INTERVIEW CONDUCTED BY T.J. ENGLISH: www.skullfragmentstjenglishonline.com
Few young bassists on the scene have made an impression quite like Luques Curtis. At the age of 35, he has played with veterans Eddie Palmieri and Gary Burton, as well as a stint with the legendary Fort Apache Band. Playing with that band, Luques had the honor of sitting in for Andy González, who was his inspiration and mentor. Together with his brother Zaccai Curtis on piano, the Curtis Brothers have become a star attraction in NYC and around the world. Luques’ upcoming tribute to Andy González will be the first time the Dangerous Rhythms series has paid tribute to a still-living musician, and the first time we’ve presented a show where the featured artist is thought to be a veritable protege of the musician to whom he is paying tribute. To talk about this very special evening, T.J. English, curator, and host of the Dangerous Rhythms Latin Jazz series caught up with Luques Curtis at the Good Stuff Diner on W. 14th Street in Manhattan.
I want to start by asking you when Andy González first came into your life, and what were the circumstances of that?
Andy came into town, to Hartford [where Luques and his brother Zaccai were born and raised.] He played with a local band that was led by a drum player and vibes player named Ed Fast. Fast had a band called Conga Bop, and they had a nice mixture of different rhythms based on Cal Tjader stuff, Fort Apache stuff, other things that were around at the time. I was thirteen. And we had a kids band, just a bunch of kids. My brother was fifteen at the time, he played the piano. Nobody in the band was over sixteen. Our group was called Latin Flavor. We’d meet in my basement every Saturday, play through the songs. People would give us charts.
So one time we were opening up for Ed Fast’s band. And it just so happened that Andy was playing with that group as a special guest. So, as we played our set, I see Andy comes in, he’s looking at us from the side of the stage. Afterward, he came up to me and gave me a bunch of information, how the bass is supposed to sound. I’ll never forget, he taught me that day about boiling your bass strings. Because a lot of times the bass strings are really tight, and if you boil them it opens them up a little bit. It makes them a little looser.
A trick of the trade.
A trick of the trade. I never knew about it then, but I do it now. I do it today. Usually, strings take a while to break in. Like six months, seven months to actually start to get loose. He taught me how to speed up that process.
So he sought you out bass player to bass player.
Yeah. We talked for a while right before his set. And I will never forget watching them. I think that my dad might even have it videotaped, watching them play, like, him as a guest, but he controlled everything. He was amazing. Amazing. Blew my mind.
Did you know anything about him before you met?
I knew who he was. I’d heard of Fort Apache before. We were exposed because of my dad’s love for music in general. He exposed us to it.
And from then on, Andy would come by the house maybe one weekend a month, just hang with us kids. We would present some songs that we were working on. He’d give me a lesson. He would bring records and CDs, and we would just sit and listen till late. I remember a bunch of times falling asleep while he was still going, putting on things like Orquesta Aragón and all these old Cuban recordings. He was opening our ears. This went on for years, until I went to college, basically, until the band kind of fell apart, and we changed our name to Insight.
Eventually, Andy actually gave me a bass. I was renting a bass from a local place, and I wasn’t taking care of it as well as I should have been. So they told me they’re not going to rent me a bass anymore, so I didn’t have any bass. Andy found out, and he came down from New York and gave me a brand new student model. I’ll never forget, it was my birthday, like my fourteenth or fifteenth birthday, he came down and brought me my bass. All throughout high school and into college I had that bass. I still have it.
What an incredible act of generosity.
Yeah. Amazing. If that wouldn’t have happened, I don’t even know what I would be doing today. Anyway, from then on, we just had this connection. I always talk about his role as a mentor, but it’s even more than that. I call him, and it’s like, wow, it’s like I’m talking to a family member. Though he still makes me nervous sometimes when I talk to him. The silences. I’ll be talking to him, and he goes silent, and I’m like, Oh shit, what do I do now? But then, you know, as I got older I noticed that he’s just chillin’. That’s the way he is.
When he would talk to you about the bass when you were young, what was he trying to convey? Was he just giving you general information or was there a focus to what he was saying about the music or the instrument?
