Once a musician hits an artistic high, they need to find some way to maintain the inspiration behind their creative vision. For some artists, this involves an introspective exploration of their personal identity that touches upon elements of cultural heritage and social background. The results may range from rigidly defined genre pieces to outlandishly obscure compositions, depending upon the musician’s sense of expression. The musician might find a new collaborator, and over the course of time, they could encounter a series of motivational artistic partners. Each new perspective forces the musician to examine their own approaches and explore new avenues of expression. A series of diverse projects might provide the necessary stimulation to trigger continued growth over the course of time. A steady series of evolving challenges demands further development and sends a musician into the practice shed regardless of their experience. Whatever path the musician follows, they need a invigorating push that will send them charging forward with a continued sense of creative vitality.
After a series of musical changes throughout his career, Mark Weinstein remains on a single-minded mission of musical creation. After spending his early life maintaining a busy schedule as a trombone player in the Latin dance music world, Weinstein walked away from the music business and found a new future as a professor of philosophy. Disenchanted by the lukewarm reaction to his stunning album Cuban Roots, Weinstein put aside the trombone, but the artistic break would be short lived. Looking for a new pastime, Weinstein picked up the flute and fell deeply in love with the instrument. He re-imagined Cuban Roots as a flautist, creating a number of jazz albums with Cuban folkloric rhythms, including Cuban Roots Revisited and Algo Más. Weinstein stretched his musicianship outside his comfort zone, diving into Brazilian music with some of the best Brazilian musicians on the New York scene, including guitarist Romero Lubambo and bassist Nilson Matta. This collaboration highlighted some outstanding performances from Weinstein, resulting in the albums O Nosso Amor and Lua e Sol. He changed directions and attempted a more traditional Latin Jazz approach, working in a quintet setting with pianist Mark Levine. The resulting album Con Alma was a critical and commercial success, solidifying Weinstein’s position as a leader in the modern Latin Jazz world. Success just sent him moving forward with more passion, continuing new collaborations with Omar Sosa, Pedrito Martinez, Pablo Aslan, Aruan Ortiz, and more.
The future looks bright for Weinstein, who looks poised to continue the amazing stream of outstanding music that has become the hallmark of his career. His 2010 release Timbasa pairs Weinstein with an incredible group of young Cuban musicians, delivering a completely new take on the flautist’s musical approach. In the last part of our interview with Weinstein, get all the details about his 2009 collaboration with Omar Sosa Tales From The Earth, Timbasa, and future release. Make sure that you get the scoop on his background as well – Part 1 of our interview explores Weinstein’s early career and relationship with Barry Rogers; Part 2 of the interview highlights the recording of Cuban Roots and Weinstein’s subsequent leave from the music business; and Part 3 of the interview digs into Weinstein’s new Latin Jazz explorations on the flute.
LJC: Tell me a little bit about Tales From The Earth – that album stands out to me as something drastically different. You play very free in most cases, but this album seems wide open.
MW: I had recorded Algo Más with Jean Paul Bourelly. Jean Paul is very, very big in Europe and he has a lock on world music coming out of Berlin. He was running something called The Black Atlantic Festival. So he calls me up and he says, “Would you be willing to come out to Berlin? I’m running a festival and I’d like you to play some Cuban stuff.” I said, “Sure, great.” Then he calls me back about a week later and says, “You know, I’m looking at the lineup and I’ve got to level with you. The whole concept is black music around the Atlantic – in Europe, in America, and in the Caribbean. I really can’t have a white headliner.” I said, “I understand completely. Who’s going to be there?” He says, “You know, that guy from Cuban Roots Revisited is going to be there – Omar Sosa. He’s going to have a whole bunch of African musicians, including this balafon virtuoso, Aly Keita.” Now, when I met Omar, before we did the Cuban Roots Revisited session, Omar and I sat down, had some dinner, and he basically told me his history. He has a funny history – Omar is a classically trained symphonic mallet player. When he graduated from the conservatory where he had studied, the mallet teacher said, “Look Omar, you better learn how to play another instrument. You’re never going to play with the symphony, because that’s my gig.” That was the only mallet gig in Cuba! So, Omar starts to play piano, but mallets were his first love. Omar didn’t go from Cuba to America; he went from Cuba to Ecuador. His wife is Ecuadorian. The reason is that Ecuador has a marimba tradition – slaves that went to Ecuador were from Benin where they had these enormous balafon orchestras. That was the music of the court when Africa really had advanced civilizations. That tradition is still alive in Ecuador. He went to Ecuador to learn more about the African marimba tradition from Ecuadorians. So I knew that he loved playing mallets.
