Primary Instrument: Bongos
Have congas, will travel - that pretty much defines funky and frenetic world of Gumbi Ortiz Pronounced Goombi, who brings his rich Puerto Rican/Cuban heritage and a lifetime of eclectic musical influences and experiences - from jazz/fusion, pop and funk to retro-soul, samba and even a hint of Irish jig--to his highly anticipated solo debut Miami. Renowned throughout the world for his nonstop tours over the past 19 years with fusion guitar legend Al Di Meola, the charismatic conguero gathered a powerful ensemble of jazz greats (most longtime friends, naturally) in fashioning a multi-cultural tribute to the New York native’s adopted home state of Florida, where he has lived since 1980.
At the helm of this All Star CD is Executive Producer Kermit Weeks, producer Dan O’Brien, and Roger Nichols, (7 time Grammy Award winning engineer, best known for his 30 years with Steely Dan) senior engineer. 10 of Miami’s 13 tracks (there’s also a cover of a well known Janet Jackson tune) were composed by the prolific Ortiz in a single week. Several of these vignettes were later co-written or embellished by artists appearing on the CD and draw from a wealth of styles and rhythms far beyond those of his best known associations (which include Chick Corea, Miles Davis, Nat Adderly, Gato Barbieri, Jeff Berlin and famed bandeon player Dino Soluci).
The heavy emphasis on Latin, Cuban and Caribbean music comes from growing up in a big Latino family in the South Bronx. There are also a few irresistibly seductive nods to what Ortiz calls the “Herbie Hancock funk thing,” some tasty samba excursions, a touch of retro-soul (helped along by the shimmering Fender Rhodes magic of Jeff Lorber), and even a taste of gospel. Whether he’s going wild and banging his congas on free form jazz jams, showing his mastery of more subtle rhythmic nuances, or simply supporting the rhythm section behind more straightforward melodies, Ortiz proves to be an incredible lead performer in his own right.
Joining Lorber in Ortiz’s all-star supporting cast are Di Meola (Ortiz didn’t have to ask twice!), Spyro Gyra members saxman Jay Beckenstein and bassist Scott Ambush, keyboardist Rachel Z, saxophonists Eric Marienthal and Brandon Fields (who also contributes his brilliant, little heard flute talents), Di Meola’s longtime keyboardist Barry Miles (who also arranged the album’s tracks), drummer Dave Weckl and Weckl’s longtime bassist Tom Kennedy.
While Miami marks Ortiz’s first official solo release under his own name, he has also helmed several acclaimed outside projects over the past decade. His group The Gumbi Band won big at the first “Jammy” Awards, which honors great jam bands, back in 1995 for its album Imagine That! The Gumbi Band toured throughout the Southeast, opening for such artists as funk legend George Clinton. When’s he’s home from this 5-6 months of annual touring with Di Meola, Ortiz is still active in leading the St. Pete based The Latino Projekt. Known as “the little garage band that could,” this ensemble has released two successful albums, La Cura (2000) and Soy De Aqui (2005).
“The music I play with The Latino Projekt is hardcore timba, real Cuban salsa music that grew out of having young local musicians come to my house and learn how to play,” says Ortiz. “With Miami, the approach was very different. I wanted to create a blend of these rhythms with the American music I love so much, something light, fun and diverse. The vibe is about a Latin cat making music that people will like, something that tastes good, like candy, rather than try to overwhelm listeners with Cuban coffee and cigars. “Don’t get me wrong, I love the Cuban culture and its rhythms, and if you call an album Miami, those have to play a part,” he adds. “I’m working with great musicians who I’ve known for many years, which is fun. Because I’ve played with Al so long, jazz fans tend to see me as a fusion player, sort of a New York guy. So I thought it would be cool to represent all of the wonderful music I’ve heard in Florida all these years. There’s definitely a lot here.”
Tongue firmly planted in cheek, he adds in his own trademark witty, slightly accented style, “I’m like the Sybil of percussionists. There are a lot of things I like. While I’m a conguero first and a songwriter second, all the styles I’ve been exposed to from Al on down can’t help but rub off.”
Ortiz’s life has been a nonstop whirlwind since the night back in 1986 when the fusion guitar legend saw him jamming at a club in St. Petersburg, Florida, near his adopted home of Gulfport. Since then, he’s been nearly everywhere on the planet on thousands of gigs with Di Meola, from Asia to South America and Europe. Ironically, that fateful night wasn’t the first time Ortiz had encountered Di Meola. A year before, Ortiz was traveling alone in France and attended the MIDEM music festival. He saw the guitarist play a solo set before a percussionist joined him, and Ortiz recalls being very under whelmed, as if he could do a better job. Di Meola loved the story when he heard it, agreed with Ortiz, and within days were jamming together at an outdoor park in St. Pete before 40,000 people.
Ortiz, who spoke no English until grammar school, took up the sax in honor of his sax playing father, but felt more at home on percussion instruments, which he has played since he was eight. Inspired by the ritual drumming of the Santeria ceremony at his parents’ New York apartment, he quickly became hooked on his Afro-Cuban heritage. He began playing with local Latin bands when he was 11, bringing with him the knowledge of the West African drumming traditions that came from Nigeria to Cuban, then to New York.
Hearing Santana’s debut album for the first time opened Ortiz’s mind to the possibilities of blending Latin and pop music, and he started doing gigs with his friend, drummer and timbale player Chuckie Lopez; through Chuckie, Ortiz hooked up and began playing with some of the big R&B acts of the day, including Salsoul Orchestra and Ashford & Simpson. “Which was a good thing because I got kicked out of New York’s big performing arts school, the place the movie Fame was about, in two days because I had a big mouth,” he laughs. Ortiz later played with many of the great Latin bands in and around New York City, from Tito Puente to Charlie Palmieri. Moving to Florida to be with his newly immigrated family from Cuba (during the Mariel boat lift of the 80s), he settled there and began to perform with many of the Cuban acts in and around Miami.
“I have played with a lot of wonderful musicians over the years, but I think my favorite part of these experiences has not been the great music as much as the friendships I have had along the way,” says Ortiz. “While I love making the crowds laugh and clap along, and have them appreciate what I bring to the shows, I also find it funny to have a job where people applaud what I do! I agree with one musician who told me that our mission is to give people a break from their lives for a few hours. I really hope those who hear the music on Miami enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing and recording it.”
Ortiz adds, in his own inimitable humorous style, “It would be great if they ‘get it,’ and if it appeals to at least one of their five senses.”