How a non-Latino kid from New Jersey came to be a prime groover in the Latin jazz scene.
Story by Jeff Potter
Photos by Paul La Raia
Last December, Vince Cherico arrived for a gig in Cuba at a historic moment. On the morning following his concert with Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, the drummer set up his kit for the rehearsal of a collaborative project between the visiting U.S. musicians and Havana’s Malpaso Dance Company. The exciting news had just broken regarding President Obama’s announcement to thaw the fifty-four-year-old diplomatic freeze with Cuba. “Arturo made a little speech about it, and everybody was cheering,” Cherico recalls. “Then Artie said, ‘But we’re already doing that right here—we’re already crossing that divide.’ And that brought tears to everyone’s eyes.”
As the grooving pilot of O’Farrill’s pioneering big band, Cherico has routinely broken down borders, driving the orchestra’s exhilarating multicultural mash-ups. The ALJO’s latest release, The Offense of the Drum, winner of the 2015 Grammy for Best Latin Jazz Album, is the group’s most ambitious declaration yet of that ethos. Exploring a global thread stretching from the folkloric to rap, the disc features a large roster of multinational guest percussionists. Unifying it all is Cherico, a drummer who thrives on assimilating rhythmic traditions.
Cherico’s career took a sudden turn when a chance exposure to salsa struck like a clave thunderbolt, eventually leading to status as an in-demand drummer at the apex of the Latin jazz scene. Today, a longtime residency with the ALJO represents the culmination of that trajectory. O’Farrill proudly calls Cherico “the perfect drummer for this band.” And Cherico fondly says, “Arturo is a nut! He’ll go for anything. He likes to explore different regions. I love that about him, and that’s also what I’m about.”
Cherico had served as a frequent sub in the Chico O’Farrill Afro Cuban Jazz Orchestra, a unit formed by Arturo’s legendary father. The drummer’s 2011 performance with that band on the farewell night of a fourteen-year residency was captured for the recording Arturo O’Farrill and the Chico O’Farrill Afro Cuban Jazz Orchestra: Final Night at Birdland, which landed a 2014 Latin Grammy. In past years Cherico played on five other Grammy-nominated discs, scoring winners with the ALJO’s Song for Chico (2008) and Ray Barretto’s Contact! (1998).
Recent releases showcasing Cherico’s wide palette include Acid Mambo by Chris Washburne & SYOTOS, a disc drawing on psychedelic rock; Slink, a Latin/jazz/Celtic mix by Auction Project; and Mists: Charles Ives for Jazz Orchestra by arranger Jack Cooper. Among the other notable acts that the energetic, globe-hopping drummer has performed and/or recorded with are the Caribbean Jazz Project, Dave Samuels, Paquito D’Rivera, Chembo Corniel, Diane Schuur, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Steve Kroon, Gato Barbieri, Jessica Simpson, and the Manhattan Transfer. Cherico also continues to teach at Queens College, Columbia University, and Drummers Collective.
A drummer of fluidity, fire, and physical ease, Cherico plays with balanced dynamics and a commanding yet sensitive touch. On and off the bandstand he exudes a disarming youthful enthusiasm. Recounting early tales of whuppings by stern bandleaders, Cherico punctuates his stories with a hearty laugh. A resilient spirit who loves to learn, he has clearly survived—even cherished—the rigorous lessons of tough love
on the bandstand.
MD: In a July 2014 Different View interview with Modern Drummer, Arturo O’Farrill spoke about folkloric rhythms, saying, “It never sounds the same as when the cats play it—the guys who grew up listening and dancing to it, loving and living it.” But you’re his chosen drummer and a contradiction to that. So how does a non-Latino kid from Jersey end up a valuable player on the Latin jazz scene?
Vince: I was playing with a jazz-fusion group in New Jersey led by a vibes player named Bill Ware. He is also a bass player, and he started playing in a salsa band on the weekends to make a little extra gas money. He started writing and arranging for them, and he gave me a cassette and said, “Check this out. I want to start doing some of this stuff in our band.”
As soon as I heard it, I was like, Where have you been all my life? This was around 1984. So I just started figuring this stuff out. When we started putting the Latin numbers into our group, Bill said, “Man, are you taking lessons on this? You picked it up really quick! Why don’t you get some timbales, because the salsa band has gone through five timbale players in the last two months.” Of course I said, “Come on, they’re not going to let me.” He said, “Get out of here—let’s go!”
So I drove up to the Bronx and found an old set of wood Gon Bops [timbales] that were about two inches thick. I transcribed twelve tunes and went to the audition. I had no technique, but I was able to keep clave. I played, reading my charts. I made all the hits, and the leader was cracking up. He said, “You got the gig!”
My first gig with that band was a wedding. I set up early, and the leader walked in and said, “What are you doing? Why are you back there?” I said, “Well, that’s where a drummer sets up.” “No! No!” he said. “The percussionist is out front; the horns are in the back.” I thought, Oh no, I’m not ready for this. I want to hide away! But I started playing all these little jobs and I just loved it, loved the music so much.
