Roots . . . I mean, it was the first time that these guys ever got a chance to record this stuff. It was before Potato and Totico made their record – this was the first recording of that stuff ever made in the United States and those guys really wanted to lay it down. Plus, there was a lot of Cuban – Puerto Rican stuff. That’s some old stuff; it doesn’t exist anymore, thank god. The Cuban guys did not respect the Puerto Rican guys – Julito didn’t respect Tommy. So Tommy was trying to show Julito what he could do and Julito was trying to show Tommy that whatever he could do, that he could do it better. Once drummers get into that thing, it just escalates, so every tune on that album is just burning.

I now play with a lot of Cuban guys, and I’ve given Cuban Roots to a couple of the guys in their thirties, because I’m trying to find out if anyone in Cuba heard it. And I don’t think so My suspicion was – and I don’t think it’s true by the way anymore – that the Cuban piano players heard Chick playing on Cuban Roots, because the generation of piano players that played with Irakere, were playing like Chick played on Cuban Roots. All of the new Cuban piano players play that kind of free way of playing. Chick did it first. He did it intuitively. I’m not claiming that there’s any connection – Cuban Roots never got any airplay, so it was never played in Miami, and it was probably never heard in Havana. But Chick really figured out that you could play piano freely against those drums. If you try to play a guajeo against such heavy drums, it just gets in the way, because you’re duplicating what the drummers are doing. So he came up with this idea of accenting and using short little patches of swing.

LJC: You dropped out of music for a while and went back and got your PhD. How long did you actually stop playing and when you came back in playing the flute, you had a totally different priority on the flute that emphasized freedom over technique – how did you go into that?

MW: I had a chance to put a horn section together for Janis Joplin. I had done some gigs with a great blues guitar player, Mike Bloomfield – the blues guitar player on super session. He had a band called the Electric Flag. So I did some gigs with them in the city and I was supposed to join the Electric Flag – but the band broke up. So Albert Grossman, who was the manager of Dylan and all those guys, called me and asked me to put a horn section together for Janis Joplin. But that would have meant moving to San Francisco by myself and living in the band house. My daughter was just born, and I knew that that would break up my rather shaky marriage. So I turned down the gig. When I turned down the gig, I sort of looked myself in the eye and said, “You just turned down the best thing that you’ll probably every get as a musician. So why do you think you’re a musician?” And I said, “I guess I’m not.” I didn’t stop playing – I had to support my family. But in my head I stopped being a musician. That’s when I went to graduate school to get PhD in Philosophy.

I didn’t play at all from 1971 – 1973. That’s when I was taking courses, and of course, I was always teaching as an adjunct. That means you’re teaching four or five course a week – I had to make money, so there was no music. Then I got a full-time job, I didn’t need to play anymore to make money, and I was sort of all depressed. I ended up getting divorced and then needed something to occupy myself. So I said to myself, “What wind instrument can you play jazz on, but not make a living on?” I didn’t want to be enticed back into the music business. So I said, “I know, I’ll play the flute.” So I initially started to play the flute just to keep my head straight during a period of intense life change when I was writing a dissertation and trying to get my career jump started.

One of the things that really always bothered me about my trombone playing was that I was incredibly, incredibly self-critical. I probably caught the virus from Barry – I never thought that I was playing good enough. So when I started to play the flute, I said to myself that “I’m going to love the way I play.” And I couldn’t play! I didn’t take lessons, I just had a flute. But I was going to accept whatever I played on the instrument. I didn’t even know the right fingerings. I played for two years before I learned that in the third octave you have to play the fingerings differently. I would play the third octave just by over blowing and playing harmonics. I was just using the flute as an expressive vehicle. I was recently divorced, it was the 1970s, so I used to play out in the parks a lot. In part, to try to meet young hippy ladies. And I did every once in a while . . . not as much as I wanted, but it was pretty nice. I was playing flute by myself and everyone kind of left me alone, because it was very solitary and I was playing free. But if a guitar player was sitting there, I would sit down next to the guitar player, and just play three chord jams. And then people would sit around, and maybe I’d get lucky. The only way I could do that was to just sit down and start playing with guitar player, usually without even saying anything to them. So that meant that no matter what the guitar player was playing, I always had to sit in immediately. You know, guitar players play in E and they play in A, and they play non-bebop keys. From playing with guitar players, I got really good hand-ear coordination. I could take out my flute, no matter what anyone was playing, and play along. Part of it was that the harmonies were very simple. But since I was a jazz musician and I was playing in E and A which are uncomfortable keys, I started to experiment playing extensions, because the extension notes were more natural to play on the flute than the key notes. Tthe extension notes give you all the sharp nines, the flat nines, and all of that stuff, so I started hearing how to play out against very standard changes. I got so involved in the flute, that by the time I was playing three years, I wanted to get back into the music business. That’s when I recorded this thing that I call The Orisha Suites.

