Mitch Frohman Interview on His Work with Tito Puente and Mongo Santamaria

Mitch Frohman Interview on His Work with Tito Puente and Mongo Santamaria
by Robert Gluck

From Daddy with Love - album coverMitch Frohman's musical career began with humble aspirations, but the road he travels has taken him far.

The seasoned Latin jazz saxophonist and flautist has, throughout his career, amassed a staggering body of accolades and achievements, from playing in Tito Puente's Orchestra to performing in Mongo Santamaría's band and beyond. His work has appeared on numerous albums, recordings and even on television (he's credited as sax soloist of "Sex & the City's" iconic theme song).

His musical evolution far from over, he is now on track for breakout popularity as a solo musician alongside the Curtis brothers and drummer, Joel Mateo. His first album with this quartet, titled "From Daddy with Love," sets the tone for a new wave of Latin jazz while holding true to authentic fundamentals of the genre.

Incredible as it is, such a musical career was not always his plan. He'd begun his musical journey with an accordion in his youth - going onto complete formal training at Miami University for a Bachelor of Music Education.

"I began as a little kid with the accordion as my first instrument, then switched to saxophone a few years later in Junior High School. Quit music in High School and took up music again in college."

It wasn't until he returned to New York that he began to delve into the world of Latin jazz music in earnest. It was the Catskill mountains that gave him his start, and the Pines resort, one of the largest in the Borscht Belt area at the time (mid-1970's), provided him the initial inspiration to get into Latin jazz. Although he never worked there, the Pines resort served as his first opportunity to sit in with Joe Cuba's famous sextet, an opportunity he enjoyed repeatedly throughout the summer he spent in the area.

Old Performance Poster from 1984

This got him thinking about Latin bands and asking about Latin jazz bands when he returned home to the Bronx. Someone mentioned Tito Puente's band, so he found out where they were playing and introduced himself to the band manager.

They let him hang out and sit in on gigs, then began calling him to sub when someone couldn't make it. Once another sax player left, they gave him the job.

"It wasn't planned because I was just trying to play with anybody, but that was the first "name band" that gave me an opportunity."

Once he joined, he played with them every single night.

"I kind of made the breaks myself. You know, put in the work."

Mitch "made the breaks" by staying flexible, all while gaining traction in the Latin jazz community. In music, more often than not, you take what falls in place - changing course as your career develops.

"I think that's true of life in general. I think it's more rare than common that you know what you want to be and then that path just stays straight from when you're a young man."

Mitch and friends

 Despite the bans, tango spread and its variations became sub-genres. Today tango is a worldwide phenomenon.

Indeed, early on, his interest in sports rivaled his interest in music, though music ultimately won out.

"For me, it was sports and music. I was a good athlete, but not good enough to be a professional athlete... One thing that sports teach you is how to get along with others and that's very helpful in being in a band."

Mitch went on to join yet another legendary Latin jazz band while still playing with Tito Puente. This time, with his reputation preceding him, he was given a position in Mongo Santamaría's band after a successful audition in 1988.

A series of career highlights ensued from then on - leading him all over the world and affording him many opportunities to play with greats in Latin jazz and other genres. Mitch went on to record with Mongo Santamaría, Celia Cruz, Eddie Palmieri, the Mambo Legends Orchestra, the Bronx Horns and even Aventura, among many others.

Such a broad body of influences and experiences in the music industry have imbued Mitch's own original compositions with a special feel all their own. Tracks from his new album such as "Accents Con Ritmo" and "Mambo Sin Fronteras" clearly articulate his musical message - an expansion of the Latin jazz tradition into new territory and a new age. Tracks like "Mongo's Groove" emphasize the importance of his experience with legendary bands such as Mongo's and the style with which his own music has been imbued.

"'Mongo's Groove' is a tune that I wrote that had that Mongo Santamaria band feel, so I named it that. Mongo had his style and Tito had his style... but Mongo was a little more... jazzy. [There were] Little different grooves that the bands had. Mongo, a little more funk and a different type of Afro-Cuban soul."

Frohman's inspirations stem not only from his fellow musicians, but his experiences growing up in the Bronx.

Mitch Frohman Latin Quartet

"That's my life. Where you grow up, it sets your mind, your attitude, your friends, how you approach things. If I would be a lawyer or a doctor or a shoe salesman, I would still be from the Bronx and I would still be the same person."

His upbringing in the Bronx gave him an early understanding of diversity in music - a lesson that may have influenced his later decision to step into the world of Latin jazz to some degree.

"Growing up in the Bronx, I came across so many different cultures, so I was familiar with Latin music just by virtue of being in an ethnically diverse area of NY. So, I didn't come into this music blind."

As last year's recipient of a prestigious Chico O' Farrell lifetime achievement award in Latin Jazz, his new efforts, coupled with those of TRR, are not likely to go unnoticed. Mitch's music has already begun to spread and he's done guest tours overseas, with Asia representing a major market he's had recent success in. He anticipates returning there soon.

"With this new project, with the Curtis Brothers and Truth Revolution, it's helped me get out as a solo artist. These guys, Zaccai, Luques and my drummer, Joel Mateo, are really the future of this music. They're wonderful human beings and fantastic musicians... They really make me feel younger when I play with them. They're a joy to work with."