Carlos Henriquez Extends the Tradition

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Bassit Carlos Henriquez has recorded The South Bronx Story, both live and in the studio, and RodBros Music is set to issue the material later this year.

(Photo: Lawrence Sumulong)

The tumbao, that basic building block of Afro-Cuban music, is deeply imbedded in bassist Carlos Henriquez’s DNA. Like the New Orleans second-line beat, the swing beat in jazz or duende in flamenco music, it’s something felt, rather than easily explained.

It’s the heartbeat of where Henriquez comes from. And as a proud Nuyorican from the South Bronx, he carries on that tradition by embracing the music of Machito, Cachao, Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez, Eddie Palmieri and other Latin jazz masters while putting his own personal take on it.

In November, the longtime bassist for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, led by musical director Wynton Marsalis, stepped out from his sideman role for the world premiere of his latest autobiographical project, The South Bronx Story. A kind of musical travelogue of his old stomping grounds, as well as a retrospective of the social history of the South Bronx, the ambitious work draws from Henriquez’s personal memories of the 146th Street and Brook Avenue neighborhood where he grew up during the ’80s.

Backed by a razor-sharp ensemble consisting of veteran trumpeter Terell Stafford, trombonist Marshall Gilkes, drummer Obed Calvaire, flutist-vocalist Jeremy Bosch, conguero Marcos Torres, tenor saxophonist Abdias Armenteros (currently a student at Juilliard) and the talented Rodriguez brothers (pianist Robert and trumpeter Michael), Henriquez turned musical memories into a compelling nine-movement suite. (Many of the same musicians appear on his 2018 album, Dizzy Con Clave: Live From Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, on the RodBros Music label.)

“I want to take you on a journey through my South Bronx,” he told an audience during November in the Appel Room before launching into his set. “These movements symbolize major events—the good and the bad—and some iconic figures from my youth.”

The sociopolitical opener, “Soy Human” (which translates to “I Am Human”), is a thoughtful piece reflecting the human condition in the South Bronx, addressing the stigma of growing up trapped in a system that made it difficult for people to succeed. “These were very low-income families, mostly Puerto Ricans and blacks, who were occupying the area, yet weren’t getting much help from the government,” he told the crowd. “We were slaves to the system.”

An exhilarating, clave-fueled “Moses On The Cross” addressed the divisive legacy of Robert Moses’ six-lane Cross Bronx Expressway, which ripped through the heart of the Bronx and caused unprecedented congestion, while creating a social divide between the north and south sections. On “Borough Of Fire” Henriquez conjured up memories of his father driving him around the South Bronx, pointing out where slumlords torched their own buildings in the ’70s for insurance money. “Hydrants Of Love” recalled happier times, when groups of adults and children played under the spray of an open fire hydrant on hot summer afternoons. “Black Benji” recounted the tragic story of a neighborhood peacemaker from the Ghetto Boys gang, whose untimely death triggered a truce between rival gangs in the South Bronx.

On the lovely bolero “Momma Lorraine,” Henriquez paid tribute to social activist Lorraine Montenegro—the co-founder of the United Bronx Parents community group and La Casita treatment facility—who died in 2017 in Puerto Rico, days after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island. He also paid tribute to his hard-working Vietnam vet father on “El Guajeo De Papi” and to the late Bronx-born trumpeter-conguero Jerry Gonzalez on “Fort Apache.”

“I played with Jerry and Fort Apache Band at the Five Spot when I was 15 years old,” Henriquez told the audience. “Jerry always taught me to acknowledge the music that came before us.” When Henriquez strapped on his electric bass for “Hip Hop Con Clave”—a tip of the hat to South Bronx’s own Afrika Bambaataa and his Universal Zulu Nation—he coyly confided to the audience, “I can’t let Wynton know I’m playing electric.”

Marsalis has been an important mentor in Henriquez’s life since 1998, when the bassist began playing with Wynton’s quintet and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra at age 19, though he actually first met Henriquez much earlier. As Marsalis recalled, “A friend of his named Steven Oquendo, a young trumpet player that I knew, brought Carlos to my house one day. They both went to LaGuardia High School, right across the street from where I live. They came over and Steven said, ‘I want you to hear my man play the bass.’ Carlos was only 14 at the time, but when he started playing, it was unbelievable. He had such a huge beat and a big sound and a natural kind of swing in 4/4. So, I asked him, ‘How’d you learn how to play like that, with that kind of feel?’ And he told me it was because he was from the Bronx. He had the vibe like cats from that neighborhood have.”

Following that initial encounter, Henriquez started attending JALCO rehearsals, where he would pick the brains of the various bassists in Marsalis’ orbit, from Rodney Whitaker to Reginald Veal and Ben Wolfe.

“He was always on the scene, checking cats out,” Wynton remembered. “And he was already working professionally at that point, playing with Tito Nieves, Tito Puente, Celia Cruz and a lot of other bands. He reminded me of Branford and myself, and how we grew up in New Orleans. We always had gigs when we were 14 and 15. And when Carlos finally came in the band, he was like a little brother to all of us.”

After 20 years of playing together, Marsalis has high praise for his “little brother.”

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