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Raphael Cruz Reaffirms His Commitment To Latin Jazz!



Master Percussionist Raphael Cruz
Master Percussionist Raphael Cruz [May 27, 1947 - September 27, 2020]

Grammy nominated Raphael Cruz is probably the best kept secret in Latin jazz. His latest recording, Time Travel is a must for any lover of fascinatin’ rhythms. But exactly where does his inspiration come from? is proud to present this insight into the man who was nominated to the 2005 Grammy Awards for Best Latin Jazz Recording for his album Bebop Timba, the highly creative CD that was (unfortunately) never heard or talked about again.

The question still remains: Why? Before I delve into this curious enigma, allow me to fast forward a minute to the present.

Lost in Space

Long before the release of Time Travel, his third recording as a leader, the buzz was already out about the project and about Raphael Cruz’ new group as well. “I’m really excited about it” he says.“There is just no way to label it. We are a tight ensemble that is really into the dynamics of the music, we use shadings and we are trying to get away from the strict syncopated emphasis on clave based rhythms. Mind you, the clave is always there, but in more subtle ways than usual. It creates a mood for the rest of the band to follow, but it doesn’t dominate that mood. As a soloist myself, I feel that the musician should be allowed more space to be heard, to stretch out without too much interference from or adherence to the rhythm section”.

Raphael has long been recognized by his fellow musicians as a gifted percussionist and bandleader, possessor of exquisite sensitivity and impeccable timing, a veteran who has shared both the stage and the recording studio with such legendary performers as Mongo Santamaría, Ray Barretto, George Benson, Paquito D’Rivera, Herbie Mann, McCoy Tyner, Bette Midler, Flora Purim and Chaka Khan. He performs on Cuban, Brazilian, African and exotic percussion instruments, as well as the traditional drum kit, and is fluent in all musical styles. And yet, a full and comprehensive awareness of his talents has been limited mostly to an inner circle of jazz and latin musicians, radio personalities, and a few perceptive listeners and critics.

Although Raphael is usually classed as a fusion artist, his real roots appear to lie in the Tata Güines tradition. This is not to say that he sounds like Tata, but rather that he shares many things in common with him. Like the legendary Cuban master, Raphael’s contribution to a particular tune pays careful attention to the inner dynamics of the composition, and like Tata, he approaches the conga drums in much the same manner as a jazz trap drummer does his drum set. Elaborating on his role as a drummer, he adds: “The most important thing for me is to feel comfortable with the tune and not have to fight with my instrument. The music invariably suffers when you fight your instrument. I tend to forget about my instrument as a showcase, often treating it like it’s not there, concentrating more on the music as a whole, rather than with my own part. I started to feel this way about music in general when I first heard Miles Davis’ controversial album ‘Bitches Brew’. It was like a revelation to me, and for the life of me I could not understand why so many critics had come down on him the way they did. I actually saw people walking out on one of his performances at the Village Gate. This guy was so far ahead of his time, I had never heard anything so beautiful, he seemed to be lost in space. Or rather, he was the master of his own space”.

Master Percussionist Raphael Cruz [May 27, 1947 – September 27, 2020]
Singing a Song and Telling a Story

Raphael Cruz is first and foremost an accompanist who blends in with the overall sound of the group, stepping out only when it is called for. Although his touch is light and elegant, he can still swing with the best of ’em. His solos are like songs, full of melodic-like phrases, and rarely does he simply go off on a tune, as often happens with lesser astute musicians who fill up space just for the sake of it. On the bandstand, he seems to merge with his instrument. He is in total command and the control which he asserts over the difficult drum patterns is astonishing. He is never flashy, but rather he tells a story, singing a song, if you will.

But Raphael can also cook, like a gourmet chef, with a quiet intensity, at a low flame – one that burns bright. Musically, he feeds off the soloists, often complementing them, never trying to upstage them in any way. His rhythmic sense is acute, and he knows how to keep the time lively by playing around the soloist. He can be like a metronome when he wants to, but he prefers to “play” with the rhythms, at times riffing “around” and “behind” the beat. His solos are often nostalgic voyages culled from the Afro-Cuban and Bop traditions, thoughtfully constructed, with much attention to what is going on around him. To his credit he has surrounded himself with a crew of equally adept musicians, such as Ariel de La Portilla, Enrique Henaine, Manuel Valera and Diego López, who form the nucleus of his working unit. Collectively they conjure up feelings that are both refined and deep, hot and sensual. But then, what else should you expect from jazz musicians?

