Ray Martinez and the Forgotten Legacy of Jazz

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Ray Martínez

Sometime in the very near future, several of the jazz world’s best known writers and musicologists will meet in some obscure conclave to pool their extensive knowledge and discuss putting together an encyclopedia of this most vital of art forms. This of course has already been done numerous times in the past, successfully and unsuccessfully. Maybe, just maybe, this time they will see fit not to exclude the contributions of musicians from various Latin American countries, as well as the rich black legacy of the Spanish, French and English speaking Caribbean.

The critically biased view of this group of intellectuals will no doubt adhere to the doctrine that jazz is an “American” art form, and therefore limited to North Americans (and now perhaps to a few Europeans). I certainly hope that the opposite will hold true, and that by this time they will have learned how to utilize much of the new data that is readily available to them via the internet, especially in the fertile areas of research, scholarship and analysis, and not merely reproduce and/or embellish existing bios on those whom they perceive as the most important jazz figures of our time.

We, as artists and music lovers in general, should urge these old school “purists” to author biographical appraisals on the third and fourth generation of jazzmen and jazz women. Let it be known that if they are to be taken seriously they should not merely feel compelled to do so, but rather that they should consider it an obligation to do so, if for no other reason than for the sake of accuracy. Omissions due to lack of “space” should no longer be accepted. Inclusion should be the operative word in such an ambitious project, in order that the contributions of those who have in the recent past remained under the radar are fully documented and thus appreciated. There are literally thousands of compilation CD’s available that spotlight representative performances by the great pioneers and innovators of jazz, and we should treasure these works for what they are. At the same time we should welcome the exploration of new musical soundscapes by up and coming artists as well. Otherwise it would prove to be just another “who’s who of jazz”.

After deciding on a number, let’s say for argument’s sake that the number is to be twenty, the really tough part of this endeavor would be to pick and choose from literally hundreds of deserving musicians who have contributed to its development. Since theirs is for the most part a collective experience, and their contribution is still very much in the making, it would be quite difficult and unfair to merely signal out just a few of its most popular representatives. But it certainly would be a start.

Then, they would have to tackle the age old question of what to do with “latin Jazz”. Is it jazz? Or is it latin? Or, as many have argued, is it really Cuban? Or perhaps Brazilian. Would it be a feature article or chapter unto itself? Or would it be included as an integral part of jazz as a whole. Is it a revolutionary music? Or merely evolutionary, as Dizzy Gillespie once commented when asked about the genesis of bebop: “We were aware of the fact that we had a new concept of the music, if by no other means than the enmity of the older musicians who didn’t want to go through as change… but it wasn’t the idea of trying to revolutionize, but only trying to see yourself, to get within yourself”.

The Cycle of Love and The Impetus to Create

Hypothesis aside, we must assume then that the newcomers are, for the most part, creative individualists in the making, and that musical history, like any other type of history, tends to repeat itself. And, as so often happens in history, we are subject to stalemate. Deadlocked, as it were. It’s time once again to get serious about making changes. The irony of course is that in order to move on, we must ultimately look to the past for inspiration. In more ways than one.

Ray MartínezIt’s also time to connect the musical dots, to trace the evolution of jazz, not just to its roots in New Orleans and Chicago, but to the tree in Africa. To recognize and acknowledge the millions of seeds that it has been spreading throughout the world over the centuries. These are its children, its unsung heroes, the keepers of the flame, the countless dedicated artists who continue to dig deeply into the treasure-trove of musical riches, preserving its heritage while venturing into the future. No, jazz is not dead, nor is it dormant. In fact, it may very well be still in its final stage of evolution. And like those great seminal figures of bop, the newcomers will invariably be “getting into themselves”, experiencing their own music, thought, trials and wisdom.

The Enstatic Body

What may await us in the near future is a new renaissance era, with seasoned musicians such as Ray Martinez at the helm of a movement that is inhabited and easily accessible to joy, bliss and even rapture; where mind, body and spirit exist in equal and perfect balance. Your feet will still tap to the beat, but unlike the raunchy and unrestrained dance music that disassociates you from reality in order to access a heightened feeling of bliss, the enstatic body will allow the participant to travel inside one’s self, without having to indulge in any mind expanding drugs. The music will undoubtedly still weave its spell, except that it will now take you on an inward trance rather than an outward trance. The groove is still there, but it firmly plants us inside the container that God has given us. It is, as the old adage implies, a “natural high”. The recording process will of course have to revert back to “live” music, versus “canned” music, and not everyone will understand the reasoning behind it, nor will they even accept this reversal at first, but the listener certainly will enjoy the feeling that they will derive. It all has to start with the players of course, and with those fearless leaders whose mission is to revive and advance the art of jazz music. People like Ray Martinez.

