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Perhaps the most demanding function in today’s jazz ecosystem is the bass chair in the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, which Carlos Henriquez assumed in 2002, when he was 22.
His job description, as outlined by JLCO Artistic Director Wynton Marsalis, is as follows: “You’ve got to understand the band’s tradition and know the tradition of the music. We play a very wide range of styles, and you have to know them all, play and solo in them with a degree of authenticity — and have a big enough sound so the band can hear you.”
Marsalis enthusiastically puts forth further details. “We have a large Afro-Latin book — understand all those grooves by name,” he says. “Play all the original music by the band members, which includes the many arrangements that Carlos contributed. Be able to slap bass. Play all different types of two grooves. Play and know the particulars of the gospel tradition and things that come out of the march tradition. Of course, anything in the mainstream jazz tradition — bebop and all the postmodern styles that people know, up to Ornette Coleman, but also the extra-modern styles. And view all those styles — including Afro-Latin music — as the same root.”
During Henriquez’s two decades anchoring JLCO, he’s fulfilled that code-switching, roots-to-the-future aesthetic with elegance and panache, as he does on his third leader album, The South Bronx Story (Tiger Turn). It’s a studio date comprising 10 Henriquez nonet charts that Jazz at Lincoln Center originally commissioned for a December 2018 show. A year before, at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, an Henriquez-led octet generated Dizzy Con Clave (Rodbrosmusic), a crackling concert recording on which the leader fleshed out the Afro-Cuban rhythmic structures and sophisticated harmonic movement that underpin nine Dizzy Gillespie classics. That release followed Henriquez’s debut, The Bronx Pyramid, (Blue Engine), documenting a 2015 studio session on which he presented another 10 originals for an accomplished sextet, augmented at certain points by iconic cantante (vocalist) Ruben Blades and state-of-the-art conguero Pedrito Martinez, both collaborators on mid-2010s JLCO concerts that Henriquez guided.
The title track of The Bronx Pyramid — an Afro-Cubanized reframing of “Pyramid,” which Puerto Rican valve trombonist Juan Tizol wrote for Duke Ellington in the ’30s — references the mapped shape of the de facto perimeter beyond which it was taboo for Henriquez to venture during childhood in the Betances Projects on 146th Street and Brook Avenue in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx.
“That song has a distinct sound that gives me a memory block of the structure of events that I went through as a child, and The South Bronx Story is a continuation of that,” says Henriquez — who’d returned the day before from a one-off in Texas with Eddie Palmieri — via Zoom from the New Jersey home he shares with his wife and three sons. “Whether positive or negative, it’s a way for me to express my life through music.” As an example, he mentions “Hydrants Love All,” for which he wrote lyrics that describe children’s summer play on the urban street — cavorting under a fire hydrant’s gush, games of stickball and Skelzies.
The feel of “Hydrants Love All” and songs like “Moses on the Cross,” “Soy Humano” and “Hip Hop con Clave” would not be out of place at any of the uptown Latin dance clubs where Henriquez, during his middle teens, gigged with the likes of Manny Oquendo’s Libre, Tito Puente, Tito Nieves, Johnny Pacheco and Little Louie Vega, not to mention larger venues with Marc Anthony, La India and Chaka Khan. “They bring out a little of my salsa-commercial side,” Henriquez says. “Before I was a jazz musician, I was a Latin bass player.”
The messages that subtextualize the repertoire comment forthrightly on the social conditions framing the cultural milieu in which Henriquez was raised. “Moses on the Cross” references Robert Moses, whose massive mid-century public works projects included the Cross Bronx Expressway, which uprooted stable working-class neighborhoods and displaced thousands of residents. It opens with a brisk gospel-jazz section, transitions to Latin jazz, then jump-cuts to hardcore mambo behind a chorus singing (Henriquez’s translation) “Listen up, my people; here I come with division.”
