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El Gran Fellové: Part 2- Enter Chocolate & Celio González

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Joey Altruda and Chocolate on set for the album, “Fellové & Joey,” October 1999. Photo by Katrina Webb
Joey Altruda and Chocolate on set for the album, “Fellové & Joey,” October 1999. Photo by Katrina Webb
Joey Altruda and Chocolate on set for the album, “Fellové & Joey,” October 1999. Photo by Katrina Webb

Early Sunday morning…

I awoke to the pleasant surprise of a Google Alert in my email. I clicked to find Variety Magazine had published an article about the upcoming [September 2020] world premier of Matt Dillon’s documentary “El Gran Fellove” at the San Sebastian Film Festival in Spain. It included two clips from the film, one which conjured up a lot of deep memories. 

Featured in the clip alongside Fellové are two other historical icons of Cuban music – singer (and musical hero to many) Celio González Sr. and a close friend of mine, trumpeter Alfredo “Chocolate” Armenteros.

Clip from Matt Dillon’s documentary, “El Gran Fellové” of the recording session for the album, “Fellové & Joey”

Chocolate

I first met Chocolate (pronounced ch?-k?-lah-tay) in 1996 when we participated together in an all star Latin Jam Session recording in L.A. Three years later, I was embarking upon the recording for Fellové’s album- his first one since 1979. I had spent a month preparing musical arrangements and copying out all the individual music parts for each musician, not knowing that Chocolate would be participating in this.   

For those who know the world of Afro Cuban music, Chocolate Armenteros is considered to be Cuba’s Louis Armstrong. His musical legacy and larger than life personality precedes him, going back to his first recordings in 1947 with René Alvarez’ band, then Arsenio Rodriguez (one of the most important figures in all of Cuban music history). He played trumpet in Bebo Valdés’ Tropicana Orchestra from 1950-57, was Beny Moré’s cousin and put together the brass section for that legendary orchestra, then hopped over to New York by request of Mario Bauzá, to play trumpet in The Machito Orchestra for decades. Each one of those mentioned played a key role in defining and designing Cuban music of the twentieth century, leaving behind rich and prolific amounts of recordings. 

And these are the broad strokes. Choco also enjoyed a solo career of his own for several decades. 

One other group that he was part of, that I feel important to mention, is Grupo Folklórico Y Experimental Nuevayorquino, created by Andy González with Jerry González and produced by René López. (Without going into a full blown geek-out here about the hows & whys, just look into their 2 albums  – Concepts In Unity (1974)  and Lo Dice Todo (1975).  (You can thank me later).

Joey Altruda and Chocolate, 2004. Photo by Drew Carolan
Joey Altruda and Chocolate, 2004. Photo by Drew Carolan

Ray Bradbury might have easily labeled Chocolate a “time machine” much like Colonel Freeleigh in Dandelion Wine. 

Choco’s stories were endless, putting you right in the middle of that golden age of Pre-Castro Havana; the nightclubs, the music, the people, the endless parties. As someone who had been listening to his music since the late 80’s it was almost surreal for me to then have a close, familial friendship with him a decade later. 

Unbeknownst to me, Matt Dillon had flown Chocolate down to Mexico City to perform a few songs on Fellové’s album, as a special surprise for my birthday (the recording sessions were scheduled during the week of my 37th). You could imagine my surprise when I showed up to the rehearsal and found Choco hanging out in the kitchen of the studio. At first I thought that he just coincidentally happened to be in town for a gig of his own and wanted to come say hi to all of us. 

“Chocolate?!?! What are You doing here?!” 

“I come to play with you Altruba”. (He always  called me “Altruba”, reversing the ‘d’ in my last name to a ‘b’)

It was one of the most amazing and thoughtful birthday surprises I could’ve ever wished for. What I hadn’t thought of in the moment was that I was now faced with adding one more instrument into the musical arrangements that I had made for the specific size ensemble. It required a bit of thinking on my feet, but we worked things out nicely and even came up with one more song for the album.

Choco’s participation was something special for Fellové, since they had been friends since 1949 in Havana and had never recorded together before. It was a joy for me to see them reuniting as friends of 50 years for a project that I had helped instigate.

Fellové and Celio Gonzalez on recording day for the album, “Fellové & Joey,” October 1999. Photo by Jacobo Braun
Fellové and Celio González on recording day for the album, “Fellové & Joey,” October 1999. Photo by Jacobo Braun

Celio Gonzalez, Sr.

Fellové hired Celio González Junior to play timbales for our recording. Celio Jr. had been a member of Fellové’s working band in Mexico City for some time and had known Fellové since he was a small child. Fellové was like an uncle to him. Celio González Sr. and Fellové shared a close friendship since Cuba which continued in Mexico after Celio Sr moved there in 1959 (after the Cuban Revolution).

Already established as lead singer with the band Sonora Matancera since 1956, Celio Sr. was best loved for his hit bolero records and considered to be the Frank Sinatra of South America. 

