Ray Santiago — Afro Cuba a la NYC

There’s no on guitar here, but I think this is a PERFECT record. Or disc. Or release… or however you would like to refer to it. In a way this post is similar to another I did way long ago on Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers— not guitar music, but great stuff nonetheless. In my younger years I only wanted to listen to music that had a guitar in it and if there was no guitar, I wasn’t interested. Conversely I liked some pretty bad stuff because there WAS a guitar in the band. (I won’t name names). But as I’ve gotten older I’ve learned how to appreciate the pleasure of listening to other musical instruments, different styles of music and and bad-ass musicians of all stripes. Getting old isn’t ALL bad…ya know?

Likewise I would say that I’m not really a Salsa/Tango/Merengue type guy. Not a good dancer either. I think you need a low center of gravity to do that well, sort of like skateboarding. But I do know all about great musical atmosphere and this album has it! There is a great live-type feel permeating the disc, but the performances are top-notched and balanced, the songs and arrangements are completely brilliant and the disc is paced so well you just want to return to the beginning after the last song and do it all over again. As you can hear above they cover James Brown. How can you go wrong with a band that does that? Unfortunately, there aren’t any live videos of the band playing songs from the album and the only online links to hear some of it are HERE, HERE and HERE. So you can either go to the links buy it online (I think the CD is no longer available) or take my word for it.

I’ve known Ray for a long time and caught his band live more than a few times. It’s always been an intense jam because the band is killin’ and Ray is a great pianist and bandleader. He’s been at it for most of his life and has had some very good success with his always original take on Latin music. On Afro Cuba a la New York City the band includes stellar singers Abraham Rodriguez and Julian Llanos, trumpet player Diego Urcola, trombonist Avi Lebovich, bongo player Jose Mangual, guiro/maracas provided by Pete Gomez, violinist Irving Yerras, bata drummers Ohad Lustigman and Daniel Freedmand and assorted percussion provided by band members and Ray leading the whole band on piano. I saw them on a couple of occasions where they had a tenor guitar player, but I don’t there is any on the record. But what we have here is an old-school sound that is devoid of any of the overproduction that makes so much music we hear sound cheesy and wan. This has what Eddie Van Halen calls a “brown sound” in that it is warm and immediate, right up in your ears and gut. The mix and blend of instruments and vocals is perfect and the band never sacrifices their insistent and infectious rhythms for instrumental soloing (although there are plenty of solos). My favorite tunes are Elegua, Dos Gardenias, Humanidad and Guajira. Whenever I put it on I’m transported to somewhere warm with lots of sand, smiles, bikinis and Coca-Cola made with real sugar. Awesome.

Ray and the band have always been very busy performers; they had an ongoing residence at the notorious Forbidden City club for almost ten years in addition to doing many other clubs, parties, weddings and outdoor concerts. He took year off but is working his way back and hopefully by next summer he will be all over the Lower East Side doing what he does best. Like any great musician he continues to evolve and experiment, pushing the limits of his instrument and musical style in the process. Here is a short film made of him playing one of the “pop up” pianos that was in Tompkins Square Park over the summer.

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