The dedicatee of “Mama Lorraine,” a soulful boléro exquisitely played by trumpeter Mike Rodriguez, is Lorraine Montenegro, a community activist once married to Joe Canzo Sr., a close associate of Tito Puente, and the mother of Joe Canzo Jr., whose photographs and films documented South Bronx culture. On “Black (Benji),” Melissa Aldana’s soulful, Coltrane-channeling solo reflects the spiritual force that was Cornell Benjamin, a gang member who in December 1971 was beaten and stabbed to death outside a South Bronx playground while trying to mediate a beef between two gangs. Relations improved, and gang members were able to pass more freely from neighborhood to neighborhood, leading to the early-’70s block parties at which hip-hop gestated, as represented in the lyrics and inexorable grooves of “Hip Hop Con Clave.”
Contrapuntal voices and urgent beats introduce “Boro of Fire,” imparting a tumultuous feel à la Bud Powell circa early 1950s and Eddie Palmieri circa 1970. Henriquez deployed the “whole tone vibe” to reflect the “pandemonium” of his neighborhood a decade before his birth, when “greedy landlords and corrupt political insiders were burning buildings from the top-down so that — at least so they thought — people would have time to get out.” “Fort Apache” is titled for the sobriquet applied to the police precinct that “served” that benighted neighborhood, which pioneer South Bronx code-switchers Jerry and Andy González, both hands-on mentors to Henriquez, appropriated for their various configurations after 1981. Henriquez grew up Nuyorican, in a working-class family. His mother, once a dancer, taught children with disabilities as a paraprofessional in occupational training centers of New York’s Board of Education. He dedicates “Guajeo de Papi” to his father, once a trombonist, who attended college before serving in the Vietnam War. He came back with PTSD, and worked the night shift as a custodian at the VA hospital where he’s still employed. The family soundtrack featured Palmieri, Puente, Tito Rodriguez, Count Basie and Frank Sinatra in heavy rotation.
Before the VA, Henriquez’s father was a custodian at a local middle school, where he befriended guitar teacher Adonis Puertas; a decade later, as Carlos was entering sixth grade, he asked Puertas to teach his son. “He taught me by ear, one-on-one,” Henriquez recalls. “He’d play it; I’d figure it out.” Not long thereafter, the concert band teacher, a flutist who’d played with Yomo Toro, asked him to try bass. “I slowly started loving it, and one thing led to another,” Henriquez says. This teacher soon introduced him to bass master Victor Venegas, a stalwart of New York’s Latin scene, whose discography includes well-known recordings with Cal Tjader, Mongo Santamaria and Celia Cruz.
“Victor told me, ‘You need to understand how the congas sound, to feel it when you play it. Otherwise, you will not be able to survive as the bass player in any Latin group. You and the congas are like brothers; you play off each other.’ I learned the patterns, and began to understand the value of the bass in terms of a rhythmic and support role. “
Venegas introduced Henriquez to New York Philharmonic bassist John Schaeffer, who would be his teacher for 15 years. He also introduced him to Machito veteran Joe Santiago, who brought him along on quality time visits with icons like Mario Bauzá, Graciela and Patato Valdés. Then Venegas gave his mentee the phone number of Andy González, who welcomed Henriquez into his world. “On my first visit, Andy asked what I wanted him to teach me,” Henriquez remembers. “I wanted him to show me this lick he did on a lot of songs I’d heard. He played it for me. He’d give me things to listen to and explained them.” At a certain point, González invited Henriquez to come to his gigs with Conjunto Libre, allowing the youngster to serve as a quasi roadie.
“Because of Andy, I quickly started playing with people of a certain level,” Henriquez says. “He’d tell me to come by his rehearsal with Eddie Palmieri, or Don Grolnick with Michael Brecker, Don Alias, Milton Cardona and Dave Valentin. I’d be the kid sitting next to Andy, and I’d hear the cats talk about the music and give suggestions to each other. Andy might step out for a while, or show up late — guys in the band knew I played bass and said, ‘Why don’t you just play this part for us?’ I’d pick up the bass and play it. ‘Shit, wow, how old are you?’ ‘I’m 15; I’m just learning with Andy.’ Then, cool. Everybody knew Carlito. Then it got to a point where Andy would ask me to make one gig or another that he couldn’t get to. That happened with Fort Apache, with Tito Puente, with Palmieri.
