Most people define Latin Jazz by the two broad strokes that brought the music into existence – the combination of aesthetics from jazz and Afro-Cuban music – but in reality, there’s so much more to the story. The genre initially arose from these two influences, but as the music developed into a modern style, it absorbed everything that entered its path. When Brazilian music stepped into the public eye of the United States, it became undeniably linked to the Latin Jazz world. As jazz musicians experimented with rock and funk in the sixties, Latin Jazz artists found a way to combine their rhythmic world with these emerging influences. The jazz world dived headfirst into fusion during the seventies, and Latin musicians sat steadily in the mix, becoming an irreplaceable piece of bands like Return To Forever, Weather Report, and more. In return, Latin Jazz musicians started incorporating fusion elements into their music, experimenting with new harmonic sonorities and structures. The eighties saw a rise in technology and electronic sounds in music, which bled into Latin Jazz albums from artists like Dave Valentin, Giovanni Hidalgo, and more. The history of Latin Jazz has been characterized by a constant evolution as musicians incorporated new ideas from the culture around them.
In the sixties, the Latin music world had happily brought a funky groove into the mix, producing a blend called boogaloo. Latin dance musicians like Ray Barretto led the way with steady combinations of Afro-Cuban rhythms and funky bass lines, producing hits like “El Watussi.” This new soulful hybrid not only took the New York dancers by storm, but it turned heads across the country. As Latin dance music became popular among the greater public, more musicians grabbed onto the new sound. The Fania label took charge of this direction, supporting musicians like Willie Colon and Larry Harlow. While Latin dance musicians benefited from the popularity of funky Latin mixtures, jazz musicians stood and took notice. Popular artists started to incorporated Latinized versions of contemporary pop songs, tinged with authentic Cuban rhythms and jazz improvisation. At the same time, musicians began to write original instrumental Latin Jazz pieces that drew upon the soulful sound coming from New York dance music. As a result, the sixties gave us a number of great Latin Jazz albums filled with influences from soul, pop music, funk, jazz, and Cuban music.
These recordings have met mixed reviews over the years – some people love them and some view them as shallow attempts at commercial appeal – still, the fact remains that they are important pieces of Latin Jazz history. I’ve gathered three albums that represent the funky side of Latin Jazz that took hold during the sixties, hoping to paint a picture of this approach. While more examples of this style exist, these three albums serve as starting points to a larger exploration – take a listen and then check out more albums from these artists. Enjoy!
Soul Bag, Mongo Santamaria
Legendary conguero Mongo Santamaria reigns as the undisputed champion of funky Latin Jazz with a huge catalogue of albums to back his claim. A well-respected percussionist that arrived to New York in the 1950s, Santamaria made his mark upon the Latin dance and jazz worlds through work with Tito Puente, Cal Tjader and more. He established himself as a bandleader in the late fifties with several albums for Fantasy Records, but didn’t hit the mainstream until the early sixties, when a funky version of Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” hit big. From that point, Santamaria steadily kept one foot in the pop music world, re-interpreting modern hits through Latin rhythms and creating bluesy descargas over chunky backbeats. He touched upon modern rock with versions of Beatles tunes, connected with soul through Motown covers, and stayed up-to-date with Credence Clearwater Revival tunes. Along the way, Santamaria never lost his Latin Jazz roots, placing most of these songs in an instrumental context and providing plenty of room for improvisation. He made sure that his music included the best of both worlds with funky masters like drummer Bernard Purdie and great jazz soloists like saxophonist Sonny Fortune. At the root of Santamaria’s sound, arranger Marty Sheller made sure that the music oozed with greasy funk, creating amazing contexts for the drummer to excel. As Santamaria moved into the seventies, he incorporated disco and more aggressive funk sounds, while his work in the eighties and nineties signaled a shift back to a more traditional Latin Jazz approach. Santamaria’s full collection of work represents an important piece of the Latin Jazz world, but his boogaloo charged work in the sixties remains a trademark of his sound.
