Even back when he was a Billboard charting artist, Ray Obiedo’s music was too eclectic to fit snugly into any single genre. In 1989, as the radio format that would eventually evolve into smooth jazz was exploding, the veteran Bay Area guitarist signed to Windham Hill and launched a prolific decade of recording that included two Top 10 albums on the Contemporary Jazz charts (Iguana
, Sticks & Stones
), and two others (Sweet Summer Days
) that reached the Top 40 on the Jazz Albums chart.
“I enjoyed making those records, but I was never a smooth jazz artist,” says Obiedo, who launched his solo career after a decade recording and/or touring with the disparate likes of Herbie Hancock, Harvey Mason, Julian Priester, Pete Escovedo, Sheila E., The Whispers and George Duke. “My band played a lot of festivals where we were always the odd bird, not the typical guitarist jumping around and smiling up front with a sax player. We did Weather Report, took a super funky, jazzier approach to soloing. My keyboard player, Peter Horvath, had played trio jazz and done records with Lenny White and Billy Cobham and wrote tunes that could be smooth but inspired us to play our butts off. We would always add a Latin beat, some cha cha cha, mambo, and make sure the rhythm section did some hip chord changes.”
That’s exactly the freewheeling, stylistically, harmonically and rhythmically expansive spirit that Obiedo and a mix-and-match ensemble of more than 25 Bay Area jazz stalwarts bring to his latest album (and fourth on his indie label Rhythmus Records), Latin Jazz Project Vol. 2.
Five years in the making, the album provides a sequel to his highly regarded 2016 date, Latin Jazz Project Vol. 1
From its sensual, increasingly boisterous and percussive opener “Still Life” — a cha cha Obiedo originally penned for Pete Escovedo’s orchestra in the mid-’80s — through “Big World,” a silky 6/8 seduction featuring a Mike Olmos flugelhorn solo and a fiery percussion outro by Sheila E. — the eight-song set fully reflects and embraces just about everything Obiedo’s been up to since he took a 15-year break from recording (1999-2014), in part to raise his kids.
In addition to contributing funky, James Brownesque grooves to the Pete Escovedo Orchestra, a “cool, classy affair” that has been part of his live performance résumé since 1975, the guitarist leads a variety of regional Bay Area bands focused on different genres: Ray Obiedo and Misturafina (Brazilian), Sugar Cane Sweet (reggae, Caribbean and soca) and Mambo Caribe (Latin jazz). The size and scope of the ensemble depends on whether he’s playing a festival (he’s popular at Monterey Jazz and San Jose Jazz) or a more intimate club setting.
“It’s fun to do something completely outside the realm of contemporary jazz, like reggae, and I love the variety of situations and lineups and the challenges they create for me and my ensembles,” Obiedo says. “For the release party for Latin Jazz Vol. 2
at the Sound Room in Oakland, I took what I call the Ray Obiedo Group, a six-piece band that plays all the genres I have written in — from samba to smooth jazz. I can use those same guys in bigger bands like Mambo Caribe. Since the event was at a club, I didn’t use the five horns, but we created a big sound so I don’t think the audience was missing the brass or the other percussionists they’ve seen me with. On the other hand, I do love playing festivals when I can add extra musicians.”
Though the number of contributing musicians makes it seem like Latin Jazz Project Vol. 2
was a massive logistical endeavor, Obiedo insists that the foundations of the recording were very simple. His core rhythm sections (bass, drums and keys), all recorded pre-COVID, included bassists David Belove, Dewayne Pate and Marc van Wageningen (of Tower of Power); drummers Phil Hawkins, Billy Johnson and David Garibaldi (also from TOP); and keyboardist, pianist and organist David K. Mathews (of Santana).
Overdubs, including Obiedo’s guitar parts, percussion (by Sheila E., Peter Michael Escovedo, Karl Perazzo and others), horn section (led by trombonist and arranger Jeff Cressman) and solos were recorded during the pandemic (using social distance measures, of course) at his home studio, including sessions for percussion and horns in his garage. Like many projects created or completed during this crazy time, the album also includes tracks that were recorded remotely, digitally transferred and mixed in.
Beyond the expansive Bay Area contingent, prominent guests include saxophonist Bob Mintzer (on the sly, funky, cha-cha-tinged “Beatnik” and the mambo fusion jam “Uno Dos”) and flutist Norbert Stachel (on the high-octane, horn-fired mambo “Criss Cross” and the danceable, island-flavored soca romp “Santa Lucia”).
“Criss Cross” and “Santa Lucia” are notable inclusions for several reasons, starting with the fact that they’re re-imaginings of tracks originally recorded on Obiedo albums in the ’90s. The new versions were originally recorded in 2010, years before the guitarist conceived of Latin jazz ensemble projects, founded his label and returned from his long recording hiatus. The songs’ resurrection from Obiedo’s files not only made stylistic/thematic sense, but also served a sentimental purpose — the drummer on those tracks, Paul van Wageningen (brother of Marc), passed away from cancer in 2012.
The Dutch-born musician became one of the Bay Area’s premier multicultural drummers, receiving three Grammy nominations and performing with everyone from the Escovedos, Andy Narell and Gonzalo Rubalcaba to Paquito D’Rivera, Nestor Torres and Dori Caymmi. “He was a phenomenal talent and I was blown away when he left us,” says Obiedo. “I loved the way he played, and when I found the tracks I knew I wanted to include them. It was a way to get both brothers on the album. I completed the tunes with a few more percussion parts. What’s weird is when I rediscovered them, I had recorded Paul counting the tune off. Marc appreciated hearing his brother’s voice after so many years.”
Though “Beatnik” rose quickly on the JazzWeek radio chart, Obiedo’s creative intentions for Latin Jazz Project Vol. 2
were focused more on camaraderie among longtime friends and cohorts than airplay considerations. “Playing with these brilliant musicians, whether in the studio or Yoshi’s, I still feel in my late 60s the same butterflies and excitement I felt when I was on the freeway heading to my first gigs at 18,” he says. “It’s that comfortable sense that you’re playing with friends who’ve all been in the trenches and grown up with you. For some of us, it’s hard to relate to people who are not musicians. When we hang out together after shows and sessions, we may not always be talking about music, but there’s a sense of connection many of us can’t find anywhere else.” - Jonathan Widran