Then I had this funny experience; after I made The Orisha Suites. I played it for Randy Brecker, who was running a club named Seventh Avenue South, and he gave me a gig. I put a band together with a mallet player and three drummers that included Tommy Lopez again and Eddie “Gua Gua” (Rivera) playing bass. This guy comes up to me during the gig, and says, “Wow, you sound great, would you be a featured soloist in my jam session?” This guy was Mike Morgenstern, who was running a jam session with something called New York Jazz Society. I said, “Sure.” So I go down, he gives me this big build-up, and I have to play the first solo. It was a jam session so there was a line of saxophone players. They started to play a tune that I didn’t know; but I had a lot of confidence that I could play anything from playing with guitar players. Of course, I didn’t realize that it doesn’t translate very well into hard, complicated changes of jazz tunes. During the first chorus I was fumbling trying to find the right changes and the first sax player in line literally pushes me with his hip away from the microphone! At that point I realized that playing free with guitar players was not going to teach me how to play jazz. That’s when I started going down to Washington Square Park and learning how to play bebop. Then I discovered Jamey Aebersold and I started to play with Jamey Aebersold records. But I was always experimenting harmonically and always trying to play with the freedom that I had either brought to playing by myself or playing with these rock and roll guitar players, you know these acoustic folk-rock guitar players.

I never tried to sound like any flute player, which is both my strength and my weakness. I paid no attention to the way that anybody else played jazz flute and I just tried to find what I had to contribute. That was the deal that I had with myself – that I would not be self-critical and that I would instead just let my music express itself. And this worked pretty well until I started to try to record and realized that I was not playing flute very well. Then I started the process that I’m still engaged in now of trying to figure out how to play that damn instrument, you know, in terms of sound production and stuff like that. Part of the problem with me and the flute is that most flute players start playing some time around 8, 9, or 10 years old. It’s light, so a little kid can play it. Good players start so young, that their muscles grow while they’re playing the flute. I didn’t start playing the flute until I was 33 years old and I had a trombone embouchure; I had trombone muscles. I mean, now, I don’t play anything except for long tones, scales, and technical exercises. I never practice jazz. All I do is try to play the damn flute, because it’s a very, very difficult instrument and I don’t have the natural sound production capability that comes from learning flute at an early age. So flute for me, is now, is just hypercritical- just playing long tones and listening to my sound, and learning how to play in tune on the flute. It’s a monster instrument. But when I solo, when I play, I still try to play with complete abandon.

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Make sure that you check out Part 1 of our conversation with Mark Weinstein where we discuss his early musical development, his time with Eddie Palmieri’s La Perfecta, and his relationship with Barry Rogers. Check it out HERE.

Come back next Wednesday when we jump into Weinstein’s current career as a flautist, covering great albums such as Con Alma and the amazing new release Timbasa!

You can find the info about Weinstein’s career as a flautist and his initial recordings in Part 3 of our discussion. It brings us up to Weinstein’s current recording career – check it out HERE.

Don’t miss Part 4 of our interview with Weinstein where we talk about two incredible recordings, Tales From The Earth and Timbasa. Lot’s of great stuff in this chapter – check it out HERE.

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Check Out These Related Posts:
Latin Jazz Conversations: Kat Parra (Part 1)
Latin Jazz Conversations: John Calloway (Part 2)
Latin Jazz Conversations: Poncho Sanchez (Part 2)
Latin Jazz Conversations: Mitch Frohman (Part 2)

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