While hanging out with Harry Sepulveda last week, I had to interrupt him mid-sentence. Pointing to the speakers high up on the walls of his Latin-jazz record store, I said, "Hold it, who's this playing?" "Ahhh, Papa, you dig?" Harry said. "It's Chembo Corniel. A monster." I wasn't aware of Chembo [pictured], who plays conga and percussion. But as the CD played on, I had to agree with Harry. Chembo Corniel (pronounced CORN-yell) is one seriously soulful conga player and percussionist. On his new album, Things I Wanted to Do, Chembo, 55, is backed by his tightly arranged working band, Grupo Chaworo: Ivan Renta on tenor and soprano sax, Elio Villafranca on piano and Fender Rhodes, Carol DeRosa on acoustic bass, and Vince Cherico on drums.
First a word about Harry Sepulveda [pictured]. For those unfamiliar with Harry, he's one of the most knowledgeable Latin-jazz experts in New York. Harry is owner of Record Mart [pictured below], a veritable institution in the Times Square subway station that's jammed to the ceiling with magnificent hard-to-find Latin-jazz LPs and CDs. And Harry can fill you in on whatever you want to know about any album you pull from the racks.
For those who may have moved out of New York some years ago, Harry's store used to be down a flight of stairs in the Times Square station, just above where the BMT trains pull in [pictured]. After the entire station was modernized a few years ago, Record Mart was back—but this time on the main level facing the Times Square Shuttle platforms. Harry's store is a joy trap, since strolling in virtually ensures walking out a little poorer but much richer musically.
Chembo's new album, his third with the current quintet, is so warm and eclectic that you can't help but love it. In addition to Chembo's fleshy, firm conga playing, there are a number of superstar performers here. Saxophonist Ivan Renta has a big, strong sound that wraps around you and squeezes. And Elio Villafranca on acoustic and electric piano brings enormous Latin flavor to each song. For good measure, there are 16 "invited guests" on the album's different tracks, including the spectacular David Oquendo on guitar, Ludovic Beier on accordion, Jimmy Bosch on trombone, and Dave Samuels on vibes.
This is wonderful work from top to bottom, and I can't remember a newly released Latin-jazz album I've enjoyed this much. It's energetic but heavily romantic and furtively old-fashioned. Deliciously Latin, the album's groove is deeply jazz-rooted. What stands out is Chembo's taste as a leader. Each track is put together neatly. "I know, I know," Harry said excitedly, when I mentioned it. "That's because Chembo manages every single detail. He's a control freak!"
He's also a major player. Over the years, Chembo has performed with Bobby Sanabria and Ascension, Tito Puente, Hilton Ruiz, and Chucho Valdes. Intrigued, I gave Chembo a call:
"This album is filled with things I've always wanted to do, but until this CD, I didn't have the time. So I made the time. Each song has a different coloration because I used varied instrumentation on each track. One song has vibes, another accordion. No two are alike.
"I was born in the Chelsea section of Manhattan but grew up in Red Hook, Brooklyn. I learned to play as a young boy in the streets and parks. I played in my first professional band at age 14. The leader of the group had to pick me up and drop me off at home. When he first asked my mother if I could play with the band, she told him he had to have me home by 11 p.m. The guy was a little taken aback. He said, 'Lady, we start at midnight' [laughs].
"After some convincing, my mother gave in. I was a kid and had to wait outside between sets at social clubs. I took my first lesson with Tommy Lopez Sr., a percussionist with Eddie Palmieri. Tommy took me under his wing and showed me how to play for real. I also studied with 'Little' Ray Ramero—who had played with La Sensacional Guerria de Federico Pagani in the early 1940s, Miguelito Valdes, Tito Rodriguez [pictured] and everyone else you can think of. Soon I started studying at the Harbor Conservatory for the Performing Arts in East Harlem. Harbor offers low-income musicians lessons at inexpensive prices. When I took courses there, I paid $5 a lesson. After that I studied at the La Escuela Nacional de Arte in Havana, Cuba, with Chucho Valdés. I went there in 1997, 1999 and 2003.
"I play the tumbadoras, the largest-size conga. It's technically a conga, but I don't really like the name 'conga.' A conga to me is too commercial, like a 'conga line.' I prefer to say I play the tumbadoras. There's an authenticity to that. I like it better."
Things I Wanted to Do opens with a Chembo original, Buena Gente, an up-tempo composition rich with Latin texture and strong saxophone work by Renta.
Tenia Que Ser Asi is a spectacular ballad written by Bobby Collazo that's reminiscent of the jazz standard I Want to Talk About You. Renta on tenor sax is backed here by a cleverly arranged string section. The Sultan was written for Chembo by legendary Latin-jazz trumpeter and arranger Marty Sheller [pictured]. "Marty was so kind to do this for me," Chembo said. "He calls me The Sultan."
On Swing Street, the quintet is joined by Ludovic Beier on accordion, adding a European feel to Hector Martignon's Latin arrangement. Fantasma is a gorgeous ballad featuring Renta on soprano saxophone. Chembo's skins here are a knockout.
Actually, Chembo's first name is Wilson. How did he get the nickname Chembo? "When I was growing up in Red Hook, I played a lot of basketball," Chembo says. "Back then, Wilt Chamberlain was the hot player. I'm just 5' 4", so when I'd drive around the other players and get the ball in, everyone would shout, 'Chembo!'—which was short for Chamberlain."
And the meaning of "Chaworo," the name of Chembo's group? "Those are the bells that are attached to the Bata ceremonial drum that urge the saints to come down and dance with us," Chembo says.
I can't wait to pay Harry another visit.
JazzWax tracks: Chembo Corniel's Things I Wanted to Do can be sampled and purchased here on CD. Or check in with Harry at the Record Mart by sending him an e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: Chembo will be performing with his group, Grupo Chaworo, at New York's Creole Restaurant on July 10th and 11th to celebrate the launch of his CD. Creole Restaurant is at 2167 Third Ave., on the corner of 118th Street.