JERRY GONZALEZ & THE FORT APACHE BANDBiography
There's nowhere to hide in a live recording. There you are, with your abilities, your quirks, and your passions laid out for the world to hear. That's how Jerry Gonzalez & the Fort Apache Band works best. It's a chance to demonstrate what they've become in the risky, rewarding process of creating a musical family."Sometimes there will be this spontaneous moment when I'll join the percussion in this Flying Wallenzas act without a net," says bassist Andy Gonzalez. "I provide a foundation so that Jerry [on conga and trumpet] and Steve [Berrios, on traps] can try the craziest things and they will work. We've been playing together and exchanging ideas for so long that now we rehearse to acquaint ourselves with a piece of music, and once we have the structure, we start experimenting in performance. In jazz, that's what it's all about--the exhilaration that happens when you take a chance and it works."Fire Dance, Fort Apache's latest Milestone release, was recorded in February 1996 over three nights at Blues Alley in Washington, D.C. It's the third live album for the band and the first with its present configuration, with Joe Ford and John Stubblefield on horns."It's really the most complete presentation of what we do," says Gonzalez. "After so many years of playing and recording, everyone in the band relates to each other in a sensitive way and contributes equally to the group sound. You can hear it all over the record. The album shows a range of moods. It runs the gamut from introspective to the bravura that's the Fort Apache stamp. You'll hear new versions of old tunes that have grown and changed from our original recordings, as we've grown and changed."Brothers Jerry and Andy Gonzalez have played professionally for more than 30 years, since they were teenagers in the Bronx, New York. "We started playing music in junior high school," Andy recalls. "Pianist Lew Matthews, the genius of the Bronx, saw us in the park near our housing project. He found out I was a bass player who could read music. He invited me over to his house one weekend he always had musicians coming and going; he even rehearsed a 21-piece big band in his apartment on Sundays and he wrote some music for me to play and I played it."We started dragging our instruments over there every Sunday. Lew took us out of the street and had us play sophisticated music at a young age. He was our first mentor. He had high standards in music, and he's directly responsible for anything we do today."The brothers played in various Latin jazz groups, including one led by Monguito, son of conguero Mongo Santamaria. Both attended New York College of Music. In his senior year, Andy joined Ray Barretto's band, then toured with Dizzy Gillespie for nearly a year. The brothers were reunited on the bandstand when they were hired by pianist Eddie Palmieri in 1971."We brought some interesting things to Eddie's concept of the band; we opened it up," Andy says. "He was ready for it. He's a great improviser and we were heavy into jazz, so it was a perfect moment. We brought in things like Miles Davis was doing at the time long sets without interruptions, flowing from one tune to the next. At same time, we changed the look of the band. Eddie was clean-shaven and wearing suits when we started. By the time we left three years later he was wearing Indian clothes, sandals, and a goatee."The vibrant, iconoclastic energy they brought to traditional salsa developed further in Libre, the conjunto they organized with percussionist Manny Oquendo, and in the early manifestation of Fort Apache. As it evolved in the early 1980s, Fort Apache was a large, flexible ensemble with as many as 15 members, including such masters as Kenny Kirkland, Sonny Fortune, Steve Turre, the late Jorge Dalto, Milton Cardona, and others.By 1989 and its groundbreaking recording Rumba Para Monk, Fort Apache was a tight quintet with the Gonzalezes' longtime friends Steve Berrios on drums and Larry Willis on piano; and Carter Jefferson on sax. Saxophonist Joe Ford joined the group in 1991; following Jefferson's death in 1993, John Stubblefield, who'd played as a guest artist with the Apaches, returned to add his tenor sax to the mix.Willis studied voice at New York's Music and Art High School before fellow student Hugh Masakela convinced him to switch to piano--he'd work more gigs, Masakela argued. By age 19, Willis was playing with Jackie McLean and has performed on more than 250 recordings by major jazz artists. Berrios is one of the hardest-working drummers in both Latin and jazz formats and leader of his own group, Son Bacheche, with two Milestone recordings to their credit.Of the horn section, Andy comments: "Joe Ford is a master musician and composer who's contributed quite a few originals to our book, and Stubblefield is one of the great tenor sax players of our generation. We blend into a unit but we each have distinct voices. Each of us brings something of ourselves to the music."In its present form, Fort Apache realizes the vision of seamless Afro-Caribbean jazz the brothers Gonzalez have pursued for most of their careers. "My work with Dizzy and Jerry's experience with Tony Williams and other jazz gigs had us always thinking about Latin jazz," notes Andy. "What we finally got with Fort Apache was the culmination of all the playing we've done, and it's all in this music."Fire Dance opens with a Willis composition arranged especially for the album. Originally written as a samba, Willis recast "Isabel, the Liberator" in rumba time, underscoring Fort Apache's ability to "break barriers between musical worlds," as Andy puts it. "Larry can be part of the percussion section, a hard-swinging, dominant Latin pianist, or he can be the most sensitive, romantic, melodic player," Andy continues. "'Isabel' is a great piece of music, perfect for the band. Its structure is deceptively simple, the mood is introspective but authoritative.""Elegua," based on a traditional chant, is radically transformed from the version that appeared on 1994's Crossroads. "I first heard the chant performed by AfroCuba de Matanzas, and was so drawn to the melody that I started playing it on bass and figured out a series of chord changes that give the soloists a good vehicle to play off," says Andy. "I think the concept has been fully realized in this version.""Today's Nights" is "a Joe Ford inspiration, a nice bouncy Art Blakey-type jazz tune," he continues. The classic "Verdad Amarga" is a tribute to the great Latin ballad singers of the 1950s. "Our interpretation came from us listening to the version by Lucho Gatica, the daddy of all bolero singers. We try to get that same feel of a melancholy love song. When we play it live, we try to make a mood piece out of it."Two Thelonious Monk tunes are a reminder of the group's successful melding of Monk's open compositional style and his unique rhythms, which make a perfect canvas for Afro-Caribbean embellishments. Until the Rumba Para Monk album, the musicians had toyed with the concept but Willis wasn't sure it would work. "I finally suggested we try 'Ugly Beauty,'" the pianist says. "We researched it and came up with our usual head arrangement, and Monk's been part of our lives, spiritually, ever since." The composition is included on Fire Dance, along with "Let's Call This," featuring a section of Latin rhythm and straight-ahead jazz, Andy says.The Fort Apache experience is captured in Fire Dance as the unadulterated joy of musicians trading ideas in the moment. "The way we do the tunes live sounds different because we're responding to the mood, to each other and whatever's happening onstage," says Steve Berrios. "You also get the interplay between the audience and the musicians.""Recording live puts a tremendous amount of added pressure to play perfectly you don't have a 24-track board and overdubs to bail you out," adds pianist Larry Willis. "But I enjoy the pressure of having to be as musically astute as I can. It's challenging, and also a lot of fun."
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