Setting The Goal • Estableciendo La Meta

Known for his melodic yet percussive style, Mr. Martinez is considered by many of his peers to be one of the most gifted and prominent bassists and arrangers in the contemporary music scene. He served as composer, arranger and bassist for many years with the legendary Cuban drummer and band leader Mongo Santamaría. Before that he was both bassist and musical director of his own dance band, Conjunto Tipico Criollo, for which he produced and arranged three albums. Subsequently, he recorded and performed with the Tropical Buddha Ensemble of Latin Music Legends.

Firmly established and increasingly in demand, Ray was chosen to participate with Paul Simon in several musical recordings and also did two world tours with former “Talking Head” David Byrne. He served as a special guest on Byrne’s production of Brazilian artist Margareth Menezes and has recorded with international singing star Juan Luis Guerra and his 440, the hit vocal group Africando and Los Pleneros de La 21 (considered the ultimate expression of Puerto Rican folklore).

After earning a solid reputation during the last two decades as an outstanding musician, Ray Martinez continues in the pioneering tradition of Machito, Mongo Santamaría, Cal Tjader, Tito Puente, Chico O’Farrill and Dizzy Gillespie, staying close to the roots while simultaneously embracing new ideas and abstractions. And like the pioneering Gillespie, Mr. Martinez is of the opinion that music should arise from inner needs and not from external factors such as fads or commercial manifestations. Musically, he continues to conceptualize and create unique new sounds and cross-currents within his various groups. Forward thinking, yes, but Ray is also one of many musicians who chooses not to underestimate the past. Rather, he seeks to learn from it. The spirit of the past and the reality of the now are deeply connected in the new movement.

The Commitment • El Compromiso

RAY MARTINEZ and LEGACY are committed to motivating and inspiring audiences both new and experienced to connect and/or reunite with the magnificent sounds of the Afro-Caribbean Diaspora and mainstream Jazz. With all due respect to the purists who rule over the academic world of jazz, this is the future of our beloved music.

A creative individualist of the highest order, Ray Martinez possesses the ability to tour from genre to genre, fusing Old and New World experiences effortlessly, penning innovative musical compositions such as “Melancholy Afternoon”, a jazz ballad; “Los Colores de Mi Gente”, a danceable, vocalized latin jazz piece; the sweet samba sound of “Tropical Breeze”; “Happy Song”, with its subtle transition from samba to funk; the seductive “Romance”, a laid back cha cha chá that features the outstanding flute work of Grammy winning musician Dave Valentin. For crossover appeal there is “Tomorrow is Near”, blending pop, rock, latin and jazz. And then there’s the proverbial sleeper, “Funky Mambo”, a tune that cuts right to the chase (ultimately taking us to the dance floor).

Making a Musical Statement • Afirmando el Mensaje Musical

For this, his latest endeavor, Ray Martinez has written nine original compositions, incorporating 6/8 rhythms, cha cha chá, guaguancó, son montuno, samba and funk, as well as the blues, all rich elements which create a wall of polyrhythmic sound. He is featured throughout on bass guitar and is credited with writing the arrangements as well. Ray’s all-encompassing music is melodic and sophisticated, with a soulful blue note which palpitates to the heart beat of Africa, bursting forth with an element of expression that crosses the seven seas, uniting not only the diverse African diaspora, but the spirit and heart of the world at large. Following are some of my insights into the music contained in “Legacy”.

The Album Within • EL Álbum: Contenido

The opening selection is “Storm”, an up-tempo groove that is in many ways a springboard to Ray’s cool jazz side. The group’s interpretation is strong and stirring. They understand the varied material that is encompassed, respecting each of the individual parts while enriching the whole with a fresh and exciting approach. More importantly, they are emphasizing the idea of a collective, an integrated and fully cooperative sound, devoid of individual egos, with a solid foundation and a strong sense of structure. To my ear, they do not overplay, rather they compliment each other within a tightly-knit structure, as opposed to merely echoing the loose, chaotic free-for-all sound that is so common today. Yet, there is always room for stretching out. Pianist Adán Pérez caresses the keys with a straight ahead jazz feel, while guitarist Bobby Baxmeya floats effortlessly above the syncopated rhythms of Vince Cherico and Mauricio Herrera. Flautist Frank Fontaine rounds out the perfect latin jazz sextet, adding some nice melodic flourishes to Ray’s arresting arrangements, leaving enough open spots for the other musicians to embroider and embellish.

