Roaming the Musical High Seas
For more than 35 years, Grammy-nominated trombonist and composer Papo Vázquez has performed with great Latin and jazz artists, including Eddie Palmieri, the Fania All-Stars, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Charles, Tito Puente, and many others. Vázquez has garnered a number of accolades and composed works for artists such as Arturo O’Farrill, Wynton Marsalis, and Regina Carter. He now leads the Mighty Pirates Troubadours and joins Carnegie Hall’s Neighborhood Concert roster for a performance at Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden on May 3 at 2 PM. We asked Papo some questions about his background in music, his band, and the type of music they’ll play at the Neighborhood Concert.
Your website mentions that you bought your first trombone for $5 and joined the elementary school band. At what point did you realize that you wanted to pursue jazz?
PV: I remember at the early age of 12 or 13 sneaking into a church dance and watching a live performance by Willie Colon’s Band. That is when I decided that I wanted to play trombone. Soon after, I was playing with the local bands and became friends with a trumpet player. He gifted me a J.J. Johnson album that set the stage for what I would decide to do later on in life.
I moved to New York in 1975 to play with the big salsa bands of the day. At the same time, I became part of a group of musicians that were rebelling against the dance-music scene and started participating in jam sessions at the New Rican Village on the Lower East Side. By 1984, I was living again in Puerto Rico and started my first band called Bomba Jazz. That is when I started this journey of experimenting with jazz and Puerto Rican folklore.
“Creating new variations of music takes many years of experimenting, trial and error, analysis, and research.”
Can you tell us the story behind the Mighty Pirates Troubadours’ name?
PV: I remember having a conversation with Mike Viñas (bass player) around the time I released my first album circa 1992, and told him that I didn’t want to use the name “Bomba Jazz” as a name for my band because people were calling me Mr. Bomba Jazz. I felt it was going to pigeonhole me into a certain category. He said, “Man, you know what you are? You are a Pirate Troubadour!” I found it to be a very liberating concept! Free to roam the musical high seas!
You currently have an extensive and talented seven-piece band—how did you form this group of musicians and what’s it take to be a Pirate Troubadour?
PV: That has been one of the most difficult things that I’ve had to deal with over the years as a leader. It’s taken me many years of searching to find the right players for the style of music we play. To be part of this band, you must be well versed in different musical idioms, not just jazz, or be willing to learn the different styles of music we play.
You’d be surprise how many calls I get every year from younger guys who would love to play in the band. The most important thing we look for is a good attitude and you must be willing to put in the work necessary to play at the highest level. The band has been around for more than 20 years and I feel very lucky and blessed to say that I can always call on previous members, and if they are available they will come back and cover a gig.
Your blend of Afro-Latin jazz seems very inspired by rich Puerto Rican musical traditions. Tell us about your sources of musical inspiration and what can we expect to hear at the concert.
PV: Creating new variations of music takes many years of experimenting, trial and error, analysis, and research. I’ve been very fortunate to have had in the band people like Roberto Cepeda, one of the sons of Don Rafael Cepeda, the Patriarch of Bomba and Plena.
Having had Roberto and master percussionists like Anthony Carrillo has helped in the evolution of the style of jazz we play. For the performance at Snug Harbor, we’ll be performing material from our previous CD and some music from our next album that we recorded a few weeks ago. It’ll be a nice mix of the different styles of music we perform, though we basically orbit around Puerto Rican folklore. We will perform merengue jazz, what I consider a New York Latin jazz mambo, jazz ballads, and more.
At a Family Concert at Carnegie Hall earlier this season, Regina Carter’s Reverse Thread performed a song that you composed for her called “Un Aguinaldo Pa Regina.” What inspired you to compose this?
PV: Well, Regina is married to our drummer Alvester Garnett—that makes us family. She had heard one of my compositions that we had recorded on my Marooned/Aislado recording titled “Aguinaldo Pa’ Dico y Caneco,” a composition I dedicated to my grandfather and uncle, who were troubadours. When she heard the piece, she asked if I could do an arrangement of that piece for her group and so I composed a similar variation to that piece.