Breaking with the Past, while Never Forgetting it

Musically, Mr. Cruz is very much the non-conformist. As a first-class musician, he knows that conformism is little more than imitation, and that imitation is at best just part of the learning process. Only when the learning process is complete does the musician really begin to find a modem of expression that is truly his or hers. And that’s when the struggle really begins. A true artist cannot merely substitute himself for those who came before them. He or she must add to that tradition or traditions. Raphael has eloquently proven himself successful in adding his own link to that fascinatin’ chain of Caribbean rhythms. It is quite appropriate then, that he should hail from an island that has been turning out happy rhythms for centuries.

Raphael Cruz was born on May 27th, 1947, in the Dominican Republic, in the town of Villa Vasquez, located in the northeastern province of Monte Cristi, an area rich with rhythms and folklore. His parents were Spaniards who migrated from Cuba, another link in that cultural chain. They settled in Santiago de Los Caballeros. At a very early age, Raphael moved to the capital city of Santo Domingo, where he initiated his grade school education in the “Escuela Chile”. Drawn to music, he enrolled in that school’s marching band, initially playing the snare drum, then the bass drum and finally mastering the xylophone. From there he graduated to the “Colegio Don Bosco”, where he continued his musical studies. He played in that school’s marching band, studying both theory and solfeggio, acquiring the necessary reading skills and technique that were needed in order to become a classical musician. By the time he graduated Don Bosco he had also mastered orchestral percussion. These are percussion instruments used in orchestras which play mainly classical European music and related styles. Generally within such a curriculum, students are required to study all aspects of orchestral playing. Marimba, snare drum and timpani are the three most basic areas of study. Orchestral percussion usually does not include drum set studies. Although Raphael was quite proficient on all of these instruments, his interest in hand drums, and in particular with popular Latin American rhythms was becoming more and more evident. Soon, that inclination began taking him down a different road. “I didn’t exactly know where I was going at this time, but I knew that I wasn’t going to be a classical musician”.

Santo Domingo: Influences, Legends and Heroes
Raphael Cruz

The nineteen sixties ushered in the so-called “British Invasion” (Beatles, Rolling Stones, Dave Clark Five, Herman’s Hermits, etc), and Raphael submersed himself deep into the waters of popular American music, eventually forming his first group, which he called “Los X 6”. It turned out to be an invaluable learning experience for him, and he vividly recalled that the band was quite frightening. “We were composed mainly of aficionados, so we formulated a style that was greatly influenced by iconic American and British rock and pop artists like Jimi Hendrix, Cream and The Beach Boys. Even Chubby Checker and Bill Haley’s Comets were in the mix. We played at many social events, and we were even featured regularly on Dominican television, via ‘Teenager’s Matinee’, a show that aired every Sunday. Once the band finally got tight, we’d work on more tunes, until we had just about every rock & roll tune known to mankind down pat. We became the ‘house band’ for this very popular show, which ran consecutively for a number of years. But deep down inside, I knew there was more to it than just playing someone else’s material”.

By 1964 it was evident that in Santo Domingo a certain love affair between young people and rock & roll had developed. One has only to see archival footage of Johnny Ventura during this period to understand this phenomenon. He looked like a black Elvis Presley. The term “hipster” immediately comes to my mind. Although the hipster image originated after the “golden age of jazz”, during the pre-bop 1940’s, there seemed to be no real relation to jazz during the sixties. It seems as if it had merely crossed over into the following decade. The tag itself was coined when the word “hip” arose to describe aficionados of the growing jazz scene. In the U.S. a “hipster” was often defined as a “character who likes hot jazz”. Initially, hipsters were usually middle-class white youths seeking to emulate the lifestyle of the largely-black jazz musicians they followed. The word “cool” would take preference in decades to come. However, both in the rebellious Caribbean and in that urban monster known as Mexico City, it was a case of life imitating art. Raphael was quite aware of these images, as most young people were at the time, and it reflected not only in his music but in his appearance as well. The type of assimilation that he described to me was typical of most young musicians throughout the Caribbean basin. I myself experienced this while still a youth in Cuba. Rock was the thing.

