Given the 15-degree weather that roared into New York yesterday, along with 45mph winds and a freakish hour-long white-out snow squall, I decided to warm up my soul over the next two days by telling you about two amazing Latin-jazz albums.
One album is brand new. The other is a little-known powerhouse from 1957. Both are spectacular examples of brilliant jazz arranging. And both are by Latin-jazz arrangers who singlehandedly changed the face of jazz and popular music. Today I'm going to focus on the new CD by Marty Sheller (pictured above). Tomorrow we'll look at the classic.
The new release is The Marty Sheller Ensemble's Why Deny, a
thrilling tribute to the late conga legend Mongo Santamaria, who wrote Afro Blue and so many other great Latin-jazz songs. More in a moment about why Marty Sheller is so important and how he altered the course of jazz and soul 45 years ago.
If you don't follow Latin-jazz, the name Marty Sheller may be new to you. Marty is one of the most widely respected Latin-jazz arrangers who began as a trumpeter and percussionist with Mongo back in the early 1960s. After working with Mongo, Marty arranged for Hector Lavoe, Ruben Blades, George Benson, Shirley Scott and many other jazz and Latin artists.
Born in 1940 in Newark, N.J., Marty played trumpet on Mongo's famous recording of Watermelon Man in December 1962 for Riverside Records. Watermelon Man is a seminal recording for the rhythm it popularized and the influence the song and Marty's solo had and continues to have on jazz and soul artists.
Throughout the 1950s, Cuban rhythms shaped the spirit of jazz and r&b. The mambo, rumba and cha-cha-cha all were among the decade's most popular beat-driven dances. But after Fidel Castro seized power in 1959, Cuba and Cuban music were sealed off from the U.S.
To fill the vacuum in the early 1960s, two new popular Latin dance rhythms emerged—Brazil's bossa nova (which really is a softened cha-cha-cha) and the boogaloo (which had a mixed Cuban and Puerto Rican heritage). What made the boogaloo special was its jazzy feel, funky riffs and deep soul groove.
The first boogaloo hit was Watermelon Man, which peaked at #10 on Billboard's pop chart in March 1963. With jazz rapidly drifting to free form and rock starting to eat into jazz-record profits, many jazz artists and jazz record labels adapted boogaloo in a last-ditch effort to offset losses.
Nine months after Watermelon Man, topped the charts, Lee Morgan recorded The Sidewinder, one of the earliest jazz boogaloo hits that reached #81 on the pop charts in December 1964. Dozens of jazz boogaloo albums followed, the vast majority coming from Blue Note. Some albums were unique; others simply were dull adaptations.
Back to Marty Sheller's role in all of this. Marty's trumpet solo on Watermelon Man not only had an influence on Lee Morgan but also James Brown, whose funky horn riffs, beginning with Papa's Got a Brand New Bag in 1965, would ultimately make him arguably the single most important soul and r&b artist of the decade. Brown's musical and political influence can still be felt in music today.
Following Watermelon Man, Marty Sheller continued to play trumpet for Mongo Santamaria (right) until 1968, when he gave up the horn for composing and arranging. His arrangements for Mongo's album Dawn in 1977 were shrewd and funky, and helped Mongo win a Grammy that year for Best Latin Recording.
Why Deny, Marty's first CD under his own name, has a big brassy sound and seductive rhythm that is always cognizant of the listener's dwindling attention span. Unlike many large-ensemble Latin-jazz writers, Marty knows when to shift the arrangement, end solos and shift the mix to keep the listener engaged.
The CD opens with The Route 40 Flyer, a surging original that has the feel of Woody Shaw's The Moontrane. Bassist Ruben Rodriguez stands out—as he does on every track—with a big round sound that catches you right in the gut. Tenor saxophonist Bob Franceschini also has a monster solo.
Wayne Shorter's Mahjong is a brassy tribute that showcases trombonist Sam Burtis.