I got so much support from the Latino community. These little clubs were mom-and-pop places: grandparents, parents, and little kids were all there, out for a Saturday night. There was food, rum and Coke, beers…. It was all about socializing and dancing. Of course, everybody totally knew I was not Latino—even though I did have a mustache at the time. [laughs] They’d come up and say, “Hey, man, I like what you’re doing, but let me just show you something….”
MD: Fellow musicians?
Vince: No, the patrons! It’s kind of like Brazil—everybody can play some pandeiro. Everybody knew something about timbales. I’d be getting a lesson from I-don’t-know-who, and by the time the band’s getting back from their break, I’m thirsty and it’s too late, but wow! This went on and on like that, and I was amazed.
In another instance, I was playing with a band up in the Catskills one summer, and a great percussionist came up to sub on bongos. I was very intimidated, because this guy is an amazing timbale player who worked with top salsa bands. He was playing bongos next to me and I was standing up, playing timbales. It was hot and we were all wearing shorts on an afternoon gig. I did some stupid drummer-concept thing on timbales—taking a fill as if I was going around the toms on kit. He took out the bongo bell stick, which is about one inch thick, and whacked me on the side of the leg: “I told you not to do that!” [laughs] My whole leg was black and blue that weekend. But if he didn’t care, he wouldn’t have said a word.
For over a year I was playing more timbales than anything. My first love was jazz and even Brazilian music, which I got turned on to very young. But at a certain juncture, while learning all the Latin stuff, I’d go to a jazz gig and the guys would say, “What’s happened to you? Last week you sounded like Billy Hart on drums. What’s going on?” So I started re-listening to Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Philly Joe…. Then I’d get to the Latin gig and they’d say, “What’s going on with you?” I couldn’t figure out doing both at the same time.
MD: Were the feels conflicting with each other? I’d assume one would enhance the other.
Vince: Exactly. But there was a period where I was freaked out, wondering if this would ever settle so I could do both.
MD: Many other drummers have studied Latin rhythms but not truly grasped the feel. What clicked for you?
Vince: It’s just something that rang true with me. I was fortunate that it made sense to me. I used to play with Bill Ware on the street. He played montunos with four mallets on vibes. I tried to stretch every way I could, because what do you have to lose on the street? After four or five months of doing that, we were playing a Latin number and all of a sudden I did some crazy fill. And when I came out of it, I knew just where the clave was. It was a eureka moment. From that day, things started to change. I’ve been told by Latin musicians that my clave concept is in there now as if I was born with it. That was my passport.
MD: Joining Ray Barretto’s band in 1995 was a big breakthrough that raised your career profile.
Vince: Ray was a mentor and almost a second father who busted my ass like crazy. I played with him for eleven years. He was an intense and amazing guy, and it was a great learning experience. At the same time, we periodically had fights off stage. He’d be cursing at me because I’d say, “Okay, Ray, we need to stretch this, take this somewhere else.”
One time we hit a section where the piano player came in and the bass player and I just felt it was a good place to let it ring and allow him to open it up and build something. We thought Ray saw that. But he kept playing the congas. Then he freaked out, stopped, and got embarrassed. On the break he started screaming at me. I just had to say, “Ray, you wanna talk the talk of jazz, you gotta walk the walk!” [laughs]
MD: That’s a special relationship—to be able to say that to your boss.
Vince: Yeah. When he passed away his wife told me, “He loved you the most. But you gave him heartache!” It was a good thing.
MD: You’ve worked with many other Latin-percussionist legends, including Carlos “Patato” Valdes, Mongo Santamaria, Candido, and Giovanni Hidalgo. That’s an education.
Vince: Also, there’s an amazing famous timbale player named Nicky Marrero who was in the Fania All-Stars in the ’70s. He was one of my mentors back in the day. I played little clubs in the Bronx, and he would always be there. After, we’d hang out in my car until four or five in the morning, listening to music and talking. Early on, Nicky was watching me playing drums with a little band, and he started screaming in my ear, “Play congas! Play congas!”
On the break I said, “Nicky, there’s already a conguero here.” He said, “I know. But you have got to learn congas. Get into ‘playing them’ on the drumset.” You see, I already had experience playing timbales, and many musicians said that I played drumset more like a timbalero. So at that point, Nicky was saying, “Stop thinking only like a timbale player. Get more into the drumset. Utilize more of the folklore of the congas, and that will deepen your drumming.”
So I started asking conga players to show me everything. And it did deepen my knowledge. Then, when I played with conga players, they loved me. So many of them had previously run into drummers who only wanted to run the show—take all the glory. But my attitude was, “No, man, I want to mesh with you.”
MD: Arturo O’Farrill formed the ALJO to launch a prestigious residency at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Many top drummers had their names in the pool. He chose you. Why?
Vince: To be honest, I was a little dumbfounded, because this was JALC. I didn’t think too much about it, but I did realize that I wasn’t born in Cuba or Puerto Rico. My part-Italian blood is as close as I get! But Arturo had the belief and faith in me. I wasn’t the very first drummer, but I joined at the end of 2004, just in time for the grand opening of JALC.
On one level, it was important that I’d had big band experience with jazz groups. My personal philosophy comes from the band’s actual name; Arturo named it perfectly. I have to be able to kick a big band as well as have all those other styles under my belt. It’s a constantly revolving word game with these elements.