And yet, it was Raphael’s exposure to the “typical” sound of Dominican music that shaped and later defined his musical expression, along with his awareness of the ever-popular Cuban dance forms, namely mambo, guajira, bembé and cha cha chá. Without these genres, there probably would have never have been anything resembling Latin jazz. They formed the basic foundation for most instrumental latin music of the time.

A fellow percussionist who was then making the same rounds as Raphael was drummer and timbalero Carmelo García. García was only one of many musicians who would leave their mark on the emerging music scene in Santo Domingo, influencing just about everyone who came in contact with him. Raphael recalls their special relationship. “Carmelo was one of the most solicited drummers of that era, having played principally with the bands of Rafael Solano and José Reyes. We soon became friends and Carmelo mentored me, introducing me to the rudiments of the music and teaching me about the rich folklore of the Caribbean”.

García was a kind of latin hipster, although a traditionalist in many ways, and he passed on much of his knowledge to Raphael, including such things as Ortiz’ concept of transculturation. Because Dominican music has always been closely intertwined with that of its neighbor, Haiti, it is believed that the merengue (as a musical genre) originated there. For well over fifty years it has remained the official native dance of the Dominican Republic, having evolved from the French contredanse, which was an internationally popular form of music and dance during the late 18th century. Both secular and sacred religious music can be found all along the island, with drums and human voices being their principle interpreters. Salve is a call-and-response type of singing that uses güira, panderos, atabales and other African instruments. It is highly ceremonial and often used in pilgrimages or at parties dedicated to saints. Palo is also played at religious ceremonies and has its roots in the Congo region of central-west Africa. Palo shares much the same pantheon of deities/saints as the religious traditions of Cuba, Haiti, Brazil and parts of South America. The instruments played in a palo are the same as salves, only without the panderos. Salve is related to palo in that it is played in many of the same contexts, but with different instruments and utilizing diverse rhythm patterns. During his formative years, much of this music was alien to Raphael, but as he grew more influenced by popular music, he began to understand and appreciate the significance of the folkloric traditions.

It was also in Santo Domingo that Raphael was first exposed to many of the great Cuban artists, not only those who were still living in Cuba but also those who were now residing in the U.S. At home, his parents never ceased to listen to the great Cuban soneros and guaracheros, such as Arsenio Rodríguez, Trío Matamoros, Vicentico Valdés, Rolando La Serie and Beny Moré. And like most Dominican households, a recording by Dúo Los Compadres was a standard fixture. “My parents were crazy about Cuban music, and I was fortunate to have heard such visiting artists as Mongo Santamaría, Los Muñequitos, La Lupe, Olga Guillot and Miguelito Valdés, among others. I was also able to hear Puerto Rican bands who visited regularly, such as Cortijo y su Combo, and later El Gran Combo, which came out of the Cortijo aggregation. It was Carmelo who got me into all that stuff”. Like all who really knew the man, Raphael considers García a genius. He still treasures the recordings Carmelo made with Mongo.

Through the miracle of radio, young Raphael was transplanted to near and far away lands, made fully aware that there were other cultures out there besides his own. Not only did he listen to Cuban radio, which was very influential at that time, but also to the local Dominican public radio stations which featured all forms of Caribbean music, as well as the music of Brasil, the U.S. and Latin America. Remembering those early years, he elaborates. “Like most of us who grew up in that era, I was literally ‘blown away’ and ‘turned on’ to the inspirational melodies of Antonio Jobim, Vinicius de Moraes and Joäo Gilberto. Equally moving for me was the exciting samba schools and the carnival ensembles, as well as the jazz tinged bossa nova of Stan Getz and other North American musicians. By way of the bossa nova, I started getting into traditional jazz, roughly at around the same time, and I even landed a gig with jazz pianist Jorge Taveras’ trio”.