I think he was trying to open me up to a lot of different possibilities. His teaching method wasn’t as forced as a lot of others. It was more of like he’s just talking to me. I used to try to copy his bass lines. Obviously, he has some of the baddest bass lines of all time. For instance, the tribute they did to Monk. There’s a baseline he does on that I remember trying to play as a kid, and, you know, I thought I had it. But then I tried to play it for him. He’s like, no, you have to play it more like this. You have to let this note ring. And you gotta muffle this note. It was way more detailed than what I was doing. It made me listen more carefully. I wasn’t just playing the notes after that. I was more focused on what to listen to, what notes are muted, how he muted it with his hands. Where you place the notes on the bass was important, too. The harmonics he would use.
I guess much of what you were learning was from him being the great player that he was?
I still, to this day, go back and listen to some stuff of his. His swing is, like, there is no other. With that swing that he has, that touch he has, I still try to replicate that thing, and it’s like, the way he pulls out on the bass, it’s effortless. But that swing, that’s his trademark.
Part of what he does, which I don’t know how to describe technically, but the band Fort Apache is renowned for the ability to go from hard bop to Latin rhythms, seamlessly, in a way that was never done before. I have to believe a lot of the reason they were able to do that was because of Andy’s bass lines.
Yes. His walking held it all together. The thing I loved about Fort Apache was that they were true to both styles. Often you have a band that focuses a little more on the Latin side or a little more on the jazz side. Or when they switch it up, it’s not quite authentic. But Fort Apache had that sound that was — a lot of that was Steve Berrios on drums, too. To be able to control the whole band, like a Blakey kind of drumming so everybody could fit in.
When I first started seeing that band, with Andy, I always noticed him, which was rare, because you don’t always notice the bass player.
Yes, of course.
It was because of his intensity. That thing he does with his head bopping and his eyes bugging out. I thought he was the most intense bass player I’d ever seen. So tuned in with all the other musicians, and they’re tuned in with him.
He’s listening. Constantly listening. His ear is amazing. One of my favorite CDs of his is Don Grolnick’s Medianoche. With Michael Brecker and Dave Valentin. That’s like a 101 class of how to play Latin bass. How to groove. It’s so swingin’.
So, in getting to know Andy, from that point on you had a true soul brother?
Oh yes. But the truth is, I really had only two or three lessons, that’s it. Mostly it was talking to him and going to watch him play. Studying him. I went to as many of his shows as I could and got as close to the bass player as I could. I watched what he was doing and studied how he was doing it. I think that helped me get into that mindset as a bassist. You know, as a bass player, you’re supporting, but you’re also reacting to what’s going on around you. With Andy, he never just plays something straight through as written. He’ll play, and then he has that jazz mentality, whether he’s playing salsa or whatever, he has that jazz mentality of reacting to the situation.
So in opening up, your ears to all of this, did this start to take you in more of a Latin direction? Because you started out as just a straight-up jazz player.
Yeah. So, when I first went to college, I didn’t play much Latin. My first real professional Latin gig was probably with Eddie Palmieri. I mean, our kid’s band, we were kind of dabbling in Latin jazz. But my first real gig was Eddie. The way I had studied Andy, learning the way he played, I think that’s why Eddie appreciated what I was doing. Because I had that same energy probably as Andy had, the same tone, same kind of idea that I’m playing music and not just playing a bass line, being able to react to what’s happening and trying to play the music for what it is. I got all that from Andy.
Was it easy for you to incorporate that technique and philosophy into what you were doing with Palmieri, or was this a challenge?
The only reason I’ll say it was easier, maybe, is because I knew at an early age what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to play music and be a bassist. I knew all that when I was twelve or thirteen. So once I was attracted to the way Andy played, I focused a lot of energy onto that, like transcribing the charts and listening and trying to mimic what he did. So, it’s almost like the guys that play electric, and they want to be like Jaco [Pastorious], or the guys who want to be like Christian McBride. The same kind of concept where I knew that Andy was special, and that’s what I wanted to incorporate.
What brought you to the bass in the first place?
