Latin Jazz Conversations: Pete Escovedo (Part 2)

by chip on July 14, 2010

Music has a funny way of changing over time – the ebbs and flows of creativity bring different ideas onto a musicians plate, forcing them to deal with it. Any musician has the option of ignoring the changes in popular taste, but they run the risk of becoming antiquated. Steadfast adherence to stylistic norms are important in some circles, but they close the door on any musical evolution. Musicians that take the time to investigate new trends at least have the option to discard it or dig in further. Cheap imitations never help anyone, but a real study of new musical ideas may reveal undiscovered connections. The honest integration of musical ideas from across the spectrum that maintains the integrity of all concerned genres inevitably leads to strong music. It also brings people from all walks of life together in support of a rich new music and the musicians that create it.

During the sixties, percussionist Pete Escovedo had already established himself as a reliable sideman and strong band leader on the Bay Area music scene, but his openness to new musical ideas set the foundation for his move onto the national stage. Born into a musical family, Escovedo’s father shared his passion for performance with his children, inspiring Escovedo to dive into the music world. After a brief encounter with the saxophone, Escovedo found his voice on percussion and landed a steady gig with local pianist Carlos Frederico. His younger brother Coke soon leaped onto the scene, and the duo became a powerful percussion tandem across the Bay Area scene. Joined by their bass playing sibling Phil, the young musicians formed The Escovedo Brothers Band, catching the eye of many local artists, including guitarist Carlos Santana. With two hit albums under his belt, Santana found himself in need of percussionists, and he hired both Coke and Pete. The brothers gained exposure around the world, but still longed to focus on their own musical ventures, leading to the creation of Azteca. This unique group relied upon contributions from many of the Bay Area’s top musicians, pooling their unique talents into an intoxicating blend. The group released two albums, Azteca and Pyramid Of The Moon, and toured extensively, but the financial obligations of a large ensemble limited the band’s possibilities. As the group began to fold, fusion drummer Billy Cobham approached Escovedo and his daughter Sheila about recording, leading to the creation of two albums on the Fantasy label, Solo Two and Happy Together. With wide spread recognition and a new musical path laid out, Escovedo rode the changes into the next decade with class and style.

Escovedo’s work during the seventies defined the sound of the Bay Area music scene, broke down musical borders, and left an important trail of recordings. Along the way, he brought a Latin Jazz sensibility to Latin Rock, big band performance, and fusion, keeping the style alive through the decade. This work was built upon a strong knowledge of music that Escovedo gained during his extensive performances on the Bay Area’s thriving Latin music scene during the fifties; get all the details about Escovedo’s early development in Part One of our interview. Today, we move into the seventies with Escovedo, discussing his time with Carlos Santana, the formation of Azteca, his fusion recordings with Billy Cobham, and much more!

LATIN JAZZ CORNER: Could you tell me how you got the gig with Santana?

PETE ESCOVEDO: My brothers Coke, Phil, and I were still working with the small group. We got a gig in L.A., so we were on the road, and that’s when Coke got a call from Carlos Santana. Chepito (Areas) at the time had gotten sick and couldn’t do one of the tours. They needed somebody to replace him, so they got Coke. He went off; they went to Europe on a tour. In the meantime, I was just working in town and playing with different people. When Coke came back, he came over to see me play. I was playing at a hotel in San Mateo with a small group. He came in and he said, “Carlos wants you to join the band” – because Michael Carabello was leaving the band. He said, “He wants you to play.” I said, “Yea, I’ll have to give this guy here two weeks notice.” He said, “No, you’ve got to leave tomorrow!” I said, “Tomorrow?!?” He said, “Yea, we have to play at Madison Square Garden in New York for four nights. You’ve got to leave tomorrow, we’re catching a plane.” I said, “Oh my gosh, well what about rehearsal?” He said, “No, I’ll give you a tape, you learn the music on the plane and we’ll open tomorrow night.” I said, “Oh my goodness!” So I asked the bandleader, I said, “This is a big opportunity for me.” He understood and he said, “O.K., sure, it’s a great opportunity, go ahead.” So that’s how I joined the band, in New York, playing at the Garden. I was so used to just playing in clubs, but when you start playing in Madison Square Garden and the gigs that Carlos was playing . . . there were just thousands of people. I said, “Oh, man, this is really something.” It was quite an experience.