So I called up Omar’s manager Scott Price, who I knew from when we did the album Cuban Roots Revisited, and I said, “Can Omar do a date with me right after The Black Atlantic in Berlin, playing mallets?” He said, “Well, he doesn’t have any instruments.” I said, “Don’t worry, I’ll rent all the instruments.” He said, “Well, I’m sure Omar would love it, let me call him.” Omar jumped at the chance. So I had balafon; Omar with a marimba on one side of him, vibes on the other side of him, and those tuned boxes on a table. Then Jean Paul brought in two African drummers. Marque Gilmore, a trap drummer who had played a lot with Jean Paul, heard about this date and he said to Jean Paul, “I’ve got to be on this date.” Jean Paul had this really great Polish bass player, Stanislou Michalak. We went into the studio for two days and not only did we not have music, but we had no concept. No one knew what they were going to do – literally!
We were all staying at a hotel in Berlin, so we get into the bus. I’m in the bus with the two drummers and Omar. We’re driving and the start to sing Toque Eleggua, and they’re singing it exactly the same. These two African guys and a Cuban guy, and they’re singing the same melodies. That’s how much that religion has locked in. So we go into the studio and we start to play. The first thing we record is actually not the first track on the album, the first song the we recorded was the second long track, which is Toque Eleggua. I’m in a booth and I’ve got a C flute, an alto flute, and a bass flute on a piano rack. Just laid across the rack. I’m just picking up one flute after another, trying to play as musically as I can. The texture is so thick that Jean Paul ends up practically not playing. Every single note on that album is just what went down in the studio. Now, you know, there was a lot of editing. The first tune lasted for almost an hour. We would play and then I’d stop playing. Then someone else would start and then I’d play again. Then someone else would stop and then someone else would keep on playing. The tune lasted for an hour! I cut three tracks out of that first recording. It’s edited in the sense that we had to pick through what we recorded to find the boundaries. Otherwise, it was just, again, that magic of putting great musicians in a studio together, in a very high-risk environment.
What I’ve actually learned how to do is to convince musicians that I don’t have an agenda. This is really what works – I go in with these guys that are masters and I say to them, “This recording is not about me.” And I say this to everybody, I say, “I will never stop a take, but you can stop a take anytime you want. The only thing I want from you is that you play absolutely as good as you can play. If I need to fix my stuff, don’t worry about it. This is not about me, this is about you.” So, for example, when I recorded those choros (on Lua e Sol) – I’m not a classical flute player, I can’t play those choros. The hard choro, I said to those guys, “Can you play it without me?” And they said, “Yea.” Then afterwards, I played the choro instead of me doing what ever other horn player would do, which is mess up a million times and make them do it over and over and over. And the way that happened, Romero did that to me. For O Nosso Amor, we go in, and we play “Bahia.” We play it and it doesn’t sound particularly good; the rhythm section doesn’t gel. So we play it again. Bahia is a weird tune; the harmonic rhythm is odd. It begins with chords that change very slowly and by the time you get to the last eight bars, it’s changing every beat. So the way you have to dig into the chords at the beginning when the chords are very slow and then move very quickly through the changes. So your solo has to build with the harmonic tension. We play the second take, the rhythm section sounds good, but I’m learning the tune! I got the tune down, but I’m not really playing well – I’m not playing as well as them. We finish the take, Romero comes to my booth, opens my booth door, looks at me in the eye, and he says, “Don’t make me play that song again.” I said, “Great, what do you want to play next?” Then, I did what I had to do in the studio after they were gone. He really taught me a lesson; he wasn’t trying to, but he taught me a lesson. And that is, if I want the rhythm section to sound great, the base recording cannot be about me – it has to be about them. Then if I have to overdub, I’ll overdub.
The African thing – there was no way you could overdub that stuff. The African thing is complete conversation throughout. Then of course, we mix things up; we have some fillers with the two mallet instruments and then I play that little filler with the bass player. The basic tunes were cut out of long, extended improvisations. I work with this one engineer, this one guy Phil Ludwig. He’s a great musician. That was recorded in 2004; it didn’t come out for five years because I didn’t know what to do with those tracks. Phil and I listened to it and between the two of us, we figured out where the tunes were. That is free jazz! A review got posted by a guy who is a musicologist, and he said something really important – he said, “Free jazz has become completely stereotyped, and it all sounds the same. Tales From The Earth – that’s free jazz. That’s jazz musicians responding to a musical environment in a way that is completely responsive to the music; not playing out, but playing freely. ” I think that the guy’s right. But in that respect, almost all my records are free jazz. Because we just go into the studio and play.
