Conrad Herwig’s album “The Latin Side of Mingus” featured on WBGO’s New Day, New Play December 5-9
It was New Year's Eve. We were celebrating with a live broadcast from the City Hall Restaurant, a bunker-like affair in Tribeca, getting ready for Y2K—the year 2000. There was anxiety that at midnight the Ethernet and all its associates would collapse because of digit confusion. But none of us cared. We had a party going on, there was plenty of juice, and The Mingus Big Band was our featured act! If the world was going to end, this was the place!
The musical director for The Mingus Big Band was trombonist Conrad Herwig, who's also shared his franchise of "Latinized" recordings of the music of Miles, Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson and Wayne Shorter. With his experience, you can imagine the excitement surrounding his new recording, The Latin Side Of Mingus. It's a spirited affair with an all-star cast of pianist Bill O'Connell, bassist Luques Curtis, drummer Robbie Ameen, percussionist Camilo Molina, and special guests—trumpeters Randy Brecker and Alex Sipiagin, as well as saxophonist Craig Handy.
Result? You'll get hit in your soul!
From Monday, Dec. 5 through Friday, Dec. 9, one cut from Herwig’s The Latin Side of Mingus album will be featured each morning on the New Day, New Play spotlight on my Daybreak show.
Listen to “Gunslinging Bird” from The Latin Side of Mingus, above.
Recently Herwig talked with WBGO’s Bobby Sanabria about the album and the legacy of artists such as Mario Bauza, Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri.
Watch their conversation here:
Bobby Sanabria: This new recording is part of a series of recordings that you've done that originally started with the inspiration by the late great Bob Belden, who was the one that initiated you doing The Latin Side of John Coltrane. Subsequently you've done The Latin Side of Horace Silver, The Latin Side of Joe Henderson, and now The Latin Side of Charles Mingus, in celebration of the centennial of Maestro Charles Mingus, who was not only an incredible musician, composer, arranger and bandleader, but also a satirist, a sociopolitical activist for human rights, for racial rights, for musicians’ rights.
Conrad Herwig: You may know that I've been with the Mingus Big band for 25 years. Mingus’ music is very near and dear to my heart. It's a labor of love. Mingus is such a genius and it made total sense to do The Latin Side of Mingus in the kind of trajectory of what we've been doing, reimagining the jazz classics.
What happened was we were working with Eddie Palmieri Octet with Donald Harrison, Brian Lynch and myself, along with John Benitez, Robby Ameen, El Negro Hernandez and Richie Flores…the whole crew. It was a classic time, the ‘90s with the Eddie Palmieri Octet. What would happen is when we were playing Eddie's music in that Afro Caribbean jazz octet, we would sometimes just spontaneously go into playing a theme of John Coltrane, like “Blue Trane” or “Impressions.” And it worked really well. Bob Belden had come by The Blue Note and heard that. I was talking to him and he goes, “Man, that's a great idea for a record to play Afro-Caribbean Coltrane. Can you do it?” I said, “Sure, of course we can do it.” Eddie told us that we earned our salsa badge back in the ‘80s. So I had the opportunity to do that record with Eddie playing “Impressions” and “Blue Trane,” and I had Danilo Perez, Ed Simon, Andy Gonzalez, John Benitez and the whole crew on The Latin Side of Coltrane. And Brian Lynch, of course. And the late great Ronnie Cuber. I played hundreds, if not a thousand, gigs with Ronnie. The thing with The Latin Side of John Coltrane was that there was no tenor sax. There was only baritone sax on that record. Ronnie played later on The Latin Side of Wayne Shorter and he played on The Latin Side of Joe Henderson with us.
After we did The Latin Side of John Coltrane, I was a fly on the wall, but I did record with Miles, with Quincy Jones, on Live at Montreux, which was Miles’ last album. I felt this connection there and so it made total sense to do that. Obviously, Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock are idols of mine. When I toured with Joe Henderson for a number of years, we actually did some double concerts with Wayne and Herbie. Then I played for several years with Joe, and I also played with Horace Silver. So those [composers] made total sense. I felt this personal connection because I knew them. They were very kind to me in my life. Then there’s the connection with Charles Mingus and that legacy with being in The Mingus Big Band. It's not like we just come out of the blue with these things. There’s a spiritual connection particularly with The Latin Side of Mingus that I had always wanted to incorporate folkloric elements.. And the same thing originally with The Latin Side of John Coltrane.
I have a bachelor's degree in Afro-Cuban Ethno-musicology. I was extremely interested in Yoruba, Abakua, Kongo. Milton Cardona was a great friend and a mentor to me. I talked to Milton. We changed “A Love Supreme” to “Supreme Amor” and then incorporated the Yoruba toqué for the Orisha (god) Obatala. I wanted to continue that trajectory with Mingus. There's a Mingus piece called “Don't Let It Happen Here.” I decided I really wanted to do it in Spanish. Ruben Blades was super accommodating. He was like a saint to come and to record that with us. I'm not a hundred percent sure how many folks who listen to Afro-Caribbean jazz and salsa know Charles Mingus’ music or know that particular work of “Don't Let It Happen Here,” which is very topical. A lot of Mingus’ philosophy is as important or more important today than it was when he was alive and playing and composing. We’re trying to keep that legacy and to get that going.
When I heard that song and Ruben's voice came out, I smiled. Kudos to you for thinking of that. And kudos to Ruben for accepting to do it. The way Ruben did it was very timely, very apropos and very honest as well. So, kudos to both of you.
Well, besides being one of the hippest cats on the planet, Ruben also is one of the most informed individuals I've ever met in my life. He knew the original poem by Martin Niemöller from when he was in Harvard, because he had studied it. He was very interested in the message. Ruben is another warrior for social justice. As jazz musicians we’re sort of obsessed with the process and we're obsessed with the melodic qualities and the rhythmic qualities and the harmonic qualities. But that message to me was so important. Just beyond the music, there's this social message of justice and freedom and expanding freedom.
Note: This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.