Trumpeter Ray Vega Talks About What Every Latin Jazz Musician Should Consider

Best of Both Worlds - Ray Vega on Latin and Contemporary Jazz
by Jeff Mitchell (TRR Collective)

Chapter II by Ray Vega - album cover

Pictue by Jason Goodman

Ray Vega's illustrious career as a trumpeter and multi-disciplined musician has led him far and wide both over the physical landscape of the world as well as the musical landscape of jazz and Latin jazz ensembles.

His work spans numerous acts in contemporary and Latin jazz, with collaborative recordings and/or performances alongside the likes of Celia Cruz, Mario Bauza, Mel Torme, the "Mingus Big Band," Paul Simon and many others.

With such a long and successful career under his belt, it's clear that current projects of his such as the "NY Latin Jazz All Stars," the "Ray Vega Quartet" and the "Ray Vega Latin Jazz Ensemble" are important to keep an eye on. However, it's his ability to authentically play such diverse and distinctive subgenres as contemporary jazz and Latin jazz that seems to deeply define his own unique sound.

Old Performance Poster from 1984

Picture by Jason Goodman

A clue as to how exactly he traverses different styles of jazz lies in his youthful exposure to the music. 

"My first intro to the music was as a young person listening to Jazz on late night radio in the 1960's. There were two R&B shows which would end their broadcasts every night with Jazz. One would end with 'Flamingo' by Jimmy Smith featuring Lee Morgan. The other would end its show with 'Misty' by Groove Holmes. These tunes are soulful and swing real hard."

Such fond memories reveal the depth with which the language of jazz has embedded itself in Ray's being. 

"I remember seeing Jackie McLean on a Sunday morning show called 'Like It Is' on WABC TV. He played a tribute to Charlie Parker... I was around 12 years old... The bug had bitten me." 

Jackie McLean Poster - The Blue Note Years

Ray has come to understand what he suggests is most important for any jazz musician in Latin jazz to consider. Primarily, a keen respect for the subgenre's roots and an interest in connecting genuinely with listeners.

"I think it's essential that we did not disconnect ourselves from the rhythmic elements of West African music. The groove needs to move people. The music shouldn't be so complicated that it lacks accessibility. We need to make intelligent music which connects to people."

Vega also explains the importance of connecting both the "Latin" and the "jazz" in Latin jazz without catering too much to either side.

"Latin jazz is a double edged sword... Everyone wants to develop the Latin side of things... All while ignoring the jazz side. We need to be dealing with harmony... We need to be dealing with Pops, Duke, Bird, Diz, Monk, Bud Powell, Trane, Mccoy, Woody Shaw, Eric Dolphy, Mingus... etc, etc. The blues is the blues is the blues."

 

We asked Ray what artists he'd most enjoyed working with over the years, to which he responded with a favorite from his younger days as a musician.

"As a young player, I really enjoyed working with Ray Barretto and his band, 'New World Spirit' the most. He demanded that we push ourselves to stay creative."

Such an influence earlier in Ray's career likely lit the flame of his own admirable creativity - setting him apart as a jazz trumpeter with a penchant for pushing the creative envelope. Of course, Ray Barretto's band isn't alone at the top of Vega's list. His current bandmates and a certain influential saxophonist have all made a deep impression on him as well.

"One of my favorite sidemen is the legendary saxophonist Bob Porcelli. My time sharing the stage/recording studios with him will always rank high for me. Currently, I really enjoy working with my 'NY Latin Jazz All Stars' as well as my 2 Vermont-based groups[...] They're enthusiastic to play."

Bobby Pocelli

picture - Francisco Molina Reyes II

In as open an arena as jazz, it would seem natural for most prominent musicians to eschew the rigors of formal training in an effort to further innovate and develop their unique sounds; however, as is often the case, the best in the business tend to have undergone extensive studying to fully form their own styles. Such is the case for Ray, whose scholarly achievements and teachers in music are just as astounding as his body of work.

Vega learned proper technique on trumpet from such excellent teachers as Mike Lawrence and Jerry Gonzalez, among others. However, he also studied Afro-Caribbean percussion with Louis Bauzo, which gave him a clearer understanding of the rhythmic underpinnings that so define Latin jazz.

"As a trumpeter, I realized early on that it's essential to study with a teacher who will guide the student through the standard methods in order to develop their sound and technique... Overall prowess on the horn. Why? Because a trumpet played poorly is not a pleasant thing to listen to."

Chapter II by Ray Vega - album cover

Picture by Jazson Goodman Cover design by Edward LaRose

Ray has fused the scholarly with the innovative throughout his career, not only performing with a long list of greats and leading his own bands, but also teaching his art to others through numerous master classes and excelling in his own musical studies. Such rigorous dedication to thoroughly understanding his craft goes a long way towards making him the musician he is. 

 

In addition to attentively-learned technical proficiency, Vega's music comes backed by an inspiring impetus - a wealth of optimistic emotion. 

Expression rests at the heart of all musical endeavors, and for Ray, happiness is at the core of his compositions. He mentioned joy and hope as primary in his music.

"I hope that my music will provoke positive thoughts... I hope that my music inspires the listener to strive to raise their level of consciousness."