On top of that, I’ve had so many varied experiences along the way—Peruvian music, for example. The band worked with Gabriel Alegria, and the first time we played Peruvian music, I think Arturo had no idea. But I had been playing Peruvian music for ten years with little groups and did a couple records. So when Gabriel came in, he was kind of shocked that I not only knew the music but knew it on a very deep level. Everything I get into, my heart and soul goes into it. I get addicted; I’ve just got to listen, take it apart, work on it, and get the essence.
MD: The Offense of the Drum is the band’s most cutting-edge, multicultural mix yet. How did you approach it?
Vince: I’m always looking to interact, but foremost I take my role as a big band, orchestra drummer: I want to drive the bus and make everyone comfortable, especially on this record, because we had Colombian musicians, African djembe, Japanese taiko drummers, and others. So I check my ego at the coat closet. You have to serve the music.
MD: Were there any new stylistic challenges you needed to grasp?
Vince: On the piece “Mercado en Domingo” by Pablo Mayor, the style was porro. Pablo was emailing me sound samples, giving me ideas in rehearsals. Even though I play cumbia, the more I check out Colombian music, the more I realize I don’t know. There’s so much going on from different parts of the country. While I was playing it, I could see Pablo thinking, That’s not it yet. So I kept digging deeper, researching it. A big goal for me was to adapt it for drumset in a way that also honors the folkloric tradition.
MD: “They Came” is a departure, including rap and DJ Logic on turntables.
Vince: I have high praise for [arranger/composer] Jason Lindner. That really takes you on a journey. In one section he wanted me to play a Skrillex/Pitbull kind of groove—but on an acoustic kit, getting the vibe of it.
MD: Since you entered Latin music via timbales, drumming behind Tito Puente must have been a momentous full-circle experience.
Vince: It was an amazing lesson. I worked with him a few times, but the most memorable was my first time, at the Plaza Hotel, when he was a guest artist. I was introduced to Tito while I was loading my drums in. I shook his hand. He looked me right in the eye and said, “They tell me you’re good. We’ll see.” And he walked away! [laughs]
In the second set, when Tito came on, I realized I had contemplated this moment on the drive there: Man, I’ll be playing with Tito Puente! What am I gonna do? But then it occurred to me: What am I NOT going to do? I said to myself, Vince, you’re NOT going to take a fill.
So for Tito’s whole set I basically played a hi-hat thing that imitates maracas, and once or twice, as the set went on, I could see when Tito wasn’t going to do something, and I hit a crash cymbal, because I knew the tune. But I just watched him the whole time.
At the end he came right over to me, reached over the rack tom, shook my hand, and said, “I like you. You didn’t get in my way.” That was it. And he walked away! A friend in the band said, “Vince, great job, and let me just tell you this: You just got the biggest compliment Tito Puente will give any musician.”
Bobby Rodriguez was on bass—he had played on all the great Tito records. He called me over and said, “We’ve had a lot of drummers do this chair, and every one of them had to show off. You respected Tito, and that’s his biggest compliment. Forty-five years ago, I did my first gig with that man. At the end, he told me the same thing. And you know what I told him? ‘Well, you sure got in my way, muthaf—-!’And I’ve played with him ever since.” [laughs]
That’s some real old school stuff. These things get into your bloodstream, into your psyche. As I’ve moved forward, I’m so glad to have these experiences for a reference.
Drums: Yamaha Absolute Maple Custom in cherry wood
A. 6.5×14 Craviotto solid-shell walnut/maple/walnut snare with die-cast hoops
B. 8×12 tom
C. 14×14 floor tom
D. 16×20 bass drum
1. 15″ K Light hi-hats
2. 19″ K Dark Thin crash
3. 6″ Factory Metal Street FXCross Crasherz
4. 22″ Kerope prototype ride (2,680 grams)
5. 18″ K Dark Medium Thin crash
6. 20″ Oriental Crash of Doom with 11″ K Custom Hybrid splash stacked on top
aa. Aspire Timbale cowbell (played with foot)
bb. Jam Block Medium
cc. Salsa Timbale cowbell
dd. Salsa Bongo cowbell
ee. Salsa Cha Cha cowbell (high pitch)
ff. 6.5×13 Tito Puente brass timbale
Additional percussion: LP congas, bongos, and bronze timbales; J. Leiva Omeya Travel cajon; goat-hoof rattle (on hi-hat); various world percussion
Hardware: Yamaha 800 series hardware and LP cowbell
Heads: Remo, including Coated Ambassador
snare batter and Hazy Diplomat bottom, Coated Ambassador tom batters and Clear Diplomat bottoms, Coated Ambassador bass drum batter and Coated Powerstroke 4 Yamaha-logo front head, and Coated Ambassador timbale batter
Sticks: Vic Firth, including SZ sticks (or STR, 8DN, or TMB2 models), Heritage and Legacy brushes, Rute 505, and T6 and SD6 mallets
Accessories: Vic Firth VicKick felt and fleece beaters and VicPack backpack; MONO M80 cymbal case, snare case, and Studio stick bag