I met Mark Weinstein in 2006 at Taller Latino, a community center and performance space on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where he was rehearsing the material for the album Algo Mas.
Mark and I chatted between sets, and on the way out, I purchased a copy of (the original) Cuban Roots. After reading the liner notes and listening to the music intently, I was intrigued by the back story and events that led to Cuban Roots Revisited.
It is worth noting that neither Cuban Roots nor Cuban Roots Revisited were given the recognition they deserve, particularly in the U.S. Still, the Japanese (vinyl and CD) pressings sell for over one hundred dollars, and the album is a cult classic.
For the uninitiated, Cuban Roots consists of Afro-Cuban sacred music, treated instrumentally with a jazz interpretation. According to Mark Weinsten, “Cuban Roots is a story about ancestors and their spirits. These spirits have become blessed and enshrined in the lives and art of all creators and performers of African-based music, dance, drama, poetry, and in the rest of the arts and literature. The results of sincere communion with these spirits are expressions of beauty and the light of truth about man’s relationship with the Almighty.”
Mark Weinstein is, and always has been, curious and creatively restless. Every recording he makes is a pleasant surprise, an outlier, and a musical journey
Tomas Peña: You’ve said that you do not think of yourself as playing Cuban music. You reinterpret the music through the heart and ears of a jazz musician.
Mark Weinstein: Two things are evident from the three versions of Cuban Roots when contrasted with much of Latin music. The first is that my music is rooted in deep Cuban folkloric traditions. The second is that the music has little to do with mainstream Cuban dance band music or salsa or even most Latin jazz (no drums, no timbales). Also, I don’t play a charanga style flute. But most important I don’t feel constrained by what is going on around me in popular dance music or even contemporary Latin jazz. I play how the music moves me, and I am a jazz musician, heart, ears, soul, and chops. I am a jazz musician brought up in the 60s when jazz musicians were expected to be innovators.
TP: After years as an established trombonist, why did you switch gears and take up the flute?
MW: I was bitter after Cuban Roots came out. I got almost no airplay and the guys I looked up to, Barry Rogers and Eddie Palmieri, never gave it any energy. I played for a minute with Mike Bloomfield and Buddy Miles and got an offer to put a horn section together for Janis Joplin. I turned it down and turned my back on the music business. When I played again, my standard line was, the flute will keep me out of the music industry, which compared to trombone is true. But, if the truth is to be told, in 1973 I went to Greece, and here I am on this nude beach, and there are two guitar players and a flute player in this circle of gorgeous people. And I said to myself, “Put your self in that picture.” The next summer I went back to Greece with a flute.
TP: Let’s return to 1967.
MW: I had been working with salsa bands for some time, and I was always intrigued by folkloric percussion, which I thought would be suited to free jazz soloing because of the internal complexity of the patterns. I had some source albums of folkloric material that Barry Rogers had turned me on to, so I picked the strongest melodies and made a demo of three charts with friends, including Eddy Martinez on piano and Phil Newsum from Larry Harlow’s band on drums. Al Santiago, of blessed memory, had the courage to let me record the album for Musicor Records.
TP: The album was created in three hours and the tracks are all first takes!
MW: At first, none of the drummers would touch the project since playing Toque de Santos with jazz instruments seemed sacrilegious. But when Julito Collazo said he would do it I got the most knowledgeable drummers in the city, although they played conga drums rather than batá. I picked Arnie Lawrence to play alto since he is a mambo dance instructor and a demon alto player. I knew that he wouldn’t be thrown by the rhythm. Mario Rivera was the baritone sax player in the music and still is. Chick Corea was playing with me in Herbie Mann’s band, and I know he had the best timing and the best ears. Bass was a problem since I needed someone who would stay out of the way of the drums and with an open mind. Bobby Valentin had just switched from the trumpet to the bass, and I had enormous faith in his musicianship. I wrote the charts with plenty of room for blowing. We had one rehearsal and played the entire album in one session. At the very end, I saw the head of Musicor Records screaming at Al Santiago, but the date was already in the can and with little mixing or concern for the sound it was released.
TP: For readers who are not familiar with the term, “Toques de Santo,” could you elaborate?
MW: These are played for the Orishas in the Santeria religion. When I first brought the project to Tommy Lopez, and he heard I was playing the melody for Chango, he packed up his drums and left. But Julito was a santero, and when he said it was OK, Tommy was thrilled to get to play with him. But they played on dance band drums, not the drums used for religious purposes.
TP: Apparently, there was “very little mixing or concern for the sound.” How did the session turn out?