The studio is the only place that I can play – it is the only place where I can be loud enough and hear myself play. When I play live, I can’t play. I never can really hear myself. In the studio, everybody has their own earphone mix; I can make the flute as loud as I want! Then I can actually hear myself. The big problem with the flute isn’t that you can’t hear it in the audience, because the flute carries. It’s that you can’t hear it when you’re playing it. It doesn’t have the presence when you play, that a saxophone or trumpet does. It’s a very, very soft instrument. If you’re playing in a great club, with a great soundman, and you have great monitors, O.K. In most clubs though, the sound system sound awful. So when I play live, half of the time, I don’t even hear myself, I’m on automatic pilot! In the studio, I can really hear myself. To me, that’s my art form. My art form is really recording.
LJC: Timbasa seemed like a really interested evolution – Cuban Roots and Algo Más were based on the folkloric and the ancient, where here you’re dealing with timba guys and playing modern style Cuban music. How did that come together?
MW: Well, here’s the story. You know who Marty Cohen is, right? Marty and I go back to 1961. I met Marty when he made his first cowbell for Pacheco. Pacheco met Barry Rogers in high school; they were both in an automotive trades high school. In the sixties, you couldn’t get cowbells for any amount of money. Guys would work in the Catskills just so they could go into the antique shops and try to find cowbells. Pacheco had made himself a cowbell when he was in metal shop – the thing that they call the Pacheco bell, the big long flat cowbell. You couldn’t put that on a cow because it was too narrow, the clacker wouldn’t work! Pacheco was basically a timbale player as well as a flute player; he used to play timbales when he had a little conjunto. So he makes himself a cowbell and all of the drummers want that cowbell. But he graduated from high school and he no longer has the big metal machine and the metal. He runs into Marty Cohen, who was working as an engineer, and he has a machine shop in his garage. So Pachecho says to Marty, “Here’s the design, can you make me cowbells?” Marty says, “Sure, no problem.” So Pacheco and Marty start selling cowbells. So Marty starts going out to the clubs and I meet Marty Cohen, and we would hang out.
After I started to record again, he has this big party for his 65th birthday. He invites me to the party, and I had just won best flutist on Latin Jazz Corner and Pedrito had won for best percussionist, both for Con Alma. Pedrito sees me and he comes over and gives me a hug – “Thanks for letting me record that album, when are we going to do another project?” Then I run into Pedrito again, a very sad thing – the engineer who had recorded Algo Más, his son had gotten killed in an accidental shooting. He had set up a scholarship fund and he had set up a concert to raise money for the scholarship fund. Paquito was headlining it, and I go to show my respects, and Pedrito’s there. So Pedrito sits down next to me and he says, “When are we going to do another project?” So I say, “O.K. Pedrito, do you know a piano player and a bass player who play as good as you?” He said, “I got the guys.” I said, “Great, hook it up. Bring in two other drummers, so that you’ve got plenty of drummers to play with.” I thought that he’d bring another conguero, so he could play rumba – and then we’ll do a session. And I was BSing! I had just recorded Straight No Chaser and I had committed myself to the Kenny Barron album. Kenny Barron cost me a small fortune to get on a recording, and I was broke! I had records backed up! Jazzheads was saying it was crazy; I was releasing too many records. But, Pedrito sets it up for me. So I either say yes or I’m jive, and I can’t afford to be that, because I want these great musicians to know that my word is my word.
So we’ve got two days in March, which turns out to be one day. So I say to him, “OK, have the guys bring in tunes, whatever they want to play and we’ll just play.” So we go into the studio and I bring just zeroxed pages from the Real Book, every corny tune I can think of. For the hell of it, I bring “Just Another Guajira” because I sometimes play that on gigs. We go into the studio and the piano player goes to the piano and he starts playing Chopin – serious Chopin! The first tune we play is “A Ernesto,” the Chucho Valdes tune. It just goes from there. All of those arrangements were head arrangements worked out in the studio except for the fact that Pedrito had all of those drum breaks worked out with his drummers. He had played a lot with Panagiotis and Axel, so they had a lot of stuff worked out. But basically, what we did, is we took the concept of Con Alma, which is to play jazz to Latin drums and just updated it. Timbasa is actually the next generation of Con Alma. It’s just Latin Jazz, but instead of playing creative old-fashioned Latin drums, they’re playing creative, hot new thing Latin drums.
LJC: What sorts of switches did you have to take to play with these guys, because they’re taking a very different approach?
