After establishing himself as a diverse musician with a broad set of tools to contribute to the Connecticut music scene, drummer Ed Fast found several outlets to share his experience. His love to Latin Jazz got more intense, driving him to study recordings from masters like Cal Tjader and Hilton Ruiz. Looking to explore these interests more fully, Fast assembled a number of musicians from the area into a new group, Conga-Bop. The group gained momentum on the local scene, inspiring Fast to record a collection of original pieces and creative arrangements. After finishing the main tracks for the album, Fast received a multitude of calls for Broadway musical work, taking him around the world for a number of years. When he finally had a break in his schedule, Fast completed work on the album, releasing Straight Shot in 2007. He continued balancing his schedule between Latin Jazz, Broadway shows, and symphonic work, and along the way found time to work with young musicians. Two young musicians worked closely with Fast and made a particularly strong impact upon the Latin Jazz community – Zaccai and Luques Curtis. Fast spent some influential years with the Curtis Brothers before they broke into New York’s Latin Jazz scene, helping them build their knowledge of the style. Fast worked as musical director for a youth group that included the Curtis Brothers, which performed across the Hartford scene and even made its way to gigs in Cuba. Now a mentor on the Connecticut music scene with a broad knowledge base, Fast not only made his own creative contributions to the music, but also kept it moving into the future.
Through his work with Conga-Bop and beyond, Fast certainly made a splash upon the Connecticut music scene, with a greater impact that spread into the larger Latin Jazz world. In the first piece of our interview with Fast, we looked at his early musical development, his introduction to Latin Jazz, and his relationship with legendary conguero Bill Fitch. In the conclusion of our conversation, we dig into the Latin Jazz scene in and around Hartford, the recording of Straight Shot, and Fast’s influence upon the Curtis Brothers.
LJC: Is there a Latin Jazz scene around the Hartford area?
EF: There had been for a while, but it kind of varies in strength. There seems to be a little bit of a resurgence now. We’ve had some remarkable players come through the area that are doing a lot in the Latin Jazz scene now. The Curtis Brothers were both on the scene. Luques is playing bass with Eddie Palmieri now. When they were in town, they were doing a lot of Latin Jazz. When they were little kids, they were playing all over the place. When they got older, they started playing with my group a little bit, and then they formed their own group, Insight. They did a lot until they took off for New York. In fact, Zaccai is coming back to Hartford to do a solo concert this summer. Those guys have definitely kept the Latin Jazz scene afloat. Then there’s been a few other groups here and there. I’ve had my group playing on and off for years, but I wind up going off on these musical tours from time to time which put me out of the picture. I wound up doing 42nd Street in Moscow for months. I went all over Asia with The Sound Of Music. I did a stint on Broadway for a year with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. That kind of makes my Latin Jazz projects stop and start.
LJC: Why don’t you tell me a little bit about how Conga-Bop came together?
EF: I was working with another Latin Jazz group out of college. I had really been getting into Cal Tjader and I also started transcribing a lot of tunes by other folks, like Hilton Ruiz. I love a lot of his compositions. He had a tune called “Home Cookin’;” I transcribed that tune and for a while that was the name of our band, Home Cookin’. I kind of put together the band so that I could do the music that I really wanted to perform, like all the Tjader stuff and the Hilton Ruiz stuff. Then I started transcribing a lot of Fort Apache music as well. So that’s why I put the band together, to play those tunes from people that I really enjoyed. Tito Puente too – I play a little vibes as well. The group was an outlet for me to do the charts that I really wanted to do and didn’t get a chance to do in other people’s bands.
LJC: I love your vibes playing on “Detour Ahead” from the Straight Shot album. Is your vibes playing a big part of the group?
EF: Generally I have to say no. Right now we’ve been playing with two horns. We’re in a small area with a small budget, so I don’t have a chance to bring the vibes in much. When we do bigger festivals I do. Last summer we did an outdoor jazz festival in Hartford – for those big events I like to bring out the vibes and feature them on a tune or two. Last year we did Tito Puente’s version of “Jitterbug Waltz;” I did that on vibes. It’s the only waltz you’ll hear in 4/4 time!
LJC: I read on that you recorded the album earlier but Straight Shot didn’t come out until 2007. What was that process like?
