Primary Instrument: Composer/conductor
For years, Ray Santos has been one Latin Music’s best kept secrets. Not anymore. His arrangement of Beautiful Maria of My Soul for the Hollywood movie, “The Mambo Kings,” was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Song for a Movie Category (1992). He penned the arrangements for tunes such as Perfidia and Quiereme Mucho, sung on the movie soundtrack by Linda Ronstadt. Excited by the power of the Ray Santos arrangements, she quickly contracted him to arrange and conduct the material for an album of Latin standards.
The result of the Ronstadt/Santos collaboration was the release entitled Frenesi, a tour-de force production that earned the Grammy Award for Best Tropical Latin Album of the Year (1992). On Tito Puente’s 100th Album and Afro-Cuban Jazz progenitor Mario Bauza’s three last productions, Ray Santos’ musicianship pours forth through his big band arrangements.
The Juilliard graduate has played, recorded, composed and arranged for the frontline orchestras in the Latin Music Industry over the past 50 years. Mr. Santos, born and raised in New York City, reveled in the atmosphere of the Big Band Era. During this period he absorbed the popular music of his folk from the Caribbean and the Swing Music of the ‘30s and ‘40s. One night, around 1948, while listening to Symphony Sid on the radio, he heard him announce in that familiar deep voice “Now here’s ‘Bird,’ Charlie Parker soloing with Machito and His Afro-Cubans.” The thrill of that moment still in his voice, Ray excitedly describes his reaction “WOW, This is it! This is the real meeting between Jazz and Afro-Cuban Music.”
Creative determination compelled the young saxophonist of the ‘50s to arrange and compose music that captured the incessant rhythmic drive of the Afro-Cuban Sound fused with the power and sonority of Big Band Jazz. The ace arranger penned an extensive output of charts, recorded by two generations of the most influential musical figures in contemporary American and Caribbean music, such as Machito, Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez. His career from the ‘60s into the early ‘80s matured in Puerto Rico where he wrote and directed music for television, produced recordings for established and emerging Salsa Bands, and played for many top stars in the business. Upon returning to New York, Santos contributed several arrangements to Eddie Palmieri’s 1986 Grammy-winning album in the Latin Music category. His career as a music educator at City College of New York has established him as an authority on Caribbean music, teaching a new generation of musicians. Media and film producers have contracted him as an arranger and music consultant and he remains an artistic innovator in the field.
In September of 1998, Mr. Santos was invited by Wynton Marsalis to conduct the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in a series of three concerts presenting “Con Alma/Jazz With A Latin Tinge.” These concerts were received with great enthusiasm by the audience and drew favorable reviews in the press. In 1999 Ray collaborated with Paquito D’Rivera in the production of Maestro D’Rivera’s album, “Tropicana Nights”, that was awarded a Tropical Latin Grammy. In December of 1999 he co/produced, with David Chesky, the CD titled “The Conga Kings” featuring Candido Camero, Carlos “Patato” Valdes and Giovanni Hidalgo, three world-class exponents of conga drumming. In 2000, Ray did arranging for the “Masterpiece” production with Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri. This CD was awarded a Grammy. A second CD “Conga Kings Jazz Descargas” with Alto Saxophonist Phil Woods, has been recorded and released in July, 2001 on Chesky Records.
Mambo’s resurgence heavily depends on those in the know. Ray Santos is riding, once again, on the crest of the new wave, experimenting with new ideas and musical approaches that will continue to enrich the popular art form, whether it is labeled salsa, Latin music or Afro-Cuban Jazz. “Mambo,” explains Ray, “is the interplay between a cooking rhythm section accompanying the saxes that lay down a melodic groove, over which the brass comes in blaring high powered riffs. The rhythm players, hearing this, step up the intensity of the beat while the dancers on the floor move with frenzy to this tremendous output. The musicians feed off the dancers’ reaction to the music, so it’s like a cycle of energy that goes back and forth between the music and the dancers.
Proficient musicianship, the gift to express and write musical inspiration and a well-rounded persona has placed Ray Santos among the developers of the music. In turn, he is also preparing a new generation of musicians who will keep the traditions alive and contribute their own innovations. This unassuming gentleman will be, for days to come, the topic of conversation among musicologists, industry people and music lovers alike. And the recognition that Ray has and will continue to receive proves that even in the midst of a highly competitive music industry, nice guys need not finish last.