One month before his death, Ray Barretto received the NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship, the highest honor our nation bestows on jazz artists. Despite that, he is mainly remembered as a percussionist, bandleader, and Salsa trailblazer.
As Barretto’s biographer, Robert Téllez, points out, “To examine Ray Barretto’s musical origins, it is necessary to refer to jazz rather than Latin music. That is one of the main differences between his career and other notable Latin percussionists. Most of them started in Afro-Caribbean music and turned to jazz, but in Barretto’s case, it was the opposite.”
Various factors laid the groundwork for Barretto’s passion for jazz. In a 2003 interview with Latin Beat magazine, Barretto was asked, “What type of music did you listen to on the radio (as a child)?” “It was mostly jazz and the era’s popular music,” replied Barretto, “but mostly jazz.” He cites the big band sounds of Harry James, Benny Goodman, and Duke Ellington as “part of his everyday life.” In addition, he listened to Daniel Santos, Bobby Capo, Trio Los Panchos, Frank “Machito” Grillo, and his Afro-Cubans, Marcelino Guerra and Arsenio Rodriguez, among others.
According to Robert Farris Thompson, “While serving in the US Army in 1952, Barretto happened to hear a record by (Dizzy Gillespie) and Chano Bozo, perhaps the most important Black Cuban drummer of the century. ‘That, says Ray Barretto, ‘turned my life around.” After that, he never looked back. When Barretto returned home, he visited clubs and participated in jam sessions, where he perfected his conga playing. One occasion, Charlie Parker heard Barretto play and invited him to play in his band.
In 1960, Barretto became a house musician for the Prestige Records, Riverside and Blue Note labels and appeared on albums with Gene Ammons, Red Garland, and Sonny Stitt, among many others, including Lou Donaldson, Kenny Burrell, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Jimmy Forrest, Yusef Lateef, Eddie Harris, Johnny Lytle, Herbie Mann, Sonny Stitt, Johnny “Hammond” Smit, Art Farmer, and Clifford Jordan, among others.
As these things go, Barretto’s name got around, and he was offered Latin gigs, and the rest is history. His success as a Latin percussionist, bandleader, and member of the Fania All-Stars is well-documented. Between 1961 and 1973, Barretto released twenty recordings as a leader, including Charanga Moderna, Acid, Hard Hands, The Message, and Que Viva La Musica, among others.
In 1973, an unanticipated turn of events allowed Barretto to take The Other Road. As the story goes, “In 1973, about half of my band left to form Tipica ’73, and once again, I had to readjust and reconstruct my band. It took me about a year to get the band in form and working again. But in the meantime, I convinced Jerry Massuci (the head of Fania Records) to let me record a jazz project, and one night, from midnight to 6 AM (at Good Vibrations Sound Studios, 1440 Broadway, NYC), we recorded the album, The Other Road.”
This brings me to the players, who Barretto describes in the liner notes as “young disciples from various mother countries wanting to be heard.” Trumpeters Roberto Rodriguez, Joseph Roman, and Manny Duran, pianist Edy Martinez, bassist Guillermo Edghill, timbal player Ray Romero, bongo player Tony Fuentes, flutist Art (Artie) Webb, and drummer Billy Cobham. All who rise to the occasion!
The repertoire consists of Thelonious Monk’s Round Midnight (aka Round About Midnight), Edy Martinez’s The Other Road, Manny Duran’s Lucretia the Cat and Oracion (The Prayer), Ray Barretto’s Little Ting and a remake of Abidjan (which initially appeared on the album, Hard Hands) titled Abidjan Revisited. It is worth noting the title track was composed by Edy Martinez, who composed the song for his sister, who tragically died in a car accident. The original LP features session photos, but no specific details exist.
When The Other Road was released in 1973, it was a commercial failure for several reasons. Jerry Masucci (Fania) had no interest in jazz, as demonstrated by his admonishing Barretto for making The Other Road and ordering him never to make a jazz album again. Also, Barretto’s Salsa fan base rejected it. Some went so far as to claim it wasn’t Ray Barretto!
The same year, Barretto came roaring back with Indestructible, which is widely considered a classic and one of the most potent Salsa albums of all time. In 1990, dissatisfied with how Salsa was evolving, Barretto recorded Soy Dichoso, his farewell salsa album. Shortly after, he announced the formation of the jazz ensemble New World Spirit, which combined Jazz and Latin music, the two worlds he loved. Barretto led New World Spirit from 1992 until he died in 2006.
In 2016, Colombian journalist, radio show host, and producer Robert Téllez published the first and only biography of Ray Barretto titled “Ray Barretto Giant Force.” While Téllez did an admirable job of documenting Barretto’s career and discography, there is still a need for a more comprehensive book that delves into Ray Barretto, the man.
Musicologist, editor and lecturer Max Salazar on Ray Barretto: “Barretto was the most intelligent musician, and bandleader I ever encountered. He was like a sponge, always absorbing everything around him. He could have been anything that he wanted to be: A doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, but he opted to be a musician. Barretto’s music was always groundbreaking, whether he was playing jazz or Latin music. He was a true giant of our music.”
Barretto, Ray – The Other Road Liner Notes
Ray Barretto – Latin Beat Magazine (April, 2006)
Ray Barretto – Living By the Beat of the Drum (Latin Beat magazine, May 2003)
Téllez, Robert – Ray Barretto Giant Force (English Edition, 2021)
Thompson, Robert Farris – Aesthetic of the Cool – Afro-Atlantic Art and Music (Periscope Publishing, Ltd, 2011)
YouTube – Ray Barretto Band Live (Zycopolis Productions)