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When Ray Barretto Took The Road Less Traveled



Ray Barretto
NEA Jazz Master, Ray Barretto

One month before his death, Ray Barretto was the recipient of the NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship, the highest honor that our nation bestows on jazz artists. Despite that, he is mainly remembered as a percussionist, bandleader, and Salsa trailblazer.

As Barretto’s biographer, Robert Téllez, points out, “To examine Ray Barretto’s musical origins, it is necessary to refer to jazz rather than Latin music. That is one of the main differences between his career and other notable Latin percussionists. Most of them started in Afro-Caribbean music and turned to jazz, but in Barretto’s case, it was the opposite.”

Various factors laid the groundwork for Barretto’s passion for jazz. In a 2003 interview with Latin Beat magazine, Barretto was asked, “What type of music did you listen to on the radio (as a child)?” “It was mostly jazz and the era’s popular music,” replied Barretto, “but mostly jazz music.” He cites the big band sounds of Harry James, Benny Goodman, and Duke Ellington as “part of his everyday life.” In addition, he listened to Daniel Santos, Bobby Capó, Trío Los Panchos, Frank ‘Machito’ Grillo and his Afro-Cubans, Marcelino Guerra, and Arsenio Rodríguez, among others.

Ray Barretto: The Other Road
Ray Barretto: The Other Road

According to Robert Farris Thompson, “While serving in the US Army in 1952, Barretto happened to hear a record by (Dizzy Gillespie) and Chano Pozo, perhaps the most important Black Cuban drummer of the century.” That, says Ray Barretto, “turned my life around.” After that, he never looked back. When Barretto returned home, he visited clubs and participated in jam sessions, where he perfected his conga playing. On one occasion Charlie Parker heard Barretto play and invited him to play in his band.

In 1960, Barretto became a house musician for the Prestige Records, Riverside and Blue Note labels and appeared on albums with Gene Ammons, Red Garland and Sonny Stitt among many others, including Lou Donaldson, Kenny Burrell, Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis, Jimmy Forrest, Yusef Lateef, Eddie Harris, Johnny Lytle, Herbie Mann, Johnny ‘Hammond’ Smit, Art Farmer, and Clifford Jordan.

As these things go, Barretto’s name got around, and he was offered Latin gigs, and the rest is history. His success as a Latin percussionist, bandleader, and member of the Fania All-Stars is well-documented. Between 1961 and 1973, Barretto released twenty recordings as a leader, including Charanga ModernaAcidHard HandsThe Message, and Que Viva La Música, among others.

In 1973, an unanticipated turn of events created an opportunity for Barretto to take The Other Road. As the story goes, “In 1973, about half of my band left to form Típica ’73, and once again, I had to readjust and reconstruct my band. It took me about a year to get the band in form and working again. But in the meantime, I convinced Jerry Massuci (the head of Fania Records) to let me record a jazz project, and one night, from midnight to 6 AM (at Good Vibrations Sound Studios, 1440 Broadway, NYC) we recorded the album, The Other Road.

YouTube Playlist – Ray Barretto: The Other Road

This brings me to the players, who Barretto describes in the liner notes as “young disciples from various mother countries wanting to be heard.” Trumpeters Roberto Rodríguez, Joseph Román and Manny Durán, pianist Edy Martínez, bassist Guillermo Edghill, timbal player Ray Romero, bongo player Tony Fuentes, flutist Art (Artie) Webb, and drummer Billy Cobham. All of whom rise to the occasion!

The repertoire consists of Thelonious Monk’s Round Midnight (aka Round About Midnight), Edy Martínez’s The Other Road, Manny Duran’s Lucretia the Cat and Oración (The Prayer), Ray Barretto’s Little Ting and a remake of Abidjan (which initially appeared on the album, Hard Hands) titled Abidjan Revisited. It is worth noting the title track was composed by Edy Martínez, who composed the song for his sister, who tragically died in a car accident. The original LP features photos of the sessions, but there are no specific details about the session.

When The Other Road was released in 1973, it was a commercial failure for several reasons. Jerry Masucci (Fania) had no interest in jazz, as demonstrated by his admonishing Barretto for making that album and ordering him never to make a jazz album again. Also, Barretto’s Salsa fan base rejected it. Some went so far as to claim it wasn’t Ray Barretto! 

The same year Barretto came roaring back with Indestructible, which is widely considered a classic and one of the most potent Salsa albums of all time. In 1990, dissatisfied with how Salsa was evolving, Barretto recorded Soy Dichoso, his farewell salsa album. Shortly after, he announced the formation of the jazz ensemble New World Spirit, which combined Jazz and Latin music, the two worlds he loved. Barretto led New World Spirit from 1992 until he died in 2006.

YouTube Video – Ray Barretto’s New World Spirit: United

In 2016, the Colombian journalist, radio show host, and producer Robert Téllez released the first and only Ray Barretto biography titled Ray Barretto Giant Force. Téllez does an admirable job of documenting Barretto’s career and discography, but an in-depth book about Ray Barretto, the son, brother, husband, father, colleague, mentor, intellectual, activist, poet, and renaissance man, has yet to be written.

Musicologist, editor and lecturer Max Salazar on Ray Barretto: “Barretto was the most intelligent musician, bandleader I ever encountered. He was like a sponge, always absorbing everything around him. He could have been anything that he wanted to be: A doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, but he opted to be a musician. Barretto’s music was always groundbreaking, whether he was playing jazz or Latin music. He was a true giant of our music.

  • Barretto, Ray – The Other Road Liner Notes
  • Ray Barretto – Latin Beat Magazine (April, 2006)
  • Ray Barretto – Living By the Beat of the Drum (Latin Beat magazine, May 2003)
  • Téllez, Robert – Ray Barretto Giant Force (English Edition, 2021)
  • Thompson, Robert Farris – Aesthetic of the Cool – Afro-Atlantic Art and Music (Periscope Publishing, Ltd, 2011)
  • YouTube – Ray Barretto Band Live (Zycopolis Productions)

A graduate of Empire State College with a dual major in journalism and Latin American studies, Tomas Peña has spent years applying his knowledge and writing skills to the promotion of great musicians. A specialist in the crossroads between jazz and Latin music, Peña has written extensively on the subject.

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