In conversation with steven kroon
By Tomas Peña
Congratulations on a fine recording. Getting (radio pioneer, activist, writer and keen observer of the Latin music scene) Felipe Luciano to write the liner-notes was a great idea.
Felipe and I grew up together, in fact my mother was his baby sitter. When I told him that I was making a new recording he insisted on writing the liner-notes. Felipe and I are like family.
Tell me about the significance of the title El Mas Alla.
I was simply going to call it Beyond. I like to write the title in English and Spanish but I wasn't sure of the translation so I asked my father to help me out. He told me that Beyond in Spanish also means "to transcend" and that really grabbed me! The title took on an even deeper significance with the passing of Ray Barretto, Don Alias, Carlos "Patato" Valdez, Tata Guines, Miguel "Anga" Diaz, Mongo Santamaria and more important, the death of my father last year.
Your father and hero, Efrain Kroon. Tell me about the significance of the cover-art as it relates to your father.
The photo was taken on a secluded beach in Pi?ones, Puerto Rico. My father was a merchant marine, thus the ocean in the background.
I like Felipe’s colorful description of your music, “Gut bucket jazz and a style of Latino music that speaks to the ears, feet, hips, ass, and arms.” Does that about sum it up? (Laughter)
Yeah! (Laughter) I actually went back to my old Harlem sound.
Meaning Latin jazz, which according to you “is where your heart is.”
It takes you right back to those old house parties where they played Ismael Rivera and Cortijo and people were just partying.
I am dating myself but must admit, I remember them well! Speaking of Harlem, you were born there but your family moved to Queens when you were nine. I hear that you had some remarkable neighbors.
I was so fortunate. I lived on the same block as (producer) Henry Glover, who did a lot of work for Roulette Records. He would allow me to attend his rehearsals with the Cleftones, Joey Dee and the Starlighters, etc. Also, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis lived right around the corner and Lester Young lived four blocks away. I used to go to school with his son. We used to wait on the stoop until his taxi pulled up and Lester would get out of the cab with his hat in one hand and his horn in the other and we would be like, “Yeah! Prez!” Unlike a lot of kids today we knew who the elders were and we respected them and wanted to be like them.
I hear that Lester was super cool.
These guys were stylish. Arthur Prysock, Count Basie, James Brown and Brook Benton also lived in the neighborhood. I used to swim in Count Basie’s pool and wash Brook Benton’s car! And then there was the Club Ruby, where Charlie Parker played. It was an amazing place to grow up.
What part of Queens did you live in?
How did you become a percussionist?
I was always into the drum. My big brother Bobby, who died fifteen years ago, was a big influence on me. I wanted to be whatever he wanted to be. Also, my father played a lot of records around the house. He loved Tito Rodriguez, Ismael Rivera, Cortijo and Tito Puente. I have vivid memories of my father taking us to The Apollo Theater to see The Symphony Sid Show. Check out the lineup: Mongo Santamaria, La Lupe, Kako, Willie Bobo, Carlos “Patato” Valdes, Cal Tjader, Armando Peraza and The Joe Cuba Sextet when they were at their height!
I understand that (percussionist) Tommy Lopez Sr. was also a major influence.
Tommy was an amazing guy and a major influence. He showed me how to play the proper tumbao and how to “sit” in the drum. I met Wilson Chembo Corniel through Tommy. We were both studying with Tommy at the same time but we had never met in person until one day I asked Tommy who his favorite student was and he said “there’s this kid that’s going to be great, his name is Chembo." Today we are the best of friends.
Getting back to Tommy Lopez, often times it wasn't so much what he taught but what he said. I remember we were talking about solos and Tommy said, “People play so much that it sounds like someone took a garbage can and threw it down the stairs! It’s what you don’t play that counts. You have to feel it.”
Tommy understood the dynamics of space, tension and release.
Unfortunately Tommy and Frankie Malabe never received the recognition they deserved during their lifetime.
True, but what Latin music aficionado can ever forget Tommy Lopez with the original Eddie Palmieri y La Perfecta? They were killin!
I saw La Perfecta at The Palladium, their groove was amazing. Eddie’s brother, Charlie Palmieri was not only a great musician but a great human being. I once commented to Charlie that I really wanted to make it in this business and you know what he said? “The first thing you have to do is stop chasing the train. Learn your stuff and when the train comes be ready to get on. Then ride it and never get off.”
Sound advice indeed. What's your take on the new crop of percussionists?
I respect everybody and I believe that everyone is doing the best they can. That said Giovanni Hidalgo has really raised the bar. A lot of guys look at Giovanni and see the flash, but what they don’t realize is that in order for him to get where he is, he had to learn the basics, the “old-school” stuff. I have seen Giovanni play just like Tommy Lopez and Mongo Santamaria. He’s special!
Who are some of the other people you studied with?
Don Um Rumao, a percussionist who came to the U.S. with Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66. He also played with Weather Report. I really took to Brazilian music because I like to play a lot of “colors." Don was really cool with me, we practiced together and became great friends. I also played with some of Don’s early groups during the 70s, when the Brazilian scene was happening in New York. We used to travel to Brazil every year, that’s where I met João Donato, Milton Nascimiento, and Gilberto Gil. Brazil has a whole different vibe; you can practically hear the music in the air.