Many 1960s Santamaria albums could demonstrate his connection to a funky boogaloo approach; the 1969 release Soul Bag finds the master in full form. While Santamaria often mixed soulful instrumentals fueled by Cuban rhythms with more straight-ahead Latin Jazz tracks, the percussionist dives straight into his funky side here without apologies. Most of the tracks emanate from soul recordings of the day, drawing liberally upon the Motown and Stax libraries. Fortune inserts bluesy bends and slides into “In The Midnight Hour,” while a driving cha cha cha blends with a funk beat behind the saxophonist. Flautist Hubert Laws breezes through the melody on “Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay,” interjecting soulful flights of improvisation between a clever horn arrangement. The James Brown classic “Cold Sweat” seems comfortably natural in a cha cha cha setting, providing ample room for greasy improvisations from Fortune and aggressive conga solos from Santamaria. The arrangement stands as the centerpiece of the group’s version of The Temptations’ “My Girl,” as a down tempo cha cha cha subtly pushes the wind players. Laws overdubs multiple flutes over a light samba rhythm on “Up, Up And Away,” finding quick spots to engage in improvisational embellishments. A 6/8 rhythm from Santamaria explodes into a stuttering shuffle rhythm behind “Green Onions,” providing one of the album’s most interesting solo sections, that includes a classic Santamaria statement. Santamaria pulls all the pieces of his sixties sound together here – Latin versions of contemporary pop songs, a funky undertone, and a preference for jazz improvisation – into a classic representation of his Latin Jazz boogaloo.
Juicy, Willie Bobo
Only one musician came close to Santamaria’s place as king of funky Latin Jazz – his frequent collaborator percussionist Willie Bobo. Only a teenager when Santamaria arrived in New York, Bobo became the conguero’s translator in exchange for percussion lessons. Santamaria helped the young musician, but his innate talent and feel led Bobo to a full schedule of gigs with Tjader, Puente, and a cast of jazz musicians. Bobo’s ability to double on Latin percussion and drum kit made him a natural selection for jazz musicians interested in a Latin tinge, but it also kept him close to the modern funky pop world. From his 1963 debut Do That Thing!, his work as a bandleader always included a boogaloo edge, infused with a strong dose of jazz authenticity. Once he moved to Verve, he adopted a formula similar to Santamaria’s successful albums, including a mix of Latinized pop covers, bluesy originals, and some touches of jazz standards. While much of his work focused upon instrumental performances, Bobo utilized another one of his strong musical talents, performing as a featured singer. Sometimes singing repeated coros and other times working through full songs, Bobo’s vocals added another soulful layer to his thick funky soup. As Bobo moved into the seventies, he spent ample time focusing upon sideman work and his recordings as a bandleader increasingly incorporated a harder edged funk and disco sound – a fact evidenced on the 1979 release Bobo. In a career filled with associations with some of the most important musicians in the Latin Jazz world, his sixties releases remain memorable moments in the popular consciousness.
Much like Santamaria, Bobo left a large legacy of funky Latin Jazz albums, but one gem often sits in the background of his career – the boogaloo filled recording Juicy. The album cover sets the vibe before the music even starts, with a wide-open orange surrounding a scantily clad young woman. Once the music begins, the sixties are in full effect, starting with an up-tempo cha cha cha version of “Knock On Wood.” Bobo’s arrangements are clean and tight, upping the funk ante with a swinging rhythm section. The percussionist revisits a funk jazz classic, as his group slithers through a slow cha cha cha version of Joe Zawinul’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” stocked with a tasty guitar solo from Sonny Henry. The title track, “Juicy,” steps outside the pop music cover theme, but it keeps the boogaloo bubbling with a catchy arrangement and constant coros. Bobo’s recordings as a bandleader usually rejected the standard Latin Jazz usage of piano in favor of the timelier guitar sound. Henry holds his own confidently throughout the album; his performance on the Motown standard “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” keeps the song alive through thick chords, bold melodies, and a soulful improvisation. Bobo and his group charges through a quick bolero behind Bob Crewe’s “Music To Watch Girls Go By” making short spaces for improvisatory flourishes from saxophonist Bobby Brown. There’s a greasy swing to the son montuno groove behind “Shing-A-Ling Baby,” made all the more memorable by Bobo’s vocals and Henry’s bluesy guitar licks. There’s a couple of purely great Latin Jazz moments on the album too – the energetic “La Descarga Del Bobo” gives the band a chance to stretch out. The bulk of album relies upon the funky soul that fueled most of Bobo’s albums as a bandleader in the sixties, providing some classic Latin Jazz boogaloo.