MW: I had the tiger by the tail. I had to play in a way that I could somehow project musically. I’m not talking acoustically; I don’t mix the flute high; I always mix the flute into the track. So it’s not a matter of being louder than everybody, it was a matter of figuring out how to stand out above the density of the texture. What it did was really plug into that whole free concept of playing that’s at the root of my playing. This is going to sound crazy, but there’s no rhythm section in the world that can throw me – when I started to play with Eddie Palmieri, I learned the trick of being a white guy and playing with Cuban drums. You never try to figure out intellectually where the beat is, instead, what you do is relax, and really slowly start to dance. If you just let yourself dance, you’ll always find the time, because it’s dance music. When we played “Footprints” in 7/4 . . . I can’t play 7/4! I never counted to 7 until after I made the recording! Then I listened to it and I said, “Where the hell is the seven?” Instead, I just let my body respond to the rhythm. That rhythm section is so burning that there was no way that I couldn’t play in time as long as I had the confidence to let myself play and not think intellectually.
Again, in post production, if my down beat isn’t exactly where I want it to be when I’m playing some of those figures with those guys, if it wasn’t exactly tight . . . that’s why God invented Pro-Tools! But you can’t fix a solo, not when you’re playing eleven-tuplets against a quarter note! When it comes to the charts and the tight figures, before I put it out, I make sure that it’s absolutely clean. Playing with Eddie Palmieri just gave me such a deep sense of confidence to play with those drummers. When you listen to Cuban Roots – I don’t know if anybody ever noticed – I’m playing all these solos, but if you listen closely, I’m playing the second voice on all the arrangements; it’s alto, trombone, and bari. I’m playing the answers and the solos and I was bringing those guys in, telling them when to play. There were no rehearsals – I was cuing those guys. What happens when I get into the studio is I just play with complete confidence and rely on the fact that the music is the music and whatever doesn’t work I’ll fix later. But except for that one choro were I had to let them just play and then just overdub, I play the date. I don’t just lay down rhythm tracks and then play; I play the date, because the guys have to know where my solo is going. If you listen to my albums there’s a tremendous amount of interaction with the musicians. You can’t tell if I’m overdubbing or not. If I don’t like a solo and I redo it – which doesn’t happen all that often, but it does happen from time to time – I have laid out the basic contour of the solo and the guys are responding to the contour. You can hear this now when they put out the CDs with all the extra takes – like Coltrane CDs and stuff. Even though the recorded solo is better than the alternate takes – you can see why they picked the one they picked – he’s playing the same solo, basically. Not the same notes, but the same overall structure. A musician is a musician and their approach to a tune is their approach to the tune. Very rarely will you play another take and deal with it very differently. Once I lay down the basic solo, I have the rhythm section doing what they’re doing in response to my solo. So if I want to fix part of my solo – overdub the solo or whatever – I have a rhythm section that’s responding to me. So it always sounds completely fresh and it always sounds completely live. I never go for perfection – I never photoshop the solos. I let the damn thing be what it is. I sometimes photoshop, to tell the truth – at the end of Timbasa, when the piano player and the bass player are playing the figure against the drum solos, I’m playing along with them . . . That figure is hard! You try playing that figure! So I got it sixty percent of the time – that I’ll photoshop. But the solos I don’t. My solos, I really want it to be my response to the guys playing.
I actually found Timbasa easier to play than the type of tight bebop playing that I was doing on Con Alma. Because on Timbasa, no matter what I played harmonically, Axel would hear it. Anywhere I moved the extension, Axel would hear it. There’s this one spot on “A Ernesto” where I play in another place on the beat – I don’t know why I played it, it was probably because I’ve been playing those change for fifty years. I played the Charlie Parker hot lick, which is the piccolo part from Tiger Rag; Charlie Parker played that at least once a night every night of his life. So I play that and then I go right into a comparsa lick. Then Axel hears it and answers me! When I hear him answer me, I catch the last two notes of his lick – you can’t orchestrate that stuff. That’s what I try to get. This is from listening to those drums – it’s conversation. It’s always about conversation. What I want on all of my albums – and this you hear a lot of Algo Más – I wanted the flutes to be a layer of conversation on top of the drums. The drums are having a conversation among themselves and they’re also having a conversation with the bass and the guitar. The flute is having conversation with those three guys, but the flutes are always having a conversation with themselves.
