In the spring, record and concert producer Ivan Acosta invited me to a birthday party celebration for Candido Camero at the recording studios of RazorHead Music on West 26th St. in New York.
The legendary conga player had just turned 86 years old—an age when most people walk on a boardwalk someplace and talk to the television set.
Instead, we were at the studio to fete not only Candido's longevity but also listen to an unmastered recording of his new Latin-jazz album, which was captured live in June and November of 2006.
I've known Candido for some years through Ivan Acosta, so as a present I burned him a CD with about 20 different tracks on which he accompanied different jazz musicians. Just burning that CD was a mind-blower. Included on there were dates Candido played with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Erroll Garner, Billy Taylor and Dinah Washington. That's all that would fit. Candido recorded with more than 200 jazz greats, from Duke Ellington and Ray Charles to Stan Kenton and John Coltrane. You'd have an easier time listing the ones he didn't play with.
Back in the 1950s and 1960s, Candido, along with a handful of other Cuban and Puerto Rican percussionists, were the go-to guys for jazz artists looking for a Latin-flavored backdrop. Starting with Chano Pozo in the 1940s, there was Candido, Sabu Martinez, Carlos "Patato" Valdes, Ray Barretto and others who could deliver the complex and much sought-after authentic conga and bongo beats.
But no one except Candido played with more jazz superstars. Sitting next to Candido that afternoon at the party, I asked him how the Dinah Washington date in 1954 came about (After Hours With Miss D), since he and Jackie Davis, the organist, play on only two tracks (A Foggy Day and Pennies From Heaven, which features Paul Quinichette).
"We were playing on another session when she came in that day," Candido said. "She loved our sound so much she asked us to stay. They just added us to the group." I love it: The Queen of the Blues goes Latin at the spur of the moment! You can almost hear Dinah say in that whip-snap voice, "Heyyyy. I dig that. No, no, man, you guys stay, sit, sit. We're gonna work you in."
Shortly after our chat, Candido's new recording began to pour through the studio's monitor speakers. Then the elevator doors opened and in walked Tony Bennett dressed to the nines. Bennett was on his way to some affair later than afternoon. The two old masters embraced, and Tony shook hands with everyone. Their friendship dates back to The Beat of My Heart, Bennett's 1957 album for Columbia, and Candido appears on several Bennett albums throughout the 1960s.
Tony sat down and for the next hour hung out listening with the rest of us to Candido's remarkable live performance.
The album I heard that afternoon has just been released. It's called Candido/Hands of Fire: 60 Years of Cuban Music Exuberance.
Produced by Acosta, the album offers a full range of Candido's beats and rhythms, featuring a strong band of Latin superstars playing boleros, mambos and you name it. One of the great Latin vocalists, David Oquendo, sings on a number of tracks.
I spent the day listening to the CD yesterday, and the recording is quite exciting and hypnotic. Candido's passion for life and for playing is unmatched, and his history is singular. Candido took the conga, which had been something of a novelty addition to recordings, and made it a serious jazz instrument.
Candido has had quite a run of late. This past Tuesday, the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Program announced that Candido—along with Quincy Jones, Andrew Hill, Tom McIntosh, Joe Wilder and Gunther Schuller—would be the group's 2008 jazz masters.
About a year ago I ran into Candido at a large supermarket on the Upper West Side. As we shook hands, I couldn't help but notice that his hand was still leathery, stone-like and fierce. As his vice-like grip enveloped mine, I also realized that my hand was holding what every great jazz musician over the last 60 years had held in admiration.
Wax tracks: Candido's Hands of Fire: 60 Years of Cuban Music Exuberance can be found here.
For a sampling of Candido downloads, grab the two tracks mentioned above from After Hours With Miss D, Erroll Garner's Night and Day from Erroll Garner's Finest Hour and Dizzy Gillespie's A Night in Tunisia and Con Alma from Afro.
My favorite Candido album is The Billy Taylor Trio with Candido (1954), which appears here. It's the perfect blend of great jazz piano and sublime Latin percussion. Unfortunately, it's not available at iTunes.
Wax tracks: To see Candido perform at Birdland in 2003, go here.