"It's what we call in New York 'all up in your face' Latin jazz," said Wilson Corniel Jr., the Nuyorican conguero who leads Grupo Chaworo. He brought his five-piece ensemble to Raleigh on June 4 to give local residents a taste of "jazz with some rice and beans on it." It was part of a concert series in celebration of the bilingual exhibit Latin Jazz: La Combinacion Perfecta, open at Exploris through June 26.
Corniel, nicknamed "Chembo," played three beautifully wood-grained LP Galaxy Giovanni Series congas. He's endorsed the prestigious drum maker for 23 years, teaches at the SUNY-Purchase Conservatory of Music, and has played with the greats from Tito Puente on down. But it wasn't until 2001 that Chembo started headlining his own group. "There was a sound that I heard in my head that needed to come out. I wanted to have my own voice," he says. "Chaworo" refers to the bells on the ends of the largest of the sacred Afro-Cuban batá drums, which he also plays and often integrates into his sound. "We put the element of rumba into jazz," he explains.
His cast of first class supporting players includes Ivan Renta on sax and flute, Enrique Haneine on piano, Carlo De Rosa on bass, and Vince Cherico on drums. Pianist Hector Martignon, not in attendance, brings his accordion to bear as well. Says Chembo, "I wanted to get five of the baddest cats in New York that sound like 20." The first CD, Portrait in Rhythm, also featuring Yunior Terry, Ray Vega and a number of other guests, was self-released last year.
The afternoon show was under an hour but didn't skimp on depth, as Grupo Chaworo took a turn at various Latin jazz idioms. Bookended by a couple of lively descargas with solos all around, there was an easygoing son montuno cha cha, a centerpiece 6/8 tune with shekere and snare atmospherics and a hot salsa break, and a bolero con swing.
Pumping at the center of it all, Chembo's brisk heartbeat keeps good time. "You've got to be the spark plug," says the 53-year-old. He's been playing percussion for 40 years now, carrying on the legacy of Chano Pozo, who first brought his "tom tom" into Dizzy Gillespie's jazz orchestra. "I'm just trying to keep this tradition alive," Chembo says.
It was a good opportunity to take a sidebar with Chembo's drummer Vince Cherico. Cherico is part of a generation of jazz drummers, starting with Steve Berrios and Ignacio Berroa and including younger players like Dafnis Prieto and Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez, known for integrating timbales and trapset technique.
"I've developed this thing of supporting congueros," says Cherico. He's not kidding; besides Chembo, his other bandleader is Ray Barretto. "You've got to subvert your ego and just play what the music needs."
Cherico, whose background is mostly Italian, got his first salsa job in the mid-'80s as a sub. "I went to the Bronx, got a used set of timbales and wrote out 12 charts." The results went over well, and before long, he started playing the Cuchifrito circuit. "I got so much support in the Latino community. During breaks, people would come up to me and say, 'Hey, that sounded good. Why don't you try this.' They'd be showing me stuff."
He learned Latin jazz, and later, joined a Cuban band with a Marielito, Roberto Burrell. "That was a whole other thing. We played to a tape of rumba clave for three hours, then we'd have dinner, then we'd play until five in the morning." Before Ray Barretto asked him to join New World Spirit, he also worked in a Latin septeto and a folkloric group. "It's been a real odyssey," says Cherico. His current gigs also include Dave Samuels' Caribbean Jazz Project, the Lincoln Center Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra, and charanga dance band Los Jovenes del Barrio.
Cherico agrees with Chembo, Barretto and just about everyone else who's either lived through the history or read about it. If you want to find the first ancestor for Afro-Cuban rhythms in jazz, "you've got to take it back to Dizzy. It was his vision."