Wild Thing, Armando Peraza
Unlike his contemporaries Santamaria and Bobo, percussionist Armando Peraza spent the bulk of his career in Latin Jazz and Latin Rock; he only dipped into funky Latin Jazz. Originally coming to the New York from Mexico with his friend Mongo Santamaria, Peraza found work quickly, recording with Charlie Parker, Slim Gaillard, and more. The core of legacy began later though, when Peraza established himself in San Francisco, leading to years of work with Dave Brubeck, Cal Tjader, George Shearing, and Carlos Santana. His work on the West Coast spanned from traditional jazz to Afro-Cuban dance music, Latin Jazz, and Latin Rock; the percussionist happily lent his knowledge of Afro-Cuban rhythms to any context possible. His flexibility became a hallmark of his career, opening him to a variety of performance opportunities. In the long run though, he shied away from the funky side of Latin Jazz preferred by Santamaria and Bobo, leaning towards a more traditional take on Latin Jazz. He refined his skills as a composer during his time with Shearing, producing over twenty songs for the pianist. He continued writing during his time with the Santana band, infusing the group with a jazz flavor and a heavy dose of Afro-Cuban percussion. Through his high profile associations with Shearing and Santana, Peraza shared Afro-Cuban percussion with listeners around the world, spreading his passion for the music and inspiring other to follow his lead.
Peraza spent most of his career as a sideman in the Latin Jazz and Latin Rock worlds, so it’s an unusual anomaly that his one album as a bandleader, the 1968 release Wild Thing, delivers an addictive brand of funky Latin Jazz. Despite the lack of consistency with Peraza’s career, there’s no lack of conviction on this album; Peraza plays with full force soul with a combination of pop music covers and boogaloo tinged originals. The rhythm section sets up a head-swinging groove on the James Brown classic “Funky Broadway,” setting the stage for an impassioned and bluesy solo from saxophonist Sadao Watanabe. Peraza’s rock solid tumbao establishes the groove on “Mony Mony” while flautist Johnny Pacheco struts through the familiar melody and a catchy improvisation. Bassist Bobby Rodriguez lays down a virtuosic bass line beneath a dual flute melody from Watanabe and Pacheco on the Peraza original “Red Onions,” leading into a synthesizer solo from Mike Abene. Trombonist Garnett Brown slides into the familiar melody on “Wild Thing,” leaving plenty of room for percussion fills and an impressive solo from pianist Chick Corea. The group changes the pace with an up-tempo Brazilian groove on “Granny’s Samba,” presenting a jazzy texture for solos from Watanabe on sax and Peraza on conga. Electric bassist Chuck Rainey provides a steady line behind intertwining melodic lines on “Souled Out,” while funky vamps serve as interludes between improvisations from Pacheco and Watanabe. Peraza performs with class and style throughout Wild Thing, bringing his world-renowned sense of flexibility and musicality to a lively session that rounds out any collection of funky Latin Jazz.
Check Out These Related Posts:
Revisiting Latin Jazz Classics: At The Black Hawk, Mongo Santamaria
Five Straight-Ahead Latin Jazz Classics Featuring Willie Bobo
Four Albums From Straight-Ahead Jazz Artists Featuring Willie Bobo
A Life Through Latin Jazz History; Armando Peraza Interview Video