There were too many percussionists. I wanted to play percussion and drums. But there were so many of them. When I went to middle school, they told me I couldn’t play that and have to do something else. My Dad had a bass. I picked it up.
What was it about it about that instrument?
I felt that it’s unique. It was different. I like being different. I like being in the background. I talked to some other people about this, and I realized I was able to — you know, I have two brothers that play the piano. Zaccai and my oldest brother Damien, and I was able to control them better playing a bass. And they’re older than me, so I had a little bit of power with the bass being an instrument of control. I knew that and liked it.
So in the 1990s, you’re in your mid-teen years, you’re learning about jazz and Latin jazz. It’s not exactly like hip hop, it’s not pop culture. Being part of the hip hop generation, was there anything about integrating what you were doing into what all your friends were listening to? Did you feel out of sync with your generation?
Growing up, I loved to listen to Wu-Tang and Tupac and Biggie.
So you were listening to that?
Absolutely. But there was also that time spent listening to Miles Davis and Eddie Palmieri. I listened to Ray Barretto a lot.
Who were the bass players that caught your attention other than Andy?
Paul Chambers was the first cat I fell in love with his playing. I’d transcribe everything of his, write it out. As a kid I loved puzzles, so I was always into trying to figure out the mathematics. I always liked my math classes. I just love math and figuring things out. So I think that helped. And luckily I was making money at fourteen, fifteen, I was doing gigs. So I able to buy my own CDs and do what I wanted to do.
Regarding Fort Apache, didn’t there come a time when you became more directly involved with the band, even, because of the health issues that Andy was having, you assumed his role?
Yes, and I did that with some of the original members, except John Stubblefield wasn’t there, he had passed away. This was in 2005. I did a tour with them in Japan. We did the Blue Note in Japan. And that was my first time playing with them. I actually have a lot of videos, we recorded it every night. I remember, from the first tune we played, Larry [Willis] looked at me and was like, Okay, you got this shit.
So that was Jerry, Larry Willis, Steve Berrios, and Joe Ford. All seasoned veterans. Wow, you truly were the kid.
Yeah, but I think they loved it because I played just like Andy.
Were you intimidated at all?
Hell yeah. I was freaking out, freaking out.
One of the things about Fort Apache was the reputation they had when they were on the road in their heyday. Lots of stimulants and late nights. I imagine by the time you were there, they were all older guys and had toned it down.
[Smiles.] They were okay… I feel like they were still hanging, but they knew I was young and doing my own thing. Mostly, we focused on music. I was still in the learning stage. Larry Willis used to help me out with the ballads, how to think about those. Like man, you gotta always think about building your foundation, and then once it goes to double time, that’s when you get into your thing. Fort Apache always did that. It was part of their vibe. They’d start very slow and then build and hit that double time. That tour in Japan was one of my top experiences of playing, to this day.
What a great education, but it’s like being thrown into the deep end of the pool, right?
Yeah, we were at Blue Note for a week. And then once we got back, they started calling me for a bunch of other things. And it’s funny because around that same time I was still on the road with Gary Burton. Gary started to die down, the first time he retired was around that time. Then he came back. So I was juggling that, and then Fort Apache started calling. And that’s also when I joined Eddie’s band in 2016. So it was kind of like everything was happening at once.
And do you think – obviously, they liked your playing, but how much of that do you think was because you were channeling Andy Gonzalez?
Oh yeah. I’d listened to those Fort Apache records, and we were playing Obsession, we were playing all those classic tunes that I’d heard a thousand times. It was like a dream come true.
Andy has been through a long period of dealing with health issues, so his ability to play has diminished. Have you been able to maintain a relationship with him where he knows what you’re doing? Does he still contribute? I mean, you’re all grown up now and don’t really need it.
I call him every year on his birthday, January first. And I talk to him every now and then. I’d rather go see him. I go and just hang with him; he’ll play me things. We listen to music, and we talk. We still have that vibe.