With all these influences spinning around in his young head, it was inevitable that Raphael Cruz would venture into an experimental wall of sound, incorporating everything he heard into his own pop/rock ensemble. Logically, the next stop on his musical voyage would have to be the capital of jazz, Harlem. But as fate would have it, there was a slight detour he would have to make first.

Isla del Encanto: La Nueva Ola
Raphael Cruz

As he began developing a taste for sophisticated harmonies and intricate rhythms, Raphael decided to move to Puerto Rico, where he would live for ten years and where his musical consciousness would be further influenced by the African based rhythms of that sister island. While still living in the Dominican Republic, Raphael had hooked up with a couple of Puerto Rican musicians who needed a drummer for a local engagement in Santo Domingo. It was the start of something really big for him. “I formed part of a trio that featured musicians Orly Vazquez and Francisco Tirado. They were looking for someone who could play what was then referred to as ‘acid rock’. I returned with them to Puerto Rico, and shortly afterwards we landed a gig in nearby St. Thomas. The name of the place was “The Pirates Spot” and I remember that there were at least 16 rock groups from Puerto Rico playing there. Through our connection in St. Thomas we got an offer to travel to Mexico City, where we played in the famous ‘Red Zone’, a bohemian corner of aristocratic roots, something similar to New York’s Greenwich Village. The trio was called ‘Kaleidescope’. For the Mexico City gig we replaced Orly with Dominican guitarist Héctor Gutierrez, and then we went on to play in Veracruz and in other cities as well. We even recorded an album for the Orfeon label. This is crazy, but I just found out that the album we made in Mexico over forty years ago is being re-issued in Germany.”

After settling in Puerto Rico, Raphael really got into the tumbadoras, or conga drums as they are called in the U.S. His goal at the time was to become the consumate all-around percussionist, thereby assuring himself of a steady flow of work. He recalls: “During that period I was performing with Lucecita Benítez, Julio Angel, Danny Rivera and Alberto Carrión. These artists, for the most part were influenced by American rock music, although they each embraced (to a certain degree) the traditional Puerto Rican jíbaro and (to a lesser extent) the black music of the caseríos, adding to their oveall mix a more ‘tropicalized’ version of the nueva trova, a movement in Cuban music that emerged after the Cuban Revolution (around 1967-68), reflecting the consequent political and social changes there. It is related to the ‘nueva canción’ of Latin America, especially Puerto Rico and Venezuela. Some of the nueva trova musicians were also influenced by the rock and music of that time, so the connection with those groups I mentioned was only logical”.

Also worthy of mention would be the jazz tinged “feeling” movement which came out of Cuba around the same time. Ironically, while all this music was merging beautifully in Puerto Rico, Latin New Yorkers were still flocking to dance halls, enamored with popular Cuban dance music, which they referred to as ‘latin music’. Raphael recalls: “Because of the Machito-Bauzá-Gillespie-Pozo collaborations, the jazz connection to latin music in New York was much stronger and the main icons and heroes were instrumentalists. In Puerto Rico it was the opposite. Those artists whom I played with there were all singers, so it was only natural that they embraced those genres. These styles were very big, but they were not what you would call jazz”.

Yet, there was another invasion of sorts taking place right around that time on the island. Although it had arrived rather late, the ‘bebop’ jazz sound that had emerged in New York during the nineteen fifties was making a big impact there, while in the mainland a whole new style of jazz was emerging. As the new decade approached, post-bop cool jazz and its offspring acid jazz were creating quite a stir. Before long names like John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonius Monk had all became household words among the up and coming musicians. Raphael mingled freely with the in-crowd which dug these contemporary sounds, and it began to rub off on him. He began collecting vinyl albums which he purchased at a local record store that catered to the island’s jazz set. It was all coming to him second hand, but at least he was getting his first taste of jazz, albeit in a land where very few jazzmen had been popular. By the time the U.S. embargo put a stop to the flow of dance music coming from Cuba, Puerto Ricans in general were keenly aware of the Afro-Cuban jazz fusion that was being played stateside by Cal Tjader, Mongo Santamaría, Willie Bobo, Tito Puente and George Shearing, on both sides of the continent. But that style of Latin jazz was slowly fading and a whole new sound was already in the making. Most of these artists, save Shearing, would make the necessary transition in order to survive, both creatively and economically. “Funk” was in the air and it was penetrating the old vanguard.