MW: The album is raw; the sound bordered on ugly, but the playing is amazing. I don’t know how much influence the record had, but Chick Corea was playing in a style unheard of although I hear a lot of that freedom in the generation of piano players that came up in the 80s. When I listen to early Paquito D’ Rivera and the way sax player’s play today, I can only say that Arnie Lawrence did it in 1967. I’m not sure how much influence I had on trombone players, but to this day whenever I meet a Latin trombonist I get a lot of respect. The drums were and are a unique powerhouse. The swing is enormous; no trap drums, no timbales, no cymbals, just the real deal.
TP: Did the participants have any experience with jazz and folkloric rhythms?
MW: No one to my knowledge had ever done that before except for some short sections on Machito records. When Herbie Mann died, I saw in his discography he made an early record with African drums, but I didn’t know about it. Chick had never even heard drumming like that and Bobby was a salsero, unfamiliar with rumba. That gave them the freedom to respond outside the box and not interfere with the intricate counterpoint of the drums. Arnie, like myself, considered himself a free jazz player and so, to us, having all of that power and complexity to play was sheer pleasure. Although I played free, I did know the tradition and tried to play like a sonero. I was also influenced by the Cuban trumpet player, La Florecita, who was famous for his playing with drum ensembles in the Carnaval in Havana.
TP: I understand only five hundred copies were printed.
MW: I believe that was the number. I never received a royalty statement, although I got paid for the date as a leader and arranger. Those were the days!
TP: When it was released, how was Cuban Roots received?
MW: It received almost no airplay. Billy Taylor played a few cuts on the radio, but worse, the musicians who I respected the most seemed unimpressed. That was a big part of my leaving the business and becoming a college professor. In 1976, Larry Harlow asked me if I had a sealed copy and it became the basis for the Artol Records release, which, was the version that most musicians heard. Sadly, the master has a skip right at the beginning of Chick’s solo.
TP: When did you consider returning to the music scene?
MW: I stopped playing from 1971 to 1974. I tried to get back on the scene with Orisha Suite in 1977. I’m proud of the music, and I’m glad it is available on the CD of Cuban Roots (1976), but I had a lot to learn as a flute player. I scuffled as an academic for ten years, teaching part-time and doing consulting work because full-time college teaching jobs in New York are hard to get, and I would not leave town. I played a lot with street bands in the 80s and jammed a lot with guitar players. I love playing in the street and parks. When I finally got a tenure-track job at Montclair State University, I started self-producing records, and I did a lot of small gigs in New Jersey and around town. “Algo Mas” is my eighth CD on flute. Teaching and publishing take a lot of time and energy, and since I need not make a living at music, I play much less than I’d like to. I’m a lot like the Maytag man, the loneliest guy in town, but I know I’ll b back when the gigs happen.
TP: understand Barry Rogers was an invited guest.
MW: I originally wanted two bones and an alto. I played some of the basic harmonic sketches for Barry, and he said that it was my baby. It would have been a very different album with Barry. He would never have put up the awful recording conditions or the unconcern for the sound. I was not even invited to the mix. But then Musicor might have killed the whole thing. I would have loved to make a record with Barry. I think he is one of the few people who would have understood what I was doing with (the album) Algo Mas.
TP: Aside from the Artol pressing, Cuban Roots was not available to the public for nearly twenty-five years.
MW: The person who controls the master refused to release it or license it. He did license one track for a Masters of Latin Jazz compilation on Rhino Records. That blows me away. Here are these Latin jazz classics by legends who, recorded hundreds of hit albums and sold hundreds of thousands and in the middle is Mark Weinstein and an album that sold a few hundred copies at most. A benefactor arranged for a limited CD run of a re-mastered version of Cuban Roots on the best vinyl.
TP: My copy includes The Orisha Suite.
MW: When I heard about the possibility of a CD version of Cuban Roots I asked that it include a never-released recording I made in 1977 when I had just played the flute. This is a very different approach to the material. It is a suite of two toques sung y Olympia Alfara, backed by bata and chorus and multi-tracked keyboards played by Eddy Martinez. There is unusual instrumentation with flute, classical guitar, three cellos and me playing a bass line on the marimba. A long interlude, which is a free composition for flute and classical guitar with four French horns and an instrumental coda with me playing three layers of marimba locked in with the bata drums and three tracks of flute, two playing fast and a free and lyrical flute solo on top. Ah, to be young again!
TP: Thirty-two years later (1999) you recorded Cuban Roots Revisited. Michal Mc Fadin, the co-founder of Cubop Records, attempted and failed to acquire the rights to the original recording. As an alternative, he commissioned making Cuban Roots Revisited. How did you react when you were approached about revisiting Cuban Roots?