Because of his decades-long friendship with Fellové, it was no surprise to have him hang out with us during the sessions. The big surprise came during the recording of “Descarga Chocolate”. In the middle of the tune, an inspired Celio (Sr.) left the engineering booth and joined Fellové in the vocal booth to sing backup vocals. This was a special moment for all who were there, to see such true love and humbleness coming from someone who was  legendary in their own right.

Still image from Matt Dillon’s documentary, “El Gran Fellové,”  during the recording of “Fellové & Joey,” October 1999
Still image from Matt Dillon’s documentary, “El Gran Fellové,” during the recording of “Fellové & Joey,” October 1999

What you’re seeing in the clip is that exact moment, and the great love and mutual respect these two friends had for each other.

Celio enjoyed himself so much that he sang again on several of the other songs on the album- this time with his wife, and Celio Jr., making it a family affair.

Now, all three of these musical giants are gone, ascended back into the ether – Celio in 2004, Fellové in 2013, and Chocolate in 2016, but I remain here to share my memories of the time we spent together.

American musician, composer, producer and bandleader from Los Angeles. California. As a performer, producer, bandleader and DJ, it’s not at all surprising to find Joey's name attached to a multitude of genres – Jazz, Rockabilly, Jamaican, Afro Cuban, Brazilian, Funk, Soundtracks and more.

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Tribute to the Masters

Tribute to the Masters: Mario Rivera

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Mario Rivera "El Comandante"

Mario Rivera was a gifted musician, composer and arranger that played more than 15 instruments, which included piano, vibraphone, drums, trumpet, timbales, congas, flute, and piccolo. But Rivera was known for how he kissed and caressed the tenor, soprano, alto and baritone saxophones. He could play all of the family of saxophones on a virtuosic level as a soloist and section player and was one of the very few saxophonists who also mastered of the flute in the Cuban charanga style. Unlike most musicians, Rivera played all these instruments at an exceedingly high level of musicianship. Rivera dominated the “straight- ahead” jazz and Latin Jazz, Salsa and many other genres.

Mario Rivera "El Comandante"
Mario Rivera “El Comandante”

Mario was born July 22, 1939 in Santo Domingo, The Dominican Republic. After he arrived in NYC in 1961, he worked with Puerto Rican vocalist Joe Valle. His most significant musical associations through the years include Tito Rodríguez (1963-65), The Machito Orchestra, Sonny Stitt, Charlie Palmieri, Eddie Palmieri, Típica 73, The George Coleman Octet, Dizzy Gillespie’s United Nation Orchestra, Slide Hampton’s Jazz Masters, the Afro Blue Band, Giovanni Hidalgo, Chico O’Farrill’s Orchestra and especially Tito Puente’s Orchestra and Latin Jazz Ensemble with whom he worked for on and off for decades.

Mario Rivera "El Comandante" the merengue-jazz - Guest: George Coleman - Groovin High
Mario Rivera “El Comandante” the merengue-jazz – Guest: George Coleman – Groovin High

Even though Rivera was one of the hardest working sidemen in the jazz and Latin music business he also led two groups of his own Salsa Refugees and The Mario Rivera Sextet. Although having appeared on virtually hundreds of recording, Mario recorded only one disc as a leader named after his sobriquet, “El Comandante.” It has fine examples of combinations of the native rhythm of his homeland, merengue from the Dominican Republic and jazz improvisation. Indeed it can be considered not only a tribute to his homeland and his mastery of jazz harmony but an homage also to one of his inspirations and yet another unsung hero, fellow Dominican saxophone master, Tavito Vásquez.

Mario Rivera "El Comandante" and "The Salsa Refugees" - Back row L-R: Mario Rivera, Andy González, Jorge Dalto, Jerry González, Papo Vázquez, Nicky Marrero - Bottom Row L-R: Elías Peguero, César Ozuna
Mario Rivera “El Comandante” and “The Salsa Refugees” – Back row L-R: Mario Rivera, Andy González, Jorge Dalto, Jerry González, Papo Vázquez, Nicky Marrero – Bottom Row L-R: Elías Peguero, César Ozuna

Rivera’s passing has been felt very hard in the Latin music and jazz community and he is sorely missed. But we have his stories, music recordings, photos, and videos to remember this grand musician because what he left us makes him truly immortal.


We leave the readers with these final thoughts from Mario himself: “In my case, the day becomes the night and the night becomes the day. There are no vehicles on the street; there are no sirens at night. There is nothing that could block the inspiration. My home is like a musical laboratory because I have to accomplish so many things, I have to learn to play so many instruments. I spend all of my free time at home, practicing like a maniac, refining my chops. This is why I play 24 instruments. When it comes to music, one must be actively militant. Music demands your entire attention and dedication. If a musician is not willing to make that commitment, he will end up floating on a sea of turds, along with the other idle and mediocre characters.”

Mario Rivera passed in August, 2007, may he play on.

Content source: James Nadal

Photos from the Facebook Tribute Page: Mario Rivera “el Comandante”

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