Record labels such as Blue Note, CTI, Arista and CBS were distributing some great jazz on the island at that time. A new crop of Brazilian artists were making their mark in Puerto Rico too. Airto Moreira, Flora Purim, Moacir Santos, etc. And from the Big Apple came Miles Davis, Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock, so that wave after wave of new music entered the island. Musicians like Raphael were being drawn toward the epicenter of that sound, New York. Rafael Cortijo’s La Máquina Del Tiempo (a financial flop for the Coco label), along with the advent of Cuba’s Irakere, were seen as major developments in the new style of Caribbean jazz.

It was in Puerto Rico that Raphael would form his first band, Raíces, in 1976, with fellow islanders Monchi Sifre, Roberto “Pura” Cazar, Carlos Meléndez and Amaury López, all of whom were swimming the same currents as Raphael. One thing lead to another, as they say, and it was inevitable that a major label should take interest in them. Before long, Raíces was off to Miami to record at Criteria Studios, for Nemperor Records (formed in 1966 by Brian Epstein as Nemperor Artists, Inc., it was a subsidiary of Atlantic Records). Raíces’ executive producer was Nat Weiss, the lawyer for the Beatles. The studio A&R man was Bruce Botnick, who was responsible for putting Jim Morrison and the Doors on the map. Wave after wave of jazz-rock-latin fusion albums hit the record stores. Following Irakere’s debut in 1978 at the Newport Jazz Festival, Afro-Cuban rhythms were now front and center, and jazz was drawn closer and closer to clave. Unfortunately for Cortijo, the label never followed up with a second album, and by all accounts Cortijo just lost interest. Meanwhile, Irakere became a favorite of the fusionistic set. Raíces would not be so lucky.

New York City: Brights will Get You, and Mess You Around
Raphael Cruz

After coming to New York in the late seventies to perform with Raíces, Raphael decided to stay in our area for a while, at which time he worked the metropolitan club-circuit, for about three years. Unfortunately, Raíces did not last very long. They did manage however (and within a relatively short period) to get booked in all the top clubs in New York, Long Island, New Jersey and Connecticut. In 1977 they opened at the Dr. Pepper Jazz Festival in Central Park for the great Miles Davis, and garnered some rave reviews from the New York press. But fusionistic jazz did not take the country by storm, as many would have wanted, not in the way that latin rock had done. Raphael went on to be a studio musician, because commercially speaking, that was where the “real” money was. He worked for all the major labels, such as Warner Bros., Arista, CBS and toured with the likes of Stanley Turrentine, Herbie Mann, Dr. John, Carly Simon, Bette Midler and of course The Crusaders, the one group that kept him busy all year round. He didn’t want to tour exclusively, because studio work was quite lucrative at the time. As many musicians will tell you, when a player leaves town there will always be someone waiting to take their place. In the comfort of the studio, he had made great music alongside the likes of Steve Gadd, Jack de Johnette, Ray Barretto and Ralph MacDonald. He also worked some of the Broadway shows, before returning once again to Puerto Rico, where he formed a quintet along with Ender Dueño, Eddie “Guagua” Rivera, Carlos Meléndez and Amunni Nasser. Under Raphael’s leadership, the group broke all previous attendance records at the Tetuan 20 Club in Old San Juan with their review “Tropicalia”.

Raphael Cruz Quintet
Raphael Cruz Quintet
New Orleans: Musicians Wanted, Fusionists Need Not Apply

A year into his stay on the island Raphael received a call from percussionist Mark Sanders in New Orleans, asking him if he wanted to work with Sanders’ band “Caliente”. He immediately accepted and that decision led to his leaving the island permanently. “I found myself in the birthplace of Jazz, New Orleans, where I lived for about four years, performing in the company of such notables as Dr. John and the renowned pianist Ellis Marsalis Jr. I was maturing in an environment that exposed me to the best musical traditions and practices of that historical city. My first gig in the Crescent City was with the Neville Brothers, at the 1984 World’s Fair. All this had put me in a very privileged position, and inevitably those influences began to flow freely from my mind and body, manifesting themselves in the music that is now such an integral part of my life. Yet, there was something still missing from my life, and I truly didn’t know what it was”.