LJC: That was around 1971, is that right?

PE: Yea, ’71, ’72, ’72 – those years I was with Carlos. But I was in and out of the band. I was still wanting to do my own stuff. We were still tyring to salvage the Azteca band, we just didn’t get a lot of work because the band was so big. So eventually that band had to split up. Coke went on his own – he signed with Mercury and did his own Latin Soul stuff. So I kept trying to keep the Azteca band together, but it was getting very difficult. Then I brought my daughter Sheila in the band.

LJC: Azteca was an era that really gets looked over; you hear about Santana so much, but Azteca was an amazing band that brought together jazz with Latin Rock. How did Azteca come together?

PE: I really have to say that it was my brother Coke’s idea, his vision of what he really wanted to do. His vision was to have a band that could basically play anything. He wanted to get the very best musicians that he could, and we wanted to all be really close friends, rather than just hiring people. So we made it a co-op band, it was an even band where everybody was involved. I think that’s why so many ideas came from it, because people were bringing things in. Everybody in the band was bringing in new music all the time as we were rehearsing. They would bring in music and ideas and contribute so much to each song. Everybody took an important part of that. So that’s why those songs came out the way they did. Everybody had great ideas.

And we had the best guys – Lenny White on drums, Paul Jackson on bass, Mel Martin and Bob Ferreira on saxophones, Pat O’Hara and Jules Rowell on trombone, Tom Harrell on trumpet, Flip Nunes, George DiQuatro, and George Maribus – three keyboard players. We kind of changed guitar players a couple of times – we had Steve Bushill, we had Jim Vincent, and we ended up with Bill Courtial. It was Victor Pantoja on percussion and myself. Wendy Haas, Errol Knowles, and Rico Reyes on vocals. And my brother Coke. That was a monster band, a very, very monster band.

Those were the days of Blood, Sweat, & Tears and Chicago, so we were thinking about that. And of course, Earth, Wind, & Fire – those kind of bands were just going into a whole different style of music. We wanted to be part of that. I guess because of the name, we were kind of associated with the Latin Rock thing, but I think we were beyond that. The other bands like Malo, Sapo, of course, Carlos, Tierra, El Chicano – those bands kind of stayed with the Latin Rock, but we wanted to do more. So we were just experimenting with Brazilian music, jazz music, funk . . . we were just trying to do it all. It was a great, great experience. I wish that band would have stayed together for many years. But we had our internal problems and our financial problems; we just couldn’t keep it together.

LJC: Well that was a huge band; by the end, wasn’t it over twenty people?

PE: Yea, it was just so many people. Everybody heard the band, and they’d be hanging out at our rehearsals. They’d say, “Yea, we want to join.” We’d say, “Yea, come on, go on the road with us!” We had four roadies and I don’t know what else – managers, producers, hanger onners, and you know, everything!

LJC: You did have some success; you opened for Stevie Wonder and more. How was the band received?

PE: Oh, it was great. Those tours were so enjoyable. We had Oakland with Stevie, we did a lot of college dates, we opened for The Temptations. That was just unbeleivable. Those shows were great, and then we did a lot of them on our own. Of course, we did some with other Latin groups – we did Wonderland with Malo, Azteca, Tito Puente Orchestra, and that kind of stuff. We just really had a ball. We went to New York and all back East. We were signed with the William Morris Agency, so they had us working pretty good. Then when everything slacked off . . . This was when Clive Davis was with Columbia, that’s the record company that we were with. When Clive left, they kind of put our contract on the shelf, and eventually, they decided not to re-sign us. That’s when things slipped away.

LJC Near the end of that, Sheila was playing with the band. Had she been playing – how did she get involved in Azteca?

PE: At a very young age, we could tell that Sheila was going to be something, because at five years old, she started really take an interest in music. She was studying the violin, and I had no idea that she was going to go to percussion. But she started playing drums and percussion – and the boys as well. They were more into sports, and they didn’t get involved in music until they were teenagers. I just kind of left them alone and just wondered how far they were going to go with this thing. They kept on, and boy, they prevailed and became really great musicians.