El Pavo is an original waltz with a mid-tempo Blue Note boogaloo feel. You also can hear shades of early Brecker Brothers here, and Joe Magnarelli on trumpet executes perfectly with Marty's early boogaloo horn patterns in mind.
Sweet & Lovely is the album's only standard. Alto saxophonist Bobby Porcelli plays a solo reminiscent of Cannonball Adderley (more on Cannonball's Latin-jazz experience tomorrow).
Love in a Mist is a strong medium-tempo tune that again lets you hear the astonishing bassist Ruben Rodriguez. As on the rest of the album, Marty's horn arrangements simmer with intensity.
Why Deny, the album's closer, is an uptempo boogaloo composed by Porcelli that gives the superb alto saxophonist yet another chance to shine.
Marty's album plays like a concept album—a Latin-jazz suite. Forget about individual tracks. Under Marty's smart pen, each track leads seamlessly into the next, and the vibe is terrific throughout. I can't wait to hear what the CD sounds like in the heat of summer driving down New York's West Side Highway. For now, caught in winter's grip, one can only dream.
Tomorrow I'll evaluate another Latin-jazz masterpiece, this time from 1957. I'm certain it will come as a complete surprise to many jazz fans.
Jazzwax history: Now that you know why Watermelon Man and Marty Sheller's trumpet solo on that hit are so important, here's the story of its birth from Sheller's bio:
"[Marty] Sheller was working with another timbalero-vibraharpist, Pete Terrace, when he first met Mongo Santamaria at a club in the Bronx in 1961. The Cuban conga great had recently come from San Francisco to New York with a charanga band.
By November of the following year, when Sheller got a call from [Mongo] Santamaria, the percussionist had dropped the flute-and-violins lineup of the charanga band in favor of a Latin-jazz sound with a frontline of trumpet, alto saxophone and tenor saxophone.
At Sheller's first rehearsal with Santamaria, Herbie Hancock brought in an arrangement of a tune he'd recently recorded for Blue Note titled Watermelon Man. 'We changed the phrasing a bit,' Sheller says of himself and his bandmates. When they first played the tune in public, at the Blue Coronet in Brooklyn, 'the people went wild,' Sheller remembers.
Pete Long, Santamaria's manager, phoned Orrin Keepnews at Riverside Records with the news and persuaded the producer to promptly record the song for release as a single. Issued on Riverside's Battle subsidiary, Watermelon Man became a Top 10 pop hit. It features a trumpet solo by Sheller—not playing in his usual bop-imbued style but rather blowing simpler lines inspired by Melvin Lastie's solo from the Barbara George hit, I Know.
'Don't play those snakes,' Sheller recalls Long telling him. 'You gotta play funky.' "
And that's how Marty Sheller came to influence Lee Morgan and James Brown, both of whom wound up having a massive impact on two generations of jazz and soul musicians. And it all started with Marty.
Mongo Santamaria's Dawn (1977), is a terrific album. It's available here. Marty's arrangement for That's Good, the album's fourth track, remains for me one of the most remarkable Latin flute arrangements.
You can hear Barbara George's hit I Know and the funky trumpet solo by Melvin Lastie that inspired Marty Sheller on Watermelon Man here. I Know reached #3 on the Billboard pop chart in November 1961, a year before Watermelon Man was recorded.
Mongo Santamaria's classic boogaloo hit, Watermelon Man, with Marty's historic trumpet solo, can be downloaded at iTunes. James Brown's Papa's Got a Brand New Bag and Lee Morgan's The Sidewinder are there, too.
If you want to have fun, play Watermelon Man followed by James Brown's Papa's Got a Brand New Bag. They are very, very close—and confirmation that Papa actually is a boogaloo at its core. Still not sure of the connection? Listen to James Brown's Cold Sweat. About 3:40 into the song, you'll hear the Godfather say, "Excuse me while I do the boogaloo!"