Worthy of mention is the fact that vocalist Harry Connick, Jr. was Raphael’s pianist during that period, whenever he lead a Latin jazz group in New Orleans. The group played locally in all the clubs in the city, and would prove to be the prototype for the band which he now fronts. “This was the group that more or less established me in New Orleans”, he says. “I was feeling comfortable down there, and feeling comfortable with music is very important to me. Music for me is a labor of love, and I really felt the love down there. But at this time I was still searching for a particular sound that I kept hearing in my mind and it wasn’t happening there. Three years later, I went back to New York City and began to seek out the musicians who would eventually make that sound a reality”.

During the 1980’s, an era that for latin-flavored jazz was actually quite grim, Raphael nearly dropped out of the scene, but thanks to an incredible resurgence in this type of music, he began appearing regularly in clubs, theaters and concert halls, headlining in such venues as Town Hall, CBGB Gallery, Blue Note, Birdland, Zinc Bar, NJPAC (New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, NJ) and many other venues that catered to jazz in related forms. He managed to travel abroad, often fronting a quintet made up of a who’s who in jazz. Latin jazz records did not sell well during this period (did they ever?) so more and more labels began turning their backs on the artists who performed this style. Raphael hung in there as best he could, and surfaced again at the tail end of the nineties. Never one to give up, he returned to the studio in 1998 with a group of excellent musicians, recording his first date as a leader. The result was the very creative “A Mano”, which was released a year later. It was a labor of love for all involved, and the entire CD was recorded in one 14 hour session, with minimal overdubs. Memorable versions of “Stella By Starlight”, “Night And Day”, “Body And Soul”, “Footprints” were recorded, and even Bob Dylan‘s “Mr. Tambourine Man” got the Raphael Cruz treatment. He was on his way, so to speak. It would still prove to be quite a bumpy road.

Throughout the next decade, an extraordinary amount of jazz hit the New York area: various festivals flourished, not to mention the usual riches within the club scene. It was a time reserved not only for youth, but also for the mature crowd. But Raphael was not content at just playing straight ahead jazz for traditionalists. New aesthetic combinations, new attitudes toward repertoire, new paradigms and new venues all made for a more creative surge. Diversity was now the thing, and unlike the jazz festivals of the past, with their brand-polishing and sentimental favorites, these events really showed the public where the music and the culture of jazz in New York were going. Yet, Latin jazz remained marginalized. Raphael Cruz was definitely on his way, in a manner of speaking. The road to success, as they say, would turn out to be quite a bumpy one.

The Quest for Recognition: A New (But Old Dilema)

It was at this precise point in time, when so many young percussionists sounded alike and all too often they seemed to emphasize their chops rather than their soul and authenticity, that a re-awakening began to take place, an appreciation of such subtle percussion stylists as Raphael Cruz. Slowly, some of the lightning-fast Giovanni Hidalgo clones began to learn the value of understatement, the proper usage of space, the discipline of clave and the relaxation of true swing. It was truly satisfying to have had such an institution as Raphael Cruz and his magnificent group, and of course to have heard and played his various CD’s on my radio show. I found them rich in beauty, nuance, controlled passion and un-aldulterated rhythm. But hey, that was just my humble opinion. History always seems to repeat itself, and once again, the public would have to be damned, because, in the purists eyes (or should I say ears?) these sessions did not reflect a valid art form. In 2008, Raphael’s music simply did not meet the standards of the old school Tito Puente, Ray Barretto or Poncho Sánchez format. So here we are again, in 2010, and experimental music such as that heard on Time Travel is to be excluded from review. As with many artists before him, Raphael’s material has not been included in the rotation line-up of certain stations, (including one station that prides itself as being the premier jazz station in the U.S.) More often than not, these radio programers won’t give indy artists a logical reason as to why their music is not aired. The reasoning (or the lack of it) is mind boggling. So it is left to the alternative music stations to play, and as we all know, there aren’t really too many non-commercial stations out there. But this does not indicate that alternative Latin jazz is a lost cause.

