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Breakfast with Barretto

By Mark Towns
Published: March 2 2006, JazzHouston

"Austin sets record for heat: 109 degrees," read the morning front page headline of the Austin American-Statesman as I ambled into the hotel restaurant for breakfast. The date was June 15, 1998. The afternoon before, my band, ďSalongo,Ē had the honor of opened for Ray Barretto and his band New World Spirit in Waterloo Park at the Austin Arts Jazz Festival (which, for many years prior, had been known as the Clarksville Jazz Festival.)

Barretto had been besieged by assorted and sundry media and backstage-types upon his arrival at the festival, but he stayed in his van, motor running and air conditioning blasting, doing his best to catch some respite from the mid-afternoon triple digit heat until it was time for him to hit the stage. Hardly any of the hopefuls wanting to talk to him got their chance.

So when I walked into the hotel restaurant for breakfast the next morning, there he was, sitting alone. ďScore!Ē I thought to myself. He saw me and my son at the next table, remembered seeing me at the festival, and invited us to join him for breakfast. Breakfast with Barretto. Too cool.

Although I didnít know beforehand that I would be interviewing one of the legends of salsa and Latin Jazz, and thus did not have my tape recorder at hand, I nevertheless immediately jotted down detailed notes of our conversation at its conclusion, including many direct quotes. Some of the highlights:

"Iím tired of playing salsa. I just want to play pure jazz."

And what about Latin Jazz?

"The only reason this group is Latin Jazz is because Iím in it."

He said he mostly plays Europe now with his New World Spirit group, but said his manager had talked him in to doing this current tour of smaller jazz venues and festivals in the states. He said he would not do this (Austin) festival again under the same conditions. Those conditions included his congas being so hot from being in direct sunlight that "I could barely touch them. I was just going through the motions."

Now, I saw the show. Barretto "just going through the motions" is better than 95% of other conga players anyway. But he never did return to Texas after that day.

Although his next comments were about salsa music, one could apply these same gripes to almost any style of popular music of the last 10 years or so. He complained that salsa has become too generic-sounding. "You used to be able to tell the bands apart. Now the music is all the same, just with different singers. Everything revolves around the singer now."

And my favorite quote: "Itís more about the singerís look than the music." Too true Ė in any style, it seems.

He went on, "Salsa just lost its fire." And even though he is undisputedly one of the Kings of Salsa, he was ultimately dropped from major labels because "the record companies felt the audience for salsa was getting old, just like the players."

His last salsa album was 1992ís "Soy Dichoso" on Fania. It remains one of my all-time favorites. In any style.

Ray Barretto died on Friday, February 17, 2006 at a New Jersey hospital. He was 76.

Juan Flores will feature a special segment on the life and music of Ray Barretto on his great show Jazz Latino, heard in Houston on radio station KTSU, 90.9 FM, on Saturday March 25 at 7:00 p.m.

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