Sheila’s doing great. She just came back from Europe where she was in Paris with Prince, they had some concerts out there. She’s also on the summer tour with Dave Koz and Jonathan Butler, and aside from that, playing with me. She’s a busy girl.

LJC: Those two albums that you guys did on Fantasy, Solo Two and Happy Together, those are great albums. As I was researching, I went back and checked out the Billy Cobham albums that the two of you were on – Inner Conflicts and Magic. It really showed just how much sense it makes to have Latin rhythms in jazz fusion. Were you doing much of the jazz fusion that was kind of bubbling in the jazz world at the time?

PE: We were playing at The Reunion in San Francisco when Billy Cobham came in and asked what we were doing. I said, “Well, what you see here is what we’re doing, we’re trying to get this Azteca band off the ground.” He said, “Well, I’m doing a record at Fantasy in Berkeley, and I want you guys to be on it.” So he hired Sheila and I, and we recorded with Cobham.

I definitely was so much interested in it. And that’s the thing – meeting Billy, and of course, meeting George Duke and all those guys that Billy knew, it really puts us in another direction also. The jazz fusion stuff, we started to listen to a lot of that. I think it’s mostly this business that the people that you play with and the people that you meet – in order to keep up, you’ve got to listen to all of it. And that’s how you grow as a musician, by playing with other people, and doing their music. You graph all of that in, and eventually you find your own niche as to where you should be. It was definitely a learning school for Sheila and I to meet the people that we met and the people that we played with. It was an incredible journey for both of us, to be able to put on different hats and play a different kind of music all the time.

Then he said, “Why don’t I produce a record for you guys?” I said, “That would be great, so it will be Azteca?” He said, “No, just you and Sheila.” That’s when we did the two records for Fantasy that Billy Cobham produced. Then we decided to stay with that. During the session was when we met George Duke. He was going on the road, so he hired Sheila. She left town, so I said, “Well, there’s nothing left for me to do except start my own band!” So I ended up with The Pete Escovedo Latin Jazz Orchestra and I’ve been doing that every since.

LJC: Listening to those two albums, Solo Two and Happy Together, they’re really kind of different – you hear an evolution. Solo Two has more of Latin Jazz with a fusion edge where Happy Together integrated pop and vocals, how would you describe those two albums?

PE: Actually Billy produced, and he came in with a lot of great ideas, but he also gave us the freedom to do what we wanted to do also. That was really cool. He wasn’t the type that said, “No, you’ve got to do this, you can’t do this.” He was very open to our suggestions. That’s the thing – I think that when you grow up in the Bay Area, after listening to Tower Of Power, The Grateful Dead, and all the bands from that era . . . The music was so alive back in the sixties, it’s just amazing what came out of the Bay Area. When you grow up with that, you not only listen to one style of music, you’re listening to R ‘n B, soul, rock, Latin Rock, jazz, fusion, and Latin. So I think at that point, we were just so full of ideas. Even after Azteca, we just decided that for our own records, we wanted to cover a lot of bases with the vocals, and actually kind of be somewhat commercial, but at the same time, make a statement as to who we are. That was the thing, to please the company – because you have to sell records in order to keep going. But I’m pretty happy with how those two records came out.

Don’t miss Part One of our interview with Pete Escovedo, where we look back on how it all began. We talk about Escovedo’s early exposure to music in the Bay Area, his first steps into percussion, his work on the Bay Area scene during the fifties, the formation of The Escovedo Brothers, and more. Check it out HERE.

You’ve got to read Part Three of our interview with Pete Escovedo where we bring everything up to date. We look at the formation of Escovedo’s Latin Jazz Orchestra, some of the musicians that played in his band, the Azteca reunion, the Bay Area Latin Jazz sound, and more. You can read it HERE.

Check Out These Related Posts:
Latin Jazz Photo Album: Pete Escovedo
Weekly Latin Jazz Video Fix: Francisco Aguabella
Bring On The Boogaloo: Finding The Funk Today
Weekly Latin Jazz Video Fix: John Santos

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