EF: We had enough material together to do the album including some original things that I wanted to record too. So we recorded it all in a weekend down in Stamford, Connecticut. It’s a self-produced album and money winds up playing a part in everything. We got the recording done and some of the mixing, but then I wound up going on tour to Asia with Sound Of Music. Right after that I went straight to Broadway to do Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Between those two things, it kind of took me away from the project. It also gave me a chance to make some money, and then go back, get it mixed, printed, and produced. That was the delay between recording and production.
LJC: I love your writing on the album. You mentioned Fort Apache, and that group really pops out as an influence – how do you approach writing in this context?
EF: It’s such a crazy thing – it happens all different ways . . . for me anyways. The very first tune on the album, “Encarnacion,” the way that happened – we were invited to play a concert at the University of Hartford and they were going to record it and produce a CD. So you had to have original material . . . I had to write an original piece! I sat down at the piano, came up with a bass line, then the melody, and harmonized it. I could feel it was going to be some kind of rumba tempo underneath that. Then I just have to live with it for a while. One thing will lead to another until eventually I find that, yes, that’s exactly where it should be. I try not to force things. If it takes days, it takes days. If it takes weeks, it takes weeks. Eventually, it feels like the thing will write itself if I give it enough time. One thing will lead to a logical next step.
LJC: I imagine that since the album is a few years old, you probably have more material that you’re working with . . .
EF: Yep! I’m dying to do another one. I’ve got a bunch more original things. Also, I commissioned some friends to write some really nice arrangements on jazz standards with vocals. I just think that will improve upon the appeal, to feature a vocalist on a few tunes – jazz standards that people know. And then sprinkled in with that, my crazy original stuff. I’ve got some original pieces that I’m really excited about having people hear. We’ve been playing them live and they’ve been very well received. But again, the whole thing is how to finance it – that’s the trick!
LJC: I know that you do a lot of symphony work and Broadway shows, do you do any straight-ahead jazz in the area?
EF: From time to time I do some straight ahead, but not a whole lot. I love doing the theater stuff; I get to use everything I learned – playing on xylophone, timpani, timbales, congas, bongo . . . it’s a ball. You get to play with a fairly large group and actors on stage – then there’s lights and the whole big production. I love doing that. Then when I get home, I get symphony work and my Latin Jazz group. There’s other fine, fine drummers in the area that do nothing but bebop. So they’ll generally get those calls before I do.
LJC: One of the things that I think really distinguishes a group is how fluent they are on the whole jazz side of the equation. Your band is very jazz oriented, so who are the jazz guys that influenced your concept?
EF: I’m so glad to hear you say that, because I do feel like we’re not coming from a salsa bag. It’s very much jazz infused. In Hartford, we’ve had Jackie Mclean, who just passed away last year. He was at The Hartt School; he had the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz. There’s just a lot of jazz in the area, probably due to him; he’s brought a lot of great artists in. We do that Lee Morgan tune on Straight Shot, “Boy, What A Night” – that’s from The Sidewinder album. Everyone knows The Sidewinder, but that whole album is great, it’s got so many great tunes. There’s “Totem Pole,” “Boy, What A Night,” “Hocus Pocus” . . . There’s a lot of great tunes on there. “Boy, What A Night” just happened to fit really great on that 6/8 groove. All that old Blue Note stuff – Billy Higgins, Lee Morgan, Art Blakey of course, Thelonious Monk – I listen to all those guys and really enjoy that music. And then it becomes a matter of you love all that music but you want to write something that reflects you and what you hear. But all those folks are part of the influence. I’m so glad that it comes through in the writing too. It’s Fort Apache too, I feel like they’re coming out of that bag. They’ve done salsa type gigs, but boy, those guys can play jazz . . . Steve Berrios swings!
LJC: I recently did an interview with Andy about Grupo Folklorico, what a great guy . . .
EF: I’ve just got to tell you, we love Andy. One time I had a gig with the adults in Hartford and we could not find a bass player anywhere. To make a long story short, I tracked down Andy’s number and called him up in New York. He came up and did the gig with us. It was so funny – I’m transcribing all these Cal Tjader tunes, like “Alonso,” that nobody that I talk to has ever heard of these tunes. I was talking on the phone to Andy and he was asking, “What kind of stuff do you do?” I said, “Well, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of this tune, but Alonso?” He said, “I’ve been playing that since I was twelve years old!” So anyways, I got him a ride up from New York and he played the gig with us. It was just amazing.
