In 1999 Rebeca Mauleon made Round Trip (Bembe), her debut outing as a leader, and she was trying hard to promote the CD, taking nightclub gigs as much as possible. But instead of feeling like a pianist, Mauleon says she was turning into a business manager, which took her away from creating music. So she backed away from the $50 to $100 a night "chicken feed" club gigs and reevaluated her career. "I was tired of this mediocre pace that I was surrounded by and wanted to see myself rise above that," says Mauleon. "For those doing the clubs, more power to you, because those are the trenches. You have to pay those dues, but at the same time you don't need to settle for less."
So Mauleon, who holds a master's degree in composition from Oakland, Calif.'s Mills College, concentrated on teaching and wrote the celebrated instructional books Salsa Guidebook, 101 Montunos and Muy Caliente (Sher Publishing). For the last few years Mauleon, has dedicated herself to completing a Meet the Composer Grant at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, teaching at San Francisco City College and raising her two boys. Mauleon was first attracted to salsa dance music and Latin jazz as a kid hanging out at the SF Mission Cultural Center. Since then she's gone on to play and record with Mickey Hart's Planet Drum, Tito Puente, Carlos Santana and many others.
Now, with a little more experience and different expectations, Mauleon recorded Latin Fire (Rumbeca; rebecamauleon.com), which was coproduced with her husband, Manolo Santana, a Cuban-educated lawyer. The CD features all original compositions played by a core quintet of trumpeter Bill Ortiz, bassist Gary Brown, drummer Jimmy Branly and percussionist Giovanni Hidalgo. The result is sophisticated clave-based Caribbean jazz with North American funk, gospel and spoken word tossed in. Mauleon also uses her voice as a textural component. "I've never considered myself a salsa singer or a vocalist in a lead capacity," she says, "but I write the lyrics in a way that I can represent my voice in a subtle way, supported by a choral environment."
Despite her initial disillusionment with the rigors of performing nickel-and-dime dates, Mauleon says she's happy to be reaching out to an audience again. "The Meet the Composer residency was good, because I got a chance to hone my compositional skills, but it was also a three-year commitment that took me out of the performing world. The stage is an important place for me to be. I want to share my music with folks; it's their support and enthusiasm that keep me going."