“Black Legacy” is exactly what it implies, an ode to the ancestors, featuring a magnificent violin solo by Bobby Baxmeya and an equally inspiring bass solo by Martinez. It starts off with a North African-Mediterranean feel, quickly transforming into a minor blues that blends perfectly with the West African 6/8 rhythm. In addition, the gifted percussionist Alfredo Viriaux adds a touch of authenticity with his vocalizing in the Yoruba language. The group’s treatment of the traditional bembé rhythm adds a fresh perspective to the concept of “roots”.

“Los Colores De Mi Gente” is a spicy tune that conjures up images of a time when latin jazz was music to be danced to as well as listened. The addition of a Spanish vocal chorus gives it an even more uplifting feel. Ray is joined here by the late Néstor Sánchez and by maestro Adalberto Santiago. The harmonies are elegant and earthy, ultimately leaving one humming it’s catchy melody all the way home.

“Romance” is another delightful melody, done in a controlled cha cha chá tempo, with a subtle swing. The percussion solos are not overwhelming, with flute lines that are played with a great deal of taste. Percussionists Willie Martinez and Chembo Corniel are heard on this one, as well as the late Dave Valentin on flute, an asset to any recording date. Ray, Perez and Baxmeya all stand out with their tasty solos. This one is appropriately titled, as the overall effect is simply charming.

“Happy Song” is another catchy Ray Martinez creation, with a happy-go-lucky r&b feel, full of delicious changes and taylor made for that Afro-Caribbean mood that we all find ourselves in from time to time. If it had lyrics, it would no doubt be a song of jubilation. To season it up a bit, Martinez adds that down home “criollísmo”, just enough to give this joyous tune that certain Dominican tinge which one would expect from a Juan Luis Guerra.

On “A Melancholy Afternoon” Martinez and company stroke yet another pretty melody, this time evoking a more soulful and mellow era. Meticulously, he has scored the very traditional and forgotten jazz ballad against a backdrop that is very much in the here and now. This is his unmistakable bow to the great jazz balladeers of a bygone era. Instinctively, he has created the kind of setting that would bring to the fore the full lyrical artistry of a saxophonist such as Mario Rivera. Martinez’ melodic touch is quite evident here, more than in any other selection. By the way, this was to be Mr. Rivera’s last recording session.

Then, there is the bouncy “Tropical Breeze”, a tune that beckons the most avid listener back to a place in time, approximately forty or so years ago, when Brazilian sensitivity and devotion to the melody blended perfectly with the up-swing of its most African of art forms, the lively and carnivalesque samba. Although the overall sound of Ray Martinez and Legacy here is reminiscent of the bossa nova era – with special emphasis on authenticity – they also bring to the overall mix that rugged New York aggressiveness, insuring the popularity of the genre for at least another forty years.

For those of us who undulated and swayed on the dance floors and concert halls of the late 1960’s to the fusion of pop, rock, latin and jazz, there is the foot stomping, head bobbing “Tomorrow Is Near”. The rhythmic meter starts off rock-steady, reminiscent of the early transition from soul to disco. The plaintive melody and socially relevant lyrics tax the emotional capacity of vocalist Milene Bey, who handles the tune with simplicity and feeling. It’s an earthy song that speaks to the soul of a people and their aspirations, loud and clear. She takes her time building the spell, adding to the overall impact of the piece, while bringing home its message of hope and love. Then, a veritable explosion, as the band cuts loose to a spirited montuno that builds to a fever pitch. Siraj Al’Hasan‘s flying solo crackles with forward moving rhythms that hold a magnetic charm, coupled with a strong, passionate protest. Unpredictably, it returns to its original tempo, with Milene tastefully putting the finishing touches on the song.

The proverbial sleeper is “Funky Mambo”. Martinez and the band lose no time in weaving their hypnotic mambo spell on the dancer in all of us. Purposely, Ray has kept his accompanying unit small, while recollecting the big band era. They come across as a thoroughly modern group that is accurately reproducing old school dance music, in a most delightful and compelling manner. Their collective impetus within the descarga-jam format seems to echo the emotion and the energy of the bygone dance hall era, providing both the soloist and the dancer with an authentic cushion of rhythm and groove. The dance element notwithstanding, “Funky Mambo” is a direct link between Ray’s creative writing ability and the very individualistic idea of “cutting loose”. Every bandleader is entitled to at least one dance tune and for Mr. Ray Martinez this has to be the one. For an artist who so perfectly blends jazz with its related forms, this is a truly great way to end an album. Indeed, both Ray Martinez and Legacy go out “swinging”.

Epilogue • Epílogo

“Ray Martinez’ Legacy” is a metaphysical journey that passes through the abstract realm of time. It transcends the soul and challenges the intellect, linking the past, the present and the future. Tantalizing music for the ages, to be enjoyed with an open mind, a full heart and a good pair of dancing shoes.

– CHICO ALVAREZ, New York City, 2020

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