Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Barretto, Ray

As the house percussionist - simultaneously - for the Blue Note, Prestige and Riverside labels the 1960s, Ray Barretto sat in the catbird seat of jazz. Always listening carefully to the musicians around him, Barretto may have been the first to fully "swing" Afro-Cuban polyrhythms, melding them with the rhythms of North American jazz and popular music like never before.

Ray Barretto

Barretto’s playing of the conga drums was defined by his close attention to the drummers he played with, often swinging with an emphasis on the 2nd and 4th beats of each measure. He tuned the pitch of one of his drums down to complement the notes played by the bass player, and in sympathy with the drummer’s kick. He placed his accents to support those ringng from the drumkit's cymbals. Barretto saw himself musically in an integrated role, rather than as a piece of exotica.

Ray Barretto was born in Brooklyn, New York on April 29, 1929, but was raised in Spanish Harlem, at the time a focal point of Puerto Rican immigration and culture in New York City. As a child, Ray was exposed to Puerto Rican and Cuban boleros and dance music, as well as the sounds of the popular big bands led by Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman.

Barretto joined the U.S. Army in 1946 at seventeen, and while stationed in Munich, he heard trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie’s groundbreaking 1947 collaboration with Cuban conga player Chano Pozo, “Manteca,” for the first time. "That song blew my mind," Barretto told journalist Harvey Pekar. "It was the basis of my inspiration to become a professional musician."

Barretto returned to New York in 1948, and as the story goes, he purchased a used and partially broken conga drum at a bakery in Spanish Harlem. Before long, he was sitting in at bebop jam sessions, sometimes with Gillespie himself, and even alto saxophonist Charlie Parker. Latin bandleaders also took interest in Barretto, and he played for four years with Cuban pianist Jose Curbelo, and with Puerto Rican timbalero Tito Puente at the height of his success, and Barretto’s first recorded session date was on Puente’s immensely popular album Dance Mania, released on RCA in 1958, which captures the Latin big band excitement of New York's mambo-crazed dancers at the Palladium Ballroom.

Riding on his success with Puente, starting in 1960 Barretto served simultaneously as the house percussionist for the era's three top jazz labels. One of his first dates for Prestige was on pianist Red Garland's album “Manteca,” which featured a reworking of the Gillespie/Pozo composition.

Of course, Gillespie's big band version has no piano – but at first Garland’s version hews close to the Gillespie charts, and he plays the syncopated percussion hits that the full orchestra plays on the earlier version. Garland outlines the leading melody of the song, then proceeds to play a relaxed, swinging solo.

The is followed by is a section featuring Barretto’s conga and Art Taylor on the drums interacting with a rhythmic call-and-response, a version of what Pozo did with Gillespie's drummers, Kenny Clarke, Joe Harris and Teddy Stewart, in live performances. But unlike Pozo, who simply alternated passages with the drummers, Barretto demonstrates his abilty to hear and react to the musical context he’s in. If his fellow musicians were swinging the beat, he swung; he saw his role as that of a reinforcer of a groove, not a rhythmic island,

On the original “Manteca,” Chano Pozo is on display: the band makes space for him and his Afro-Cuban rhythms, which were a novelty for jazz audiences at the time. Barretto’s attitude and philosophy of accompanying and encouraging the band, seeing himself as a cog in the music’s rhythmic wheel, regardless of genre, was a hallmark of his career.

Critic Ira Gitler's liner notes to the album offer some hint of the assumptions Barretto faced as he sought acceptance in the jazz world at the time.

"Ray Barretto, although of Latin descent… does not think, musically, like a Latin," Gitler wrote. "Unlike so many so called 'jazz' conga players who play the same solo every time they are featured, he has a definite feeling for jazz and certainly fulfills his desire to help the proceedings to swing."

Barretto recorded prolifically as a jazz session player throughout the 1960s. He appeared on recordings with George Benson, Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, Lou Donaldson, Sonny Stitt, Freddie Hubbard, Yusef Lateef, and others.

In 1962, Barretto released the album “Charanga Moderna” on George Goldner's Tico label, the most popular Latin music label of its time. The song “El Watusi” became a hit, and fed into the emerging boogaloo dance craze. The song features an infectious charanga rhythm, driven by the cocktail mix of Barretto’s conga, guiro, hand claps, piano, strings, flute and a spoken-word voiceover in which the narrator taunts and eggs on “El Watusi,” supposedly the “most handsome man in La Havana.”

“El Watusi” reached number twenty on the Billboard pop charts, the first Latin song to enter the chart, and became both a blessing and a curse for Barretto. On the one hand, it made him a pop star, and he built on its success with subsequent albums, such as El Watusi Man and Viva Watusi! On the other hand, Barretto, who considered himself a jazz musician, would vigorously resist being typecast as one who would pander to dance-addled teens.

In 1967 he joined Johnny Pacheco and Jerry Masucci’s Fania label, on which he released well-received solo albums like Acid, Hard Hands, and Rican/Struction. He also seved as the musical directorfor the the Fania All-Stars, a super-group which featured, at different times, Celia Cruz, Hector Lavoe, Willie Colon, Ismael Miranda, Cheo Feliciano, and others.