That’s what the African music is all about. This is the cliche – African music is call and response. But that’s just the superficial level; on every other level, there’s also a conversation. This is what makes the salsa big band – the conversation between the saxophones and the trumpets; the conversation between the guajeo and the tumbao and the drums. The only thing is that in salsa, it’s really simplified. The conversation is a very simple, very stereotypical conversation. Where in rumba and the Toques de Santos, the conversation is a very sophisticated conversation – it’s like a bunch of physicists talking about black holes! These guys are deep. That’s what I try to do with all of my records; I just try to have layers of conversation, layers of interaction. The interesting thing about that is when you have a good conversation, as opposed to a monologue – when you have a good conversation, you can’t plan it. You have to respond to what the person is saying. There has to be a mutual sense of the evolving form. That’s why I go into the studio without rehearsals. Because if you rehearse, all you’re going to do is turn the conversation into a script. If you don’t rehearse, and if you have great musicians who trust each other, then you can really get some stuff going. Then, thanks to Pro Tools, you can put Clearasil over your pimples – no one will notice!
LJC: You mentioned that you were working on a charanga album, what is on the horizon?
MW: The next thing coming out is the album with Kenny Barron. If Timbasa sells, Jazzheads is going to put it out probably in October. After that, I wanted to put out a romantic album. Part of the reason was that I’m really working on my flute sound. One of the things that flute players rag on me for is not having a good classical flute sound. I have a very unique sound and I’m trying to really prove to people that my sound is a good sound. It doesn’t sound like Hubert Laws, and it doesn’t have that classical edge. I wanted to do an album that would really exhibit my sound, so I decided to do an album of tangos. So I called up Pablo Aslan, and he wrote some charts for me – piano, bowed bass, bandoneon, and flute. We only did five tunes, about half an album. I didn’t know what to do with the other half album. Then I get this e-mail from this piano player Aruan Ortiz, telling all the conservatories that he went to and saying that he’s open for projects. In his resume, he mentions the fact that he was a viola player. So I said, “This is it.” So I called Aruan and said, “Would you be willing to do a string album for me?” I have the CD of the old Arcaño stuff, and some of those are the most beautiful danzones ever recorded. So I told him some of my favorites, and he wanted to put some originals on. So he wrote four danzones and a bolero for flute, string quartet, piano, bass, and a charanga rhythm section. The charanga stuff sounded so gorgeous, so he started pushing me to finish the album with strings.
So I’m doing a charanga album and then I’m going to have a tango album coming out. The charanga album so far is just danzones – you know, danzon-cha and a bolero – so we needed some contrasting things. He said, “Do you know La Cumbanchera?” I said, “Right! That’s it.” So we’re going to is finish the album with burning up-tempos. We’re scheduled to finish it in May. He’s on the road in Europe, so he can’t have the charts for me right now. So this May, we’ll be finishing up the album with up-tempos – you know, guarachas, mozambiques or whatever he comes up with. It’s a charanga album, but it’s not fiddles, it’s a string quartet. I didn’t want just strings, so it’s 2 violins, viola, and cello. The arrangements are really, really gorgeous. Aruan is an amazing musician, a great piano player. So far, Mauricio Herrera, the drummer on Con Alma and Timbasa, played timbales, and then he overdubbed congas. For the up tempos, we’ll probably have two drummers in the studio so that we can swing.
Then I’ll finish the album with Pablo Aslan, and as soon as I figure out the concept, I’ve got to put out another straight-ahead album. I don’t like to just play Latin music. I like to play enough straight-ahead so that people see me as a jazz musician. Because I don’t play Cuban music; I play jazz to Cuban music. I don’t play Brazilian music; I play jazz to Brazilian music. I have a Jewish album out – I don’t play Jewish music, I play jazz to Jewish music. What I mean is that I keep the form completely in tact, but then have the freedom to do whatever I want. That’s one of the reasons why I don’t play typical salsa/charanga flute. I’m not trying to sound like Fajardo – I couldn’t if I wanted to. I’m a jazz musician. But I’m a jazz musician who feels that folkloric music opens up possibilities – traditional music, world music – it opens up possibilities for jazz. Playing flute, that’s a natural transition, because flute is not a traditional jazz instrument. But it is traditional in these world music forms. Plus, flute sounds really good with drums and flute sounds really good with strings. Flutes do not sound good with a tenor player, you know? So I think I’ve found a niche where my contribution as a jazz musician actually opens up doors. A lot of jazz flute players are trying to chase after the tenor players and the trumpet players. I’m trying to find a real role for the flute in jazz. My idea is that by playing jazz with really rooted traditional forms played by guys who really know those traditional forms, I can open up a niche for the flute in jazz.
LJC: I think that you’ve found that – you’ve got an incredible catalogue of recordings. We’re lucky to hear them.
MW: Well, I started recording at 55 years old; I’m going to be seventy this July. Nobody lives forever. So, it’s now or never. Every record that I don’t make won’t get made. I am in hock – I’ve sucked so much money out of my house that it’s six feet under water, but that’s my commitment to the music. If I could afford to make ten records a year, I would!
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.
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