“I knew at an early age what a bass player’s job is. I chose the right notes. I stayed in my lane. I fulfilled that role. I think many of the leaders I got to work with then were very happy to see that.” As he was becoming a fixture on New York’s Latin scene, Henriquez was attending LaGuardia High School of Music and Art, a block away from the Lincoln Center campus and across the street from Marsalis’ apartment. Midway through 1996, a trumpet-playing classmate invited him to a rehearsal for Sweet Release, a Marsalis-Judith Jamison collaboration for the Alvin Ailey Dance Company. “It was my first time in front of a big band, and it was mind boggling,” Henriquez says. “It was incredible to see what Rodney Whitaker could do on the bass. I think I went to three rehearsals, I met Wynton, and he invited us to his apartment.”
“Carlos brought out his bass and started swinging hard,” Marsalis recalls. “ I said, ‘Man, I know you play in the Afro-Latin tradition, but how did you learn how to swing like that?’ He had a huge beat, like he has now. He was soulful. He was a like a grown man, a professional. He was always joking and clowning, but very serious, too. He was always saying, ‘Write this out’ or asking what he should study or check out.
“I’d ask him questions, like, ‘What is this clave?’ I never could really play Afro-Latin music, and I wanted to learn about it.’ He’d tell me the truth. I said, ‘The problem I have with Latin music is it just stays on the same chord a lot.’ Carlos looked at me. He said, ‘Let’s listen to this.’ He put on a track, and he said, ‘Now, tell me what one drum is doing.’ I couldn’t really tell him what the drum was doing. He said, ‘That’s why you have the mistaken impression that it also needs to have a pile of chords. You can’t have everything going on in the same space, papa.’”
Over the next two years, Henriquez continued to attend rehearsals and hang out with Marsalis, becoming, Marsalis says, “part of the band, part of the family.” Two years later, he hired Henriquez to sub for Whitaker, who took a lengthy sabbatical. During this preliminary stint, Henriquez continued to speak his mind, demonstrating for Herlin Riley idiomatic clave bell patterns on three “Latin Tinge” concerts with arrangers Ray Santos and Chico O’Farrill.
“It was intimidating,” he acknowledges. “I had to learn all this music. We were featuring Wynton’s new work, Big Train, at Avery Fisher Hall. I played with Shirley Horn, and she vibed the hell out of me — she was at the age where she didn’t need to deal with somebody like me. I played with [singer-drummer] Grady Tate. It was tough, but you develop fast. The hardest part was labeling, not knowing what certain grooves were — like a straight ragtime groove. But I heard them so much that it became natural.” When Whitaker returned, Marsalis recommended Henriquez to Danilo Pérez’s venturesome, interactive, Pan-American-oriented trio with Antonio Sanchez, which toured for a year behind Pérez’s Motherland album. “I learned all Danilo’s music by heart,” Henriquez says. “At a young age, I learned that if you want the gig, you have to be super well-prepared, because other people also want the gig. If you miss one thing, that might be it.”
Eighteen months later, Henriquez transitioned to Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s trio with iconic Cuban drummer Ignacio Berroa, who’d recommended him. “I was looking for a bassist with the ability to play Cuban or Latin music with depth, and at the same time play straight-ahead and everything related to jazz vocabulary without an accent,” Rubalcaba says. “During the rehearsals, Carlos read everything fast, understood the intention of every rhythmic design I had in the music, and improvised beautifully. When we toured Brazil with bands led by João Bosco and Ivan Lins, he showed his capacity to understand Brazilian music in the freshest, most accurate way. He’d follow everything that happened on stage; every show he’d add things that enriched the composition and the structure. He was always right — or at least, I always liked his suggestions. Everything for him was clear at 22 or 23 years old.”
