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Ray Barretto - Hard Hands

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Artist: Ray Barretto

Album: Hard Hands

Label: Fania

Review date: Aug. 17, 2007

The mixing of genres always constituted a quietly major component in the music of Ray Barretto (1929-2006). After the almost obligatory stint with Tito Puente (nearly every name Latin percussionist from the United States has a couple years with Puente on his resume) and as a house musician with labels like Blue Note – he was a jazz drummer in the Army before gaining a reputation as a master conguero – Barretto began to branch out, incorporating hard bop, rhythm & blues, and more into his uniquely Latin groups. After his groundbreaking release Acid, which offered wildly experimental forays into soul, psychedelia and the instrumental descarga form, Barretto recorded the album Hard Hands for Jerry Masucci's Fania label, which would soon become the center of the world salsa scene.

Barretto's blend of heady, compositional jazz, salsa, and nearly-straight soul is so balanced that at first, it almost cowers in the shadow of the boisterous and far-out Acid. A few trips across this landscape, however, suggest that the artistry of Hard Hands is that it's more nuanced: no tricky dance moves, no wacky effects (New York Latin bands during this era had a strange relationship with reverb) and no big name guests or pop covers. Two performers that consistently stand out are bassist Bobby "Mr. Soul" Valentin and pianist Louis Cruz. Valentin's often fierce tumbao (groove) start many of the songs; Bobby Sanabria's liner notes helpfully point out that Barretto writes the tumbaos in many cases, but it's Valentin's punchy delivery – part Oscar D'Leon and part James Jamerson – that creates the sense of urgency and kicks the rest of the band into motion. Cruz’s phrasing is so melodic, contributing color and texture in a manner not unlike what Vince Guaraldi did for Cal Tjader's group, that the rhythmic piano statements, or montunos, often achieve what would otherwise have required more horns and percussion. The thoughtfulness of Cruz’s playing is accentuated further by Barretto's conga work and the presence of mambo scientist Orestes Vilato, throwing in pointed doses of timbale.

Compositionally, it's the song "Abidjan" that best showcases Barretto and his band's ability to inhabit multiple worlds. A hard bass tumbao opens, followed by icy and dissonant chords from the piano. An oddly restrained chorus carries the tune for a good couple of measures until Vilato explodes into a snappy, almost snare-like solo on the timbales. Barretto's congas, although unfortunately thin in the mix, add a deep swing. The climax arrives in the form of a lurching downshift from the 4/4 son montuno rhythm down into a the rocking 6/8 bembe rhythm, in which vocalist Adalberto Santiago leads the chorus through incantations of African deities, solidifying the bond between Barretto's driving New York Latin band and the West African city to which they are paying homage. As timely as it may be to draw ties between this early Fania record and the work of Hector Lavoe (now feted in the Marc Anthony/J-Lo star vehicle), this nearly 40-year-old release (now digitally remastered) absolutely stands on its own as to testament to the impact and artistry of Barretto.

By Andy Freivogel

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