It’s the 99th birthday anniversary of the master bassist Israel “Cachao” López Valdés (1918-2008). For the occasion, here’s a program note I wrote for a 2012 Jazz at Lincoln Center concert devoted to his music, directed by Carlos Henriquez. This link will take you to a documentary about his life broadcast on PBS’ American Masters series a few years ago.
The Music of Cachao
By Ted Panken ©2012
His name was Israel “Cachao” López, he came from Havana, Cuba and during his 90 years on the planet he played the contrabass with the imperial authority of Serge Koussevitzky, the kinetic precision of a Yoruba drummer, and the unbridled creativity of Charles Mingus. His old friend Bebo Valdés, a fellow 1918 baby, called him “the king of rhythm.”
As a child, Cachao played bass for a theater orchestra that accompanied silent movies. At 13, he began a 30-year run with the Havana Philharmonic. He moonlighted in dance bands, including one called Arcaño y Sus Maravillas that included his older brother, the pianist-cellist Orestes López, with whom, in 1938, he composed “Mambo,” introducing a swinging groove (nuevo ritmo) for the final section of danzón, an elegant, ritualized form—and Cuba’s national dance from the latter 19th century through the 1950s—that involves composing four separate episodes, each in a different tempo. Bandleader Damaso “Perez” Prado popularized the rhythmic weave, and it exploded onto the international stage, including the dance floors of New York City, where it evolved into the lingua franca beat of Latin Jazz.
Cachao’s mambo also propelled a series of recorded jam sessions (billed as descargas, after the Spanish verb meaning, among other things, to discharge electricity and speak one’s mind) with the best-and-brightest—and jazz-aware—Cuban dance musicians employed by the nightclubs and casinos of Batista’s Havana. They directly influenced the evolution of salsa as articulated by Tito Puente (Cachao composed “Oye Como Va”), Tito Rodriguez, and Eddie Palmieri, all of whom hired Cachao after he migrated permanently to the United States in 1964.
The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, directed by JLCO bassist Carlos Henriquez, will address both the danzón and descarga on this evening’s celebration of Cachao’s legacy. Now 32, Henriquez is a thoroughly 21st century musician, able to navigate the multiplicity of idioms that fall under the jazz umbrella, among them the clave and swing dialects, “without an accent.”
That this is no small task was made clear by the great jazz bassist Ron Carter himself. Speaking on WKCR in 2001, he analogized the jazz feel to “four beats straight up and down, like a picket fence,” while describing clave as that “picket fence leaning over to one side so all the beats move at 45 degree angles from the straight line.” Carter continued: “Jazz isn’t so filled with counter-rhythms, but Latin music has four or five rhythms going all at once in one tune, enough rhythms to last you for a week, held together by the clave beat. All the choices can overwhelm you. I’m amazed that they always pick the right ones.”
Cachao himself was no stranger to jazz. “When I first started listening to jazz, bassists weren’t soloists yet,” he told me during a 2005 encounter. He recalled an informal encounter with bass pioneer Milt Hinton, in Havana with Cab Calloway, perhaps in the late 1940s, at which they “played the songs of Duke Ellington together, one doing the melody and the other doing the bass.” Still, he “spoke jazz” in an accent infused with the infinite permutations of clave.
For Henriquez, the son of a trombone player and a dancer—both of whom were connoisseurs of swing and salsa—the “accent-less” approach is his birthright as a product of the South Bronx “melting pot.” It didn’t hurt to receive hands-on mentoring from the likes of clave wizard Andy Gonzalez and Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra predecessors Reginald Veal and Rodney Whitaker, as well as such distinguished prior employers as Danilo Perez, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Tito Puente, and Eddie Palmieri.
“I use Cachao’s concepts all the time,” Henriquez states, noting that the maestro, who learned the bongos even before the bass, extrapolated the rhythms of each component of the Afro-Cuban bata drums, but most notably those associated with the low-range tumbador, and incorporated them into his bass playing. “He learned the instrument with finesse and style, with accuracy and technique. But he also incorporated his life into the music. There’s a side that’s very street-oriented, ferocious, strong, dark, and powerful, which I love, but there was a sweet, beautiful side, too.
“The concept of tumbao [a syncopated, repetitive rhythmic pattern], of playing a fundamental part that becomes a leading part, is widely misunderstood. In African music, the bass is actually the moving line—focusing on the root rhythm and creating that as a solo. That attracts the whole band to you. Cachao was a magnetic force; he was the core of everything.”