Before a JLCO “Nursery Rhymes Swing” concert in 2007, five years after he’d joined for keeps, Henriquez joined drummer Ali Jackson in persuading Marsalis to give everyone in the band an opportunity to write. Henriquez contributed “Brahms Lullaby,” with, he says, “a very Chico O’Farrill mentality behind it.” A few months later, for a Thelonious Monk show featuring Marcus Roberts, he offered Thelonious Monk’s “Bye Ya,” “with a twist of Eddie Palmieri La Perfecta vibe.”
“I jumped in cold,” Henriquez says. “Luckily, because of my experience listening to the music, I had enough understanding to put things together. Most of the guys in the band thought Wynton had helped me.”
“Someone looked at me and said, ‘You helped Carlos with that arrangement,’” Marsalis confirms. “I said, ‘I didn’t tell Carlos shit.’ He hears this stuff; he’s not working off a technical formula. His arrangement was so good, it gave us confidence in everybody doing it. Pretty soon we had a wave of all of us writing arrangements.”
“It was a turning point for Jazz at Lincoln Center,” Henriquez says of Marsalis’ decision to incorporate works by himself, Vincent Gardner, Ted Nash, Chris Crenshaw, Sherman Irby, Victor Goines and other band members. “It took the orchestra to the next level.” Through the 2010s, Henriquez music-directed several important cross-cultural explorations — a retrospective of the music of Cachao; a “Machito-Puente-Henriquez” concert that showcased several Henriquez originals; the JLCO-Pedrito Martinez collaboration Orishas; the JLCO-Odo Addy collaboration Congo Square; the kinetic 2014 Havana concert that became the Live in Cuba album (Blue Engine); a show with singer Rubén Blades (Una Noche con Rubén Blades, also on Blue Engine), on which the band vibrationally shape-shifts into the Mambo King era. These projects established JLCO as a unique entity, able to render the entire timeline of the Afro-Diasporic music of the Americas with idiomatic clarity, multilingual fluency and a fresh, multi-perspective attitude.
“Afro-Latin music is often neglected because we just don’t know enough about it to do a good job,” Marsalis says. “We have Carlos, who’s encyclopedic in his knowledge of it and a die-hard for its integrity. He’ll express clear dissatisfaction when the music is not played right. He’ll say, ‘This is on the wrong side of the clave, papa.’ Or, ‘That shit you wrote is corny; it doesn’t sound right.’ I started off teaching him, but he’s taught me far more than I’ve taught him.”
“I’m able to explain to Wynton what’s complicated, simply,” says Henriquez of what he perceives to be his primary value to JLCO, apart from instrumental derring-do. “I’m a puzzle-reader; I try to understand the logic of everything I learn, bring it to the lowest common denominator. When we did the African stuff with Odo Addy, I sat with Wynton for months so he could figure that stuff out. I did the same thing when we did the orishas project — Pedrito played each of the orishas [devotional songs to Afro-Cuban deities] for him, and Wynton didn’t know where the downbeat went. He forwarded it all to me, and I wrote all of it down, note by note. He saw what it was.”
On Henriquez’s trilogy of recordings, he conveys with his own ensemble the attributes that mark his JLCO writing — the multiplicity of moods; the seamless juxtaposition and fresh interpretation of grooves; the endless melodic counterpoint; the writing for the tonal personalities of his band members in ways that facilitate individualistic improvisations that blend into the warp and woof of the chart; the “accentless” bilingualism. He’s hoping to record an album with a big band comprising his own musicians, perhaps with the title Keeping the Story Alive, an as-yet unrecorded piece he’s played with JLCO.
“That tune was about keeping alive the tradition of Puente, Machito, Palmieri — through me,” Henriquez says. “The Catch-22 of Jazz at Lincoln Center is that at a certain point you might have to remove yourself so people can see you in a different setting. I think it’s to my advantage that I have the Latin tradition in terms of being able to move around — it’s not something that Wynton does, so people have to see me for what I am.” - Ted Panken https://open.spotify.com/album/6VFUzsgpC08qg9gsdlYD2O?si=vkAkXhqQRvu6uniSlsT4gg