May 19, 2024

David Samuels
Talks about Caribbean Jazz Project
by Mark Ruffin
David Samuels

Mallet player David Samuels has settled comfortably into life after Spyro-Gyra. He’s released sterling solo albums and formed the group Caribbean Jazz Project. The fourth album from the group, Paraiso, is easily their best, according to JazzUSA’s Mark Ruffin, who sat down with Samuels for a jazzy conversation.

JazzUSA: Why did you quit Spyro-Gyra?

DS: It was time to move on. Twelve years on the road and all those records, it was time for me to move on. It was time for me to re-connect with things I’d done, way before working with Spryo, and start new connections with new players and new kinds of music. I had kind of run up against a wall.

JazzUSA: Kind of like the band itself, huh? When you did quit did you envision starting something like the Caribbean Jazz Project, or did you quit to relax and do all of what you just said?

DS: My leaving to relax was never an alternative. I had actually started the original version of the Caribbean Jazz Project in ’93 and I quit in ’94. The way things kind of worked out was a seamless working transition from working with Spyro to working with the Caribbean Jazz Project. In a matter of six months after leaving Spyro, we were working like crazy, and we did that for about two or three years and then the personnel changed. I waited for a year and did that Cal Tjader tribute records, and eventually put it back together, and sort of re-formulated it in its current state, and then recorded for Concord and now here’s the second record. It was pretty much of a seamless transition for me. The Caribbean Jazz Project was an idea and I thought it was going to be a fun and challenging group to play in with totally different players and totally different mentalities, different kind of tunes, a different kind of genre. It was a lot of interest at that time. It was just at the explosion of interest in Latin music. We were kind of the first thing out there, and by the time that group came to an end, the market was flooded.

JazzUSA: When the band was first put together, it seemed to be such a cool paring…

DS: You know, when you have ideas, sometimes they click, sometimes they don’t, sometimes, it’s in the middle. For this one, everything just kind of lined up at the right time and clicked. I think it was surprising to all of us that we were able to get as much opportunity as we did to go out and perform.

JazzUSA: How many albums did the original group do?

DS: Two. The first one was called The Caribbean Jazz Project and the second one, Island Stories.

JazzUSA: Wasn’t it more of a co-op between you, Pacquito D’Rivera and Andy Narell?

DS: Yes, the three names are up front, just like they are in this band. I was the one who put this thing together originally, but it was always meant as a Three Musketeers kind of thing.

JazzUSA: So, you were definitely the impetus?

DS: Yeah, I was the one that actually got the first opportunity to put a special project together. There was a promoter in New York, who has a series at the Central Park Zoo. He called me and said, “look, I have a budget, how would you like to put a band together?” I had met Pacquito, but I had never worked with him. I just called him out of the blue, and called Andy, who I had worked with. We got a rhythm section together, rehearsed for a day and a half and then we went in a played the gig for the people and the seals. It was pretty wild. There was like the pond for seals right in front of the stage. Then we met about six months after that. We enjoyed the process, of not only playing the music, but of learning the music, and playing someone else’s music and also getting to know each other on a personal level. Then we did another gig in Louisville, Kentucky about six months later, and after that we decided that maybe we should seriously look for some kind of recording deal and an agent. We got that lined up and by August of ’94, we were at the Blue Note in Japan, and then started to roll after that.

JazzUSA: Why did the first group dissolve?

DS: Well, one of the reasons was that we were working so much that Pacquito felt that he needed more time himself to pursue his other interest which are numerous. And so he kind of wanted to put the brakes on. That was one of the issues. The other issue was that we found that as other bands started to arrive in this genre, that our position of being kind of anointed was lost. The amount of work that was available started to change, the whole complexions started to change. Then Andy decided he wanted to go back to his solo career, and the natural progression of things just slowed down to where the three of us were no longer committed to playing with each other. Everybody kind of went his own way. Since I had originally put the thing together, I kind of retained ownership of the name. I then did the Cal Tjader record and then went on tour with that band for a year, and decided after making that record to see if there was some was of re-formulating another group that had no relationship whatsoever to what the original band was, except the name alone, different sound, different instrumentation, different musical orientation, and that’s how this new group got together.

JazzUSA: Tell me a bit about that Cal Tjader tribute record, Tjader-ized,

DS: It was with Eddie Palmieri and a whole lot of people who actually worked with Cal played on the record or contributed. Eddie had worked with Cal, and Ray Barretto. A piano player named Michael Wolff, who had worked with Cal in the 70’s was on it, and Carl Perazza, who had worked with Cal was on it.

JazzUSA: Was Cal, your main influence?

DS: No, but he is an influence. I think he’s an influence more in terms of the direction that he took and the instrumentation that he used at the time, more than him as a player.

JazzUSA: Who are some of your other influences?

