Marty Sheller to Release "Why Deny,"
His Debut Album,
On His Own PVR Label, Today, Feb. 19
Marty Sheller's long and busy career as a valued arranger-composer-producer for many of the biggest names in Latin jazz and salsa music--including Tito Puente, Willie Colón, Ruben Blades, Hector Lavoe, Larry Harlow, the Fania All-Stars, the Spanish Harlem Orchestra, and especially his close colleague Mongo Santamaria--left him little time to contemplate recording his own music. But he finally resolved to address that oversight at the urging of friends, organizing several sessions with nine of his favorite musicians. The result is Why Deny, a vibrant new CD of Latin-influenced jazz produced and arranged by Sheller.
The musicians on the new CD are all musically "bilingual," with deep roots in both jazz and Latin music. Pianist Oscar Hernandez, bassist Ruben Rodriguez, and drummer Vince Cherico provide the rhythmic foundation, with percussion parts added by Steve Berrios. The frontline consists of trumpeters Chris Rogers and Joe Magnarelli, trombonist Sam Burtis, tenor saxophonist Bob Franceschini, and alto saxophonist Bobby Porcelli, Sheller's longtime friend and musical collaborator.
"The rhythmic basis of Cuban music is the 'clave,' a two-bar, five-beat repetitive pattern," says Sheller. But on this CD, "the clave is camouflaged. The horn players approach the songs from a strictly jazz point of view; it's the rhythm section that follows a Latin groove. But even within that, they're playing with a jazz approach."
Three Sheller originals, Wayne Shorter's "Mahjong," and the title track, a Porcelli composition, utilize Latin rhythms, including the joropo heard on "El Pavo": Sheller was introduced to the complex Venezuelan pattern in the 1960s by Frank "El Pavo" Valerino Hernandez, who was Santamaria's drummer when Sheller was the band's trumpet player.
On the album's sole ballad, "Sweet and Lovely," Sheller incorporates harmonies inspired by Thelonious Monk's version of the standard; Porcelli is featured soloist.
Why Deny is dedicated to Mongo Santamaria. "He was a gentleman," says Sheller, "very respectful toward all of his musicians, and other musicians. He was strictly about the music."
At the Crossroads of Latin and Jazz
Marty Sheller was born in Newark, New Jersey, on March 15, 1940. His first instrument was snare drum, but he soon switched to trumpet. In 1958, he joined a band led by saxophonist Hugo Dickens. The Harlem social clubs that threw dances on weekend nights "wanted a band that could play rhythm and blues and also Latin," Sheller says. "Three bands were doing it: Hugo Dickens, Pucho, and Joe Panama. Many musicians from these bands went on to become very influential in the Latin and Latin-jazz scene."
In late 1962 Sheller got a call from Mongo Santamaria, who had just switched from a charanga format to a Latin-jazz sound with a frontline of trumpet, alto saxophone, and tenor saxophone.
At Sheller's first rehearsal with Santamaria, Herbie Hancock brought in an arrangement of a tune he'd recently recorded titled "Watermelon Man." "We changed the phrasing a bit," Sheller says of himself and his new band-mates. When they first played the tune in public, "the people went wild," Sheller remembers. Santamaria's manager phoned Orrin Keepnews at Riverside Records with the news and persuaded the producer to promptly record the song for release as a single. "Watermelon Man" (featuring a trumpet solo by Sheller) became a Top 10 pop hit.
Sheller played with Santamaria, as well as composed, arranged, and eventually served as musical director, through 1968, when he put down his trumpet due to embouchure problems. He continued, however, working with Santamaria as an arranger, composer, conductor, and sometimes producer until the conguero's death in 2003.
"I thought that I would never be happy not playing the trumpet," Sheller says, "but I found out that I got as much gratification from hearing one of my arrangements played by good musicians as I did from playing." Since laying down his horn, Sheller has been much in demand as an arranger and composer. His jazz-informed charts greatly contributed to the success of the salsa music issued by Fania Records from the late '60s through the late '80s. Other arranging credits include recordings by Shirley Scott, George Benson, Jon Faddis, David Byrne, Idris Muhammad, Giovanni Hidalgo, T.S. Monk, Steve Turre, and Woody Shaw.
"Marty Sheller is a musician's musician," says Arturo O'Farrill, pianist and conductor of the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra. "Growing up in the Latin field, whenever I found myself playing a particularly hip arrangement, nine out of ten times it was Marty's."
Sheller has enough recorded material from the Why Deny sessions for a second CD. He's continued writing, with another eight or nine pieces on hand. "We've done some rehearsing, and they sound pretty good," he says. "That's my biggest joy--from the rehearsals. That's when what I see on the paper comes to life." Appreciators of high-level Latin jazz can look forward to more from Marty Sheller in all good time.