Arsenio Rodriguez was blinded at a young age after being kicked in the head by a donkey. He went on to became Cuba’s greatest player of the tres guitar and a composer and creator of a new style of Afro Cuban music. Contemporary piano virtuoso MIKE ECKROTH has put together a conjunto band to pay homage to Rodriguez. Recently, T.J. English, host of the Latin Jazz series Dangerous Rhythms, caught up with Eckroth to discuss his upcoming show at Zinc in Greenwich Village.
Why do we honor Arsenio Rodriguez?
People revere Arsenio because he’s the originator of so much stuff that has happened with danceable Cuban music. His first recordings were in the early 40s, but he was already a force in Cuban music by then. He was a known entity in popular Cuban music in the 30s before he started playing with his own group.
If you read the regular histories, they’re gonna say Arsenio was the guy who, first of all, created the son montuno style. He called it son montuno. It was his orchestrated version of son music, using stuff that wasn’t in the music before. In other words, adding some instruments, and adding a whole arranging style. If you look at what he did between 1940 and 1960, between him and the arrangers, he pretty much maxed out everything you can do with son montuno. If you’re ever looking for ideas — I mean, the salsa era wouldn’t have happened without the ability to copy a) his tunes, and b) his style of playing and arrangement. So he’s the bedrock of the whole thing. Obviously, Cuban music is a big thing, and he’s one guy in the constellation, but he’s a pretty important cat. Very important.
Is it fair to say that Arsenio was, in his own way, something like the Duke Ellington of Cuba? And by that I mean a brilliant player who was also a brilliant composer who changed the music forever?
That’s very fair to say. I think that’s pretty good. From both of those cats comes a base level for all that came later. And they both peaked in the 40s. They went on to have full careers into the 60s, of course, but they were especially influential in the 40s.
What’s the central element of son montuno?
Son music had bongo, maybe a marimbula or a bass, it had some guitar. It was a string instrument kind of thing with some minor percussion, clave, and singing. And maybe one trumpet that would do a free soloing type of thing. Then Arsenio comes along; he was with Casino de Playa, a jazz band for Cuba, he was helping them put more Afro folkloric elements in their music. He was helping them write music and write tunes, he even played what some people say is the first recorded tres solo on one of their records from the 1930s. Then he comes along and adds the other instruments. The idea of adding a conga to the band was new, hadn’t been there before – unless maybe you were playing a comparsa song with the folkloric conga out front.
But he was so hip about getting a space for all these different instruments, so you could have a bigger son band. The original son bands were like six, seven piece. When you get into his stuff its two to three trumpets, its adding piano to that music, that really wasn’t a part of it before. Beefing up the instrumentation a lot. Then, obviously, what do you do with all those guys once you have them up there? You have the trumpets play things as a section, you have people solo. You have a piano solo, you have a bass solo, you have a trumpet solo. You have some other solos. Instead of a folkloric jam, you turn it into a three-minute pop tune that people can dance to. He was very big in getting the sound that we know as son montuno to happen.
Was he intentionally trying to popularize the music? Or was he just being musically inventive?
I wish I had been around in those times – he hasn’t been around for a very long time. From what I’ve read, after he moved to the U.S., he deliberately tried to change up the music to make it fit the popular style. If you listen to his later stuff, he was doing some wacky things because he thought that, you know, the teenagers will like this. He was putting some other stuff in there that weren’t part of his original style. So he had that thought in his brain. But I think what he was really doing was being creative and going with his gut reaction of what made the music sound good, feel good. How to create a space for all the instruments. The sonic space of each instrument. The different timbres. Having the biggest timbre you can get out of a 10, 12 piece band. He was a great player and a great writer and kind of a genius.
Do you remember when you first started to identify certain music as his music?