DS: You know there are not very many of us. I think if one becomes a student of this instrument, and that’s not just the vibes, but the marimba as well, there is not a long roster that you can choose from. I certainly listened to all the players that I have been able to find records of. Some of them you probably know, some you probably don’t know. It’s only been within the last few years that we lost one of the original players of vibes, and Lionel Hampton is still alive, so it’s a relatively young instrument, in terms of it’s history. You know, we lost Milt(Jackson) last year. We lost Tito (Puente). I guess I can say, with all these guys, in one sense of another, have impacted me, some very specifically , in terms of stuff that they’ve done. Others, in terms of the fact, of the style of music that they play in, and others because of their composition, others in terms of relationships I had with other vibes players, you know, playing together. It varies from individuals to individuals. I tried to connect myself somehow.

JazzUSA: It’s an instrument that I just love and admire, and my all time favorite player is Bobby Hutcherson, and you were talking about those specific things you’re influenced by, you are the only one, other that Bobby that I like to hear play marimba. Is that something you picked up from him, because I don’t know anyone who plays it as frequently as you and him?

DS: Well, I don’t know if I got it specifically from him. He’s the only one besides another guy, who is a partner of mine. We’ve had a vibes and marimba duo for over 25 years, and that’s David Friedman. That’s where I really started playing marimba, which was back in 1972, which is….

JazzUSA: Yeah, Double Image.

DS: Yeah, that’s right. We’re still playing today. So that’s where I really started to hear marimba. And Bobby, who at that time, I don’t think started playing marimba until a little bit later than that. He is the only other guy that actually been out there doing it. David, myself and Bobby. The irony of it is that the two original vibes players, Red Norvo and Lionel Hampton, both played xylophone, because that was the instrument that was available, until vibes were invented.

JazzUSA: You know, with one note, I know you, Bobby, Milt, Gary Burton, everybody is so individualistic on the instrument, except the younger crop. I can hardly tell Steve Nelson from Bobby. And when Stefon Harris isn’t sounding like Bobby, he slips into his Milt mode. Although, I’m starting to hear him better, but Steve Nelson is like a Bobby Hutcherson clone.

DS: I think part of the problem is, truly in the case of Stefon, I think it takes time to develop a style. It takes time creating your own voice. I think, in his particular case, the image was created before there was a voice. It’s just kind of the way the cards fell. I’m sure that he’s going to have a long and fruitful recording career, and a strong voice will appear. But it hasn’t happened yet. Everybody comes to it in their own way. I think it’s the record companies and other elements in our society that’s fighting against that.

JazzUSA: Paraiso, isn’t the first album with this new group, right?

DS: The first one was called New Horizons.

JazzUSA: The one thread that I hear in this group that I heard in the first group is Dizzy Gillespie.

DS: Right.

JazzUSA: Was he an influence on you, or this particular group in someway?

DS: I don’t think you can talk, play or be involved in Latin jazz, Afro-Cuban jazz, whatever umbrella you want to put it under, without his influence. At the same time, I don’t think you can talk about Afro-Cuban music or Latin jazz in a small ensemble without horns, without talking about Cal Tjader. One of his strongest influences on me was his creating small Latin jazz ensembles without horns. They weren’t dance bands. It had this kind of hybrid percussion section with no drum set, but two percussionists, and had piano, vibes and flute. He brought that sound to the small ensemble and exposed a whole bunch of people to music that they had never heard before. Dizzy did it with the big band initially, and then Cal did it with the small group. I think both those elements are strong on this record.

JazzUSA: How did you pick these two guys, Steve Khan and Dave Valentin? I know you’ve been friends with them for a long time, but why them?

DS: I guess there were a couple of things. One, I knew, just from a sonic standpoint, that I wanted to get away from what we had done. I didn’t want a traditional rhythm section, and I certainly didn’t want to look for another saxophone player who played clarinet. And I couldn’t even begin to look for another pan player. I’d only end up with bad imitations. That wasn’t even a thought.

JazzUSA: Yeah, you couldn’t get better clarinet playing or steel pan playing.

DS: Right, and I wanted to try something completely different. I had known Valentin for like years and years and years. He also played on the Cal tribute record and I knew that that combination was great, flute and vibes, absolutely killer. Steve Khan, played on that record too, and he actually played another one of my solo records in the early 90’s called Ten Degrees North. And I knew he work with Eye Witness. Jimmy Haslip, bass player from the group Yellowjackets, told me once, “you want to do some Latin music, you ‘ve got to get in touch with Steve Khan. He is deep into this music.” I had known Steve. I hadn’t seen him in a few years, but I didn’t know that. So I called up Steve and we started talking and it turned out that he was a huge Cal Tjader fan. Not only Cal, but he was heavy into (Tjader’s pianist and arranger) Clare Fischer, not just his music, but him as a person. He knows him. So he’s kind of pushed me in the direction of a different kind of rhythm section, one not having drums. It turned out that when we got together and played, that sonically it was something really open. The music had this intensity with two percussionists, but it wasn’t so thick sounding. There was a lot of space. Whether people like this group or not, they’re not going to confuse it with anything.