Trumpeter Ray Vega has been on a career-long mission to make sure that the “jazz” in Latin jazz is the real thing. Growing up in the South Bronx, he was immersed in the native music of his Puerto Rican parents, but by age 15, his creative spirit shifted gears when he started listening to jazz.
“When I consider Latin jazz, I must pay my respect to the Latin side of the music, rhythmically speaking. But the word ‘jazz’ carries a lot of weight, because there are so many incredible masters of this American music. So when I think of Latin jazz, I think of connecting the two genres—and being creative about it.”
Vega, now 38, does what he says, and his latest Concord Picante release, Boperation, is a case in point. The brainchild of Concord producer Nick Phillips, the record pays tribute to great jazz trumpet players and offers Vega’s interpretation of their music with a Latin twist. Vega tips his hat to players such as Hubbard, Dizzy, Kenny Dorham, Eddie Henderson, Clifford Brown, Chet Baker, Art Farmer, Lee Morgan, Donald Byrd, Miles