MW: I said a small prayer of thanks. By that time, I had recorded two albums as a flutist, Jazz World Trios, which is still one of my favorite albums. I saw this as a way back into the music. My nephew, Dan Weinstein does the legwork and getting us hooked up.
TP: How did you approach the remake?
MW: The “revisit” was the material. We did the same songs, except for the Beatles tune and adding the tune, Ellegua. Dan orchestrated my trombone solo on Just Another Guajira for three bones (trombones). Otherwise, the concept was very different because Dan was involved. I had written for trombones extensively in the late 60s and 70s. I used the trombones as a choir utilizing the bass trombone to get a broad orchestral sound against which the flute could stand standout. Los Angeles has a great folkloric tradition, and Lazaro Gallarga is one of the most important teachers, along with Francisco Aguabella, which induced the best drummers to participate in the project. But what made the difference was Omar Sosa. Omar responded immediately to the arrangements, and the two bassists, Carlitos del Puerto, and Eddie Resto followed his lead. I had never heard Omar before, and during a break on the first day when everyone else was eating, Omar and I jammed. That convinced me I was dealing with a giant and convinced him that my head was as open as his. I consider his playing to be as innovative as Chick’s was on the original album. The difference was Omar, a master of Cuban music, having studied all aspects of rumba and being deeply immersed in Santeria. His playing is deeply connected with the drums, but he never hinders the drum conversation.
TP: It must have been gratifying to record in a state-of-the-art setting.
MW: t’s a good thing we had great equipment and engineers. By the time we finished two days of recording and a half-day fixing parts, we had mixed the whole thing in one of the most intense afternoons of my life. Fortunately, the board was automated, this was before Pro Tools, so, we could mix efficiently, saving moves on the board in a primitive computer so we could move quickly from mix to mix and tune to tune. We had everything going for us except for the time and budget. I had to be back in New Jersey to teach, and the budget only paid for three days in the studio.
TP: Aside from sound quality, how do the recordings differ?
MW: Thirty years later, Cuban Roots Revisited reflects a more mature attitude towards composition and a secure relationship with the source material. Everyone understood the folkloric elements and an openness to innovation. I was no longer a power player and Cuban Roots Revisited is much more thoughtful. The tempos are slower, and the textures are rich and evocative. Omar’s solos are spectacular, and I especially love him on “Ochun.”
TP: I understand Francisco Aguabella played a role in making the album.
MW: When I came to LA a few days before the date, Danny had me meet Francisco at a donut shop over a cup of coffee. I reminded him we played with Eddie Palmieri. He remembered playing with me and agreed. Since he was one of the master drummers in the Carnaval in Havana, that gave us the depth we needed. The two comparsas on the date are among the best recordings of Carnaval drums made in the U.S. We recorded with four drummers, then recorded for layers on top. I have to mention John Santos, who played an essential role in keeping things together through his wonderful gentility and sense of humor.
TP. Thus far, how has Cuban Roots Revisited been received?
MW: It got decent airplay and good reviews, but it wasn’t a working band so after the first period of interest it faded into the background.
TP: Are you pleased with the outcome?
MW: Yes, I’m happy with the results. The engineers did a wonderful job, given the time pressures we were under. I’d like to do another album like it; that is an orchestral approach to rumba, but this time with strings. I’m just moving in that direction and hope to involve Omar. Meanwhile, I’m finishing another project with Omar on marimba and vibes with a balaphone player from the Ivory Coast and African drummers. But that is another free-blowing album.
TP: Final thoughts?
MW: I’m hoping my latest album, Algo Mas, my work is a whole. This interview is evidence it is already happening.
CUBAN ROOTS (1967, Artol)
CUBAN ROOTS (Japan) (2006, Bomba Records)
Malanga, Michelle, Ochosi-Om-Mi, Chango, Ochun, Just Another Guajira, Desengano de Los Roncos, El Barracon.
Mark Weinstein, Arnie Lawrence, Mario Rivera, Chick Corea, Bobby Valentin, Kako, Julito Collazo, Tommy Lopez, Papiro, Papaito.
Produced by: Al Santiago
CUBAN ROOTS REVISITED (UBIQUITY, 1997)
Eléggua, Malanga, Mirala Que Linda Viene, Ochosei-Omo-Mi, Just Another Guajira, Changó, Desengaño De Los Roncos, Ochún, El Barracon, Eléggua.
Mark Weinstein, Dan Weinstein, Francisco Aguabella, Lazaro Gallarraga, John Santos, José de León, Jr., Humberto “Nengue” Hernandez, Omar Sosa, Carlitos del Puerto, Eddie Resto, Arturo Velasco, Steve Ferguson.