Raphael Cruz: Time Travel
Raphael Cruz: Time Travel

By now, many devotees of fusionistic jazz (those who listen to alternative radio) have at one time or another heard Raphael’s first CD, A Mano and perhaps an equal amount have even contemplated purchasing it, which to my mind, is one of the greatest compliments that one can offer a jazz musician. Surely, Afro-Cuban Jazz lovers have delighted in hearing Raphael’s second production, Bebop Timba, which won him the prestigious Grammy Award for musical excellence in 2004. I believe that in anyone’s book this would have to rank as the second highest honor a musician can receive. For the record, Raphael Cruz won the coveted prize for the “Best Latin Jazz Recording of 2004”. It was the best kept secret in America.

Earlier on I mentioned Raphael’s most recent endeavor, Time Travel, another gem of a record that includes an impressionable guest list; Sonny Fortune, Claudio Roditi, Dave Valentin, Raleph Vowen, Danilo Avilés, Stefan Held, Manuel Valera, Sergio Brandau, Pablo Vergara, Greg Murphy, Román Díaz, Giovanni Valladares, Diego López, Alexis Zayas, Víctor Prieto, David Oquendo and myself, Chico Alvarez. The production was handled jointly by Raphael and Luis Güell, the recording and mastering engineer who had also been involved in one way or another with Raphael’s first two CD’s. Starting with Bebop Timba, Güell now had a direct hand in the way Raphael’s music was recorded, and I assure you that the result has been sheer magic. Mr. Cruz currently resides with his family in North Bergen, New Jersey, and is a very active member of the arts community in the Hudson County area, often touring outside the area as well. To most of his friends and colleagues however, he is simply known as “Rafi”.

Raphael Cruz: Bebop Timba
Raphael Cruz: Bebop Timba

It is my contention that the past is inexplicably linked to the present, especially when it comes to the subject of music. Musicians (and all artists for that matter) tend to return to the past for inspiration and guidance, but it is definitely not the only place where one finds such inspiration. I asked a certain question at the beginning of this piece, and now, as we begin to wrap it up, I reiterate by asking Mr. Cruz himself to answer that question: “Rafi, exactly where does your inspiration come from?”

Raphael: “Inspiration, for me, comes from many different sources; past, present and future. It is a combination of genres, styles, moods and hues that I have been tuned into throughout my life. There may even be some concepts rolling around in my mind which have not fully developed yet. My experience helps me as well, because my influences are many. I have been blessed to have played with some of the best musicians in the world. Musical inspiration is like a painting, and it usually comes to me in colors. I see movement in these colors. But inspiration can also be very spiritual and transcendental. Remember that no one finishes a painting in one day, it must be worked on it, slowly. I can’t pinpoint any particular style or any one artist, it is an all-encompassing and inclusive sound, universal you might say. Ultimately, my appreciation for the music which has been evolving in my head since my formative years takes root. Each layer of sound leaves an impression on me, each generation has something new to offer, and while I always revert back to my roots, I never lose sight of what’s happening out there today. I incorporate everything that I see and hear in the world into my own version of the world. It is a deeply personal vision that is manifested in the music that I play and write. Ultimately, the feelings, the colors, the rhythms and the vision transfer themselves to the musicians with whom I play, so that they too feel it, they may experience it differently, but it all comes together, as a painting.”

YouTube Video – Congahead – Raphael Cruz Performs Bacci

YouTube Video – Congahead – Raphael Cruz Performs My Little Moon

Bandleader, vocalist, composer, graphic artist and radio personality Ernesto "Chico" Álvarez Peraza has been performing as a singer and percussionist throughout the New York City tri-state area for the last four decades. Leader of conjunto Mafimba and The Palomonte Afro-Cuban Big Band, he was also the host and producer of New World Gallery, an eclectic world music radio show which had been airing over WBAI Pacifica Radio (99.5 FM) for more than 25 years.

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