I was working with Luques and Zaccai and their older brother Damien; they were little kids. They had a Latin band together, and I used to bring them all the charts that I would do with my group. I got them started on “Home Cookin’,” “Guataca,” and these Hilton Ruiz charts. They had a little band together. The great part about it though, was that they played at intermission and Andy got to meet them. From that day on, Andy took a real sincere, heartfelt interest in the kids, particularly Luques. He gave him a three-quarter bass to play; he’s just been a super guy for the kids and for all of us. He’s a very knowledgeable, beautiful guy.
LJC: How much interplay is there between the Hartford scene and New York or Boston?
EF: I don’t feel like there’s a lot of interplay, except for the fact that now Luques and Zaccai come up occasionally. There’s been a lot of jazz guys that have been going to school at The Jackie Mclean Institute. They’ll have a thing going in Hartford, but they’ll wind up leaving and going to New York. There’s a little bit of a connection that way, but generally, they tend to be separate scenes. I’ve got some great music students that are going to Philadelphia to play and I’ve got of course a lot of friends in New York that are playing. I want to get my band playing in those different cities more – up in Boston as well. So I would like to start that connection if I can have my band Conga-Bop play Boston, New York, Hartford, Philadelphia, and try to link that up a little bit.
LJC: I read that you took a group of young musicians to Cuba at one point – what happened there?
EF: The group that went to Cuba was Luques and Zaccai Curtis and their brother Damien Curtis. They have just exceptional parents; their parents have been very supportive of the whole music thing. I had met them at The Artist Collective, a school for young kids that Jackie Mclean also started. I met them there and then found out a while later that they were putting together a little Latin Jazz group of kids; there were up to twelve kids. So, I started working with them; bringing the charts over. We rehearsed and they started doing gigs in Hartford. They opened up for me or they played in between sets for me. They got so good so quickly; they’re so talented. They were also so dedicated. They wound up opening up for Tito Puente when he came to Hartford. Then they got invited to open up for Libre down at S.O.B.’s. People kept seeing them and hearing them. Next thing you know, Chucho Valdes invited them to perform down in Cuba. When that happened, I was their music director. Ted Curtis, their father, went through all the arrangements to make the trip possible. But Chucho Valdes, who directs that festival down in Havana, invited the kids to come down there and play. It was an absolutely incredible experience that I was very, very privileged to be a part of.
LJC: Was there a lot of interaction between the Cuban musicians and the kids?
EF: The kids did quite a bit of playing with different folks. It was just great to see that interaction. The musicians over there are something else. We got a bit of an understanding into how that happens. It’s a Communist country, so if you’re a musician over there, you’re paid by the government – that’s your full-time job. We went to see a young group. They have three levels of artists – A, B, and C; C being the lowest level. If you get a big enough following, you’re promoted to B and that gets you a pay raise. Then finally up to A and you make more money. We saw a C level group and they all lived in a gymnasium. They had bunk beds all around the gymnasium; that’s where they lived and slept. Their instruments were in the middle of the gymnasium; everything was all set-up. They said that they wake up, they practice from nine until lunchtime and then after lunch until dinner – as a band. Then after dinner, they all practice individually until midnight. Then they go to bed and they do the same thing the next day. If I can get one rehearsal for my band before a gig, I’m thrilled – you know? These guys literally eat and sleep this music, as a band. The kids got a lot of interplay with them; it was a great trip.
LJC: You mentioned that you want to put together a new album, what are the future plans for Conga-Bop?
EF: We have quite a few dates coming up this summer at different festivals, so I’m looking forward to that. I do have enough material now for a CD, so I’m actively working on trying to figure out how to get that done. In one way, I’d love to self-produce it again. In another way, it would definitely help to have a label that has some kind of distribution and marketing power behind it, so I’m going to look into that. I would really like to try and get something done before the summer is out – at least get a recording and then maybe by fall get it produced.
Make sure that you check out Part One of our interview with Latin Jazz drummer and percussionist Ed Fast. We dig into his early development, his introduction to Latin Jazz, his relationship with legendary conguero Bill Fitch, and much more. You can find it HERE.
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