I’ve been over to his place a couple times and had that experience where he plays stuff for you. He doesn’t even talk. He’ll just put something on, and you don’t know why he’s putting it on, but then after a while, you figure out, oh, that’s why he put that on. Ask him a question, and he won’t say anything, but he’ll go over and pull a record down and put some music on, and that’s his answer to your question
[Laughs.] That’s it exactly. And I love that. That’s his teaching technique. He won’t argue with you, he’ll just be very casual, play you something to illustrate his point and wait for you to figure it out.
Another thing you might’ve picked up from Andy and Jerry is the dynamics of two brothers in a band. With you and Zaccai connected at the hip like you are, was that relevant to you two guys?
It was hilarious watching that. Every time that Andy would shout something at Jerry, Jerry would look back. It’s the same with my brother and me. There are some epic stories of us going at it.
Well, there are some epic stories of them going at it, too. Russ Musto [the band’s former manager] told me some of those stories. He told me when they were playing on a gig with Paul Simon, Andy and Jerry were arguing so aggressively that Russ had to assure Paul Simon, ‘Look, they’re not going to kill each other. they’re brothers. Don’t worry.’ Because Paul Simon thought, this is gonna get ugly. I suppose part of that is the emotional intensity of two brothers. I mean, bands are emotionally intense anyway, so you add that other layer. When others see you interacting in a certain way, they think, ‘Oh shit.’
They think you’re about to go at it. They don’t know that’s how we talk to each other.
There was a funny story about that. Once they wanted to put together a brother’s band at Dizzy’s, but we ended up doing just me and my brother and E.J. Strickland. Stacy Dillard was there. So, right before the other musicians came to rehearsal, my brother and I got into this argument. It was horrible. And we’re like, you know what, screw you, we’ll continue this after. Don’t say one word about this to the others. So we do our rehearsal, and halfway through E.J. looks at us and says, Man, you guys are great brothers together. Ha! Five minutes earlier, I’m telling you, we were ready to resort to blows.
But obviously you guys keep coming back to it, so there’s something about it. What is it musically that makes it work?
We grew up listening to the same people. We grew up on the same music, playing the same stuff, same charts. Our musical development is very similar. I hear the same things when he plays. It’s easy to groove with somebody you’ve played with for so long, more than half our lives.
I don’t want to say you’ve had a charmed career because you deserve it, but you’ve had a rare career in that you’re always in demand, always busy, which is not necessarily the case with everybody. Clearly, it’s a reflection of your talent. But you can be very talented and not have everything fall into place.
That’s very true.
So how has the jazz life been for you as a job? As a career?
It’s great. I’ve got two kids and a wife, so it’s demanding. There will be times that I haven’t worked for a while, and I’ll be like, I gotta go out and do this gig, even if I don’t really want to. But it’s fine. I hear a lot of people talking about how you can’t really make it as a jazz musician, that’s floating around a lot. But I’ve been able to do what I wanted to do, and fortunately, my brothers and I started our own record label. I wouldn’t say it was a protest against the industry, exactly, but it was like, well, they’re doing that, why can’t we do it ourselves. More of that kind of vibe. So we were able to create our own path.
Well, in this day and age you kind of have to do that, right?
Okay, for this show, the Andy tribute, do you have a repertoire in mind or a set for that?
Sort of, it’s beginning to take shape. I want to do maybe one or two songs from Andy’s record. The song Vieques. Which is his anthem. We’ll do a Fort Apache tune, one or two. Maybe a Manny Oquendo & Libre song. I was thinking Little Sunflower because it has that identifiable bass line. An Orquesta Aragón song, because Andy loves Aragón. I wrote a song for Andy a couple of years back, maybe that song. And there’s a song from The River is Deep, just him and percussion.
And the band?
My brother won’t be able to make it so Manuel Valera will play the piano. With Camilo Molina on percussion and Willie Martinez on drums. So it’s going to be a really nice band. And it’s going to be a special kind of night. I’m really looking forward to it.
(Come and experience the artistry of Luques Curtis and his band in a very special tribute to Andy González on Thursday, February 28, at Zinc Jazz Club, 82 W. 3rd Street in Greenwich Village, NYC. The sets are at 7:30 and 9 pm)
Interview reprinted with the express permission of T.J. English