Throughout the seventies, Barretto was also probably the most in-demand session percussionist in the world, playing conga live and on recordings by various Latin, jazz and pop artists, including the Rolling Stones and the Bee Gees. In 1975 Barretto received a Grammy nomination for the Fania album Barretto. Fom 1976 to 1978, he recorded three albums for the Atlantic label, and garnered a Grammy nomination for Barretto Live…Tomorrow.

And yet, whenever his career reached a crossroads, he always returned to jazz. In 1972, when singer Adalberto Rodriguez left the Fania All-Stars, taking four of its members with him, Barretto recorded a jazz album, The Other Road, for the label. " the record stands out as the Fania era's most unique record," he later told Newsday's Ed Morales. "It had no vocals, it had nothing to do with dance music, and it incorporated a lot of jazz."

In 1979 he released the album La Cuna for Creed Taylor's CTI records, which contains a blistering Latin jazz version version of the Stevie Wonder classic “Pastime Paradise.” The lineup of musicians consisted of: Willie Torres (vocals); Francisco Centeno (bass); Mark Craney (drums); Joe Farrell (flute, soprano, alto, tenor saxes); Steve Gadd (drums); Suzanne Ciani (synthesizer, synthesizer programming); John Tropea (guitar); Ray Barretto (percussion, conga); Charlie Palmieri (percussion, piano); Tito Puente (timbales); Jerry Wall (synthesizer, arranger, conductor); Carlos Franzetti (piano, arranger).

The track begins with Latin-flavored electric piano, followed by the entrance of Puente’s timbales, then Barretto’s congas playing a rhythmic pattern to a 2-3 clave pattern, then a son montuno baseline, and the stage is set; the kit drums come in with the vocal and electric guitar, along with the rest of the ensemble and the song is off. The atmosphere set here is a dynamic fusion of Latin jazz, funk, and disco.

Barretto’s conga accompaniment sticks to the clave, but subtly swings and reinforces the swung feel of Steve Gadd’s drum pattern, which emphasises the 2nd and 4th beats of each measure. Sax, flute keyboard and guitar each solo over the arrangements jazzy chord voicings. An extended percussion solo features Barretto’s conga, drums, and cowbell in a swinging, swaying locomotive of rhythm.

After many successful dance albums and numerous awards, including a Grammy in 1990 for Ritmo en el Corazon, a duet album with Cuban singer Celia Cruz. Barretto chose to return to the instrumentation of smaller jazz groups, forming the New World Spirit label in 1992. "I thought a return to jazz would be a good thing for my life, my career and my sanity," he told Morales.

In both 2003 and 2005 he was honored as best percussionist by the Down Beat magazine critics poll. His last album, Time Was-Time Is, on the O+Music label in 2006. was nominated for a Grammy.

Weeks before Barretto died of heart failure on February 17, 2006 at Hackensack University Hospital, he was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts, the United States' highest honor for a jazz musician.

Select Discography:

Barretto Para Bailar (Riverside, 1961)

Charanga Moderna (Tico, 1962)

Cocinando Suave (Riverside, 1962)

La Moderna & El Watusi (Tico, 1962)

Pachanga (Saludos Amigos, 1962)

Latino! (Riverside, 1963)

On Fire Again (Encendido Otra Vez) (Tico, 1964)

Viva Viva Watusi! (Polydor, 1965)

Señor 007 (United Artists, 1966)

Alma Alegre (Jazzland, 1967)

Latino con Soul (West Side Latino, 1967)

Soul Drummer (Fania, 1967)

Acid (Fania, 1968)

Fiesta en el Barrio (Polydor, 1968)

Hard Hands (Fania, 1968)

Together (Fania, 1970)

From the Beginning (Fania, 1971)

Carnaval, Barretto Power, Cocinando, Head Sounds, The Message (Fania, 1972)

El Rey Criollo (Polydor, 1972)

Que Viva La Musica (Salsa, 1972)

Indestructible (Fania, 1973)

The Other Road (Fania, 1973)

Barretto (Fania, 1975)

Tomorrow:Barretto Live (Atlantic, 1976)

Energy to Burn (Fania, 1977)

Eye of the Heholder (Atlantic, 1977)

Can You Feel It? (Atlantic, 1978)

Gracias (FNA, 1978)

La Cuna (CTI, 1979)

Rican/Struction (Fania, 1979)

Giant Force (Fania, 1980)

Rhythm of Life (Fania, 1982)

Todo se va Poder (FNA, 1984)

Aqui Se Puede (Fania, 1987)

Irresistible (Fania, 1989)

Ray Barretto (T.H. Rodven, 1990)

Handprint (Concord Picante, 1991)

Soy Dichoso (Fania, 1992)

Live in New York (Messidor, 1992)

Moderna de Siempre (Tico, 1995)

Descarga Criolla (Palladium, 1995)

Salsa Caliente de Nu York (Universe, 2001)

Fuerza Gigante: Live in Puerto Rico April 27, 2001 (Universe, 2004)

Standards Rican-ditioned (Zoho Music, 2006)

Contributor: Ricardo Quiñones