Was there anyone else that had an impact on you?
José Fernandez, I met him through my brother. After Tommy Lopez, he was very instrumental in showing me the Cuban techniques, like La Mano Secreta (The Secret Hand).
Didn’t José Luis Quintana "Changuito" develop La Mano Secreta? I have always wondered about the technique, it sounds mystical.
La Mano Secreta is all about waking up the hand you don’t use. If you are right handed it’s about waking up your left hand.
You are extremely versatile and have wored extensively as a sideman. For the sake of our readers here are just a few of the names you have shared the stage with over the years: Aretha Franklin, the Temptations, Luther Vandross, Kenny G, Roberta Flack, Bette Midler, Spyro Gyra, Diana Krall … and the list goes on. What were the circumstances that led up to your working with so many wonderful artists?
Actually, it was through Crusher Bennett a friend and a musician who had established the connection and didn't like to travel. He liked the way I play so he turned me on to Luther Vandross. The rest is history. Later, I got into the jazz thing with Ron Carter, Stanley Turrentine, Hubert Laws to name a few.
How did Crusher make a living?
He made his money doing jingles and commercials.
Let’s talk about El Mas Alla and the repertoire. You composed four tunes ...
I wrote "Bobo’s Blues" and "Steppin" with Igor Italia. Oscar Hernandez and I collaborated on "Don Ramon" and "Matana."
You also selected material by Jaco Pastorious ("Used to be a Cha Cha"), João Donato ("Minha Saudade"), George Duke ("Brazilian Sugar") and Stevie Wonder ("Superwoman / Where Were You"). And if that weren’t enough you invited violinist Regina Carter and vocalist Freddy Cole to join you as your special guests. What a lineup!
I am so fortunate to know so many artists. A lot of them are my friends, like Regina. I have worked with her in the past.
Regina is a superb violinist.
And a beautiful person. She recorded "Superwoman / Where Were You" with me on her birthday. In fact, we celebrated her birthday in the recording studio. The tune has a great vibe and I thought it was perfect vehicle for her.
No doubt you remember violinist Noel Pointer (who passed away of a massive stroke at the age of 38). Regina has her own style, but there is something in her playing that reminds me of Noel.
Noel did the tune originally. Also, Regina and Noel were the best of friends. She told me that Noel’s vibe came through when she was recording the tune. She even played some of his licks!
What about vocalist Freddy Cole?
I heard Freddy about ten years ago and I couldn’t believe his voice. He has that kind of Hennessy, Courvoisier voice; do you know what I mean?
Originally I was going to have him sing "To Be With You," but it wasn’t a match so I chose "I Wish You Love" instead.
Even though I know a lot of people in the business I didn’t meet Freddy until we made the recording. I was working at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola (New York) and Todd Barkan mentioned to me that he was making a recording with Freddy Cole and needed a percussionist. I mentioned to him that I was interested in having Freddy appear on my CD and before I knew it Freddy called me up and said “Hey Steve, we can do this!” I couldn’t believe it. It was like a dream come true.
Let’s talk about your style. You are very conscious about appealing to a wide audience. Which brings to mind "The Steven Kroon Barbecue Theory." Please explain.
I am going to tell you two of the things that I think about when I put together a recording. I grew up dancing so there has to be something for the dancer’s.
Also, there has to be something for the ladies. And here’s where the barbecue test comes in, you put the CD on at a barbecue and walk away, you know what I mean? The music is accessible.
Coincidentally, my wife and I are planning a barbecue. I will have to put your theory to the test.
It's important to me that people come together and feel happy.
Who are the members of your band?
Igor Italia (keyboards), Bryan Carrott (vibraphone), Craig Rivers (flute), Ruben Rodriguez (bass), Vince Cherico (drums), Diego Lopez (drums), Oscar Hernandez (piano), James Shipp (pandiero), John Di Martino (piano), Roger Byan (saxophone), Regina Carter (violin) and Freddy Cole (vocals).
Final question: What’s in your CD player at home or in your car as we speak?
I listen to so much music on my iPod. I just put it on shuffle and go. Lately I have been listening to a lot of Mongo Santamaria. Have you heard Mongo Santamaria Live at the Blackhawk?
What serious Latin music lover hasn’t?
I love saxophonist Chombo Silva.
Chombo was the man, he is my favorite Latin sax player of all time.
He reminds me of Prez (Lester Young). I have also been listening to (Cuban drummer) Giraldo Piloto and Klimax. The arrangements are incredible. Another guy I was really enjoying just prior to his death was (percussionist) Long John Oliva.
Long John Oliva and The AC Timba Jazz Project with Omar Sosa and Orlando “Puntilla” Rios. Who can forget Zarabanda Culle?
They were killin’! I also like (Brazilian composer and arranger) Moacir Santos, The Ipanemas and (Brazilian vocalist) Carlinhos Brown.
Will you be performing in New York anytime soon? Are you planning on having a CD release party?
Yes, my CD release party is going to be at Sweet Rhythm. I have to firm up the date. I also have a contract to perform at Flushing Town Hall (Queens) in October. I have a couple of other things pending as well.
Well, this has certainly been a lively conversation. I feel like I have met a kindred spirit. Good luck with El Mas Alla.