Yeah. The first Latin gig I ever did was on bass, not piano. I’m not a bass player, but I got involved with some people in Arizona when I was 18, and we wanted to play son music. We all got interested in Cuban music and we got on to this idea of playing folkloric, Cuban style music. And some of his tunes were in there. At that point, I knew what it was, and I grew to appreciate it more throughout the years as a piano player. Appreciating the piano players that worked with his band. Appreciating all the different arrangers that wrote for his group.
But how did you get into Cuban music in the first place. It certainly wasn’t in the mainstream of your generation.
No, there wasn’t anything generational or cultural about it for me in particular. I went to music college at 18. I started working on my bachelor’s degree in music at Arizona. I met some people. I ended up playing some salsa. They needed a piano player for somebody’s recital. From there I met some guys who were going to go to Cuba to study. A percussionist I know went there to study, and he came back all fired up about it. So we started putting bands together.
But what was it that hooked you? Was it the rhythm of the music?
Yeah, it’s a very infectious rhythm, once I got a taste for it. After a year or two of getting more into it – I mean, the period we’re talking about here is the 90s. So I went straight from playing bass in that little son group into wanting to know everything about 90s timba music. If you fast forward 40 years from Arsenio, you get to the really complicated timba piano stuff. So I ended up going there, and that got me more fired up. I started studying with private lessons, and it built from there. It became a way for me to work on certain musical stuff that I wanted to work on. Especially timing and tempo and things like that.
At that point my sense of timing and groove was a little weak. Even though I liked groovy music. I always liked different kinds of American music that had a groove to it. The deeper I got into it, the more there was to study. This became a 20-year process of discovery.
It’s almost impossible to get into all this musically without also getting into it culturally. Was that part of it for you?
Yes, definitely. Especially during that period. I was in my early 20s. I was with a group of people who were super into it. We were also doing things like going to Cuba to study music, and also studying dance. And, of course, I couldn’t figure that out either. That was not second nature at all to me. I had to go learn how to dance casino, which is kind of a modern Cuban dancing style that everybody does. It involved getting stronger in Spanish. It was a cultural immersion. That set me off on the trajectory I got on later, which was solely Latin jazz and many different styles of Cuban music. And I also played a lot of mainstream salsa gigs too. So it all emanated out of the same cultural exploration.
How would you explain the difference between salsa and Latin jazz?
Latin jazz is instrumental music mainly, and salsa is sung music that is also danceable music. That’s a very general description of the difference. It’s the same thing as saying the difference between R&B and jazz, or something, because jazz music isn’t really played for dancers and R&B has more of a danceable element to it. That said, I don’t think there’s any way to be a really good Latin jazz musician without intimately understanding the groove of the music. So, you have to have some background with playing dance music. And I’m talking about all the many different rhythms that are within Latin jazz.
Latin jazz is an improvisation thing, so you can throw anything in there. You can use Cuban rhythms, you can use any rhythm from South America, you can use Brazilian music. And of course its geared more towards improvisation and soloing. Salsa is different. When you play Salsa, it’s all about holding a pattern down and keeping the people dancing and just nailing an arrangement so that it keeps people moving.
How do you go about making these Arsenio standards sound fresh?
For me, I just appreciate the music so much that even if it was just us playing an average version of the music, I’d appreciate it. As popular and instrumental as Arsenio’s stuff is, it’s not like everyone who is a Latin musician or a Cuban music person or salsa musician, it’s not something everyone has explored that much. So it’s actually new even for the Cuban guys in the band.
It’s like if you decided that you were going to play Count Basie’s music for a night. I don’t know everything Count Basie did. I love his stuff, I’d love to capture that style. But it would involve hunkering down and figuring out what the band was doing, copying it and catching some elements of his style that I didn’t know about. It’s the same thing for the guys in this band. It’s new because, actually, what I’ve done with that project so far, is basically transcribe the Arsenio stuff, but the actual style demands that you improvise and play it different. That’s one of the aspects of Afro Cuban music that explains why we relate it to jazz music. There’s a lot of flexibility built in as to how someone interprets it.
You can have 9 or 10 guys on stage, you might have the same charts, you might be doing an identical arrangement, but it’s going to be a new sound because it’s all these different guys who are trying to appreciate the beauty of the original music. It’s a performance of this music that depends on the personalities of the guys there. It depends on what we all have to bring to the table. We have to solo, and we have to improvise. Even though there might be a few notes on the page that are important, everything else is improvised. That’s automatic freshness. That’s the beauty of the music, it has open qualities in it.
Are contemporary musicians enthusiastic about playing this music?
Totally. There was no problem getting people to do this. People love the music. It’s like saying I’m going to play Ellington, or I’m going to play Basie. It’s elemental. It also has something where you get into the deep cuts. Everyone knows the Arsenio tunes that were recorded by Celia Cruz or Larry Harlow or something like that, but there’s a lot of other deep cuts in there that people are excited to learn about. It’s like if you learned about some obscure Ellington song that you didn’t know about, and you’re going to do the arrangements as he did it. It’s that level of interest, curiosity. It’s respect for what it is.
In your assessment, where is Latin jazz at these days?
Well, Latin jazz is by nature a hybrid music. It’s drawing from regular jazz. You’re not just playing the folkloric music of Cuba. There’s an element of understanding that comes back to our music in the U.S. The music, as it goes, incorporates deeper and deeper elements. That’s part of the progression. It’s totally not unheard of for the average person to play a little more authentically or dogmatically. There is so much back and forth. Now, today, it’s kind of all one thing. When we say I’m a Latin jazz musician, that can mean a lot of things. That can mean I play like Tito Puente, or it can mean I play like Gonzalo Rubalcaba, the newer stuff that is more free form. Today, it’s more difficult to define.
With the cultural framework for this music being so important – almost as important as the music itself – how do we go about preserving that?
It takes people who are willing to steward the scene, like you with this series Dangerous Rhythms. Let’s be honest. The musicians are out there, most of us, just trying to get by. We’re out there trying to study our craft. We’re out there in the community trying to progress and preserve the music. What you’ve touched on is something that has more to do with the overall culture, U.S. culture, how the arts are perceived.
It’s going to take a lot more awakening of younger people to the value of this stuff. I think there’s a cloud that’s hovering over the arts right now. There is a lot of stuff in the arts that can answer a lot of questions for people, if they want to study it. In the old days, maybe people would have a record collection, a hi-fi stereo and they would get into it. That’s how they would participate in it. But today the average young person doesn’t have a basis for understanding the arts, understanding music, and appreciating it for what it is. The average person right now, the average kid coming from high school, has never even seen a band play. There is no communal aspect to the experience of music.
As far as what we can do? It’s going to take people who are outside the musician spectrum. This is a sociological problem within the structure of the U.S. I mean, there are places: I’m going to go to Brazil in two weeks, where they are just more hip about music, more lively about the experience of live music. Where the musical rhythms of the country are part of the national identity of the country. In Brazil, Cuba and some other places, young people are more groovy. They’re into the experiential part of the music, going to a venue, checking it out, being boisterous and enjoying it.
How important is having a series like this at Zinc?
Very important. One thing you notice at some jazz clubs around Manhattan is that audiences are not local, they’re international. So much of it seems geared towards cashing in on tourism rather than creating a deep community of people who appreciate refined music. Having a community-based venue, or series, geared towards a specific kind of music is essential. It fosters a love for the music and provides an opportunity for new listeners to discover the music for themselves, to experience it as it was meant to be experienced – live. You can keep a venue going for a long time that way.
The key to longevity is to have a place where people know they can come, that creates a whole scene, a following. You know there’s a club where you can go play or go listen to some great musicians doing their thing.
(Come see and hear the Mike Eckroth Group pay tribute to the great Arsenio Rodriguez at Zinc Jazz Club, 82 W. 3rd Street in Greenwich Village, NYC, on May 10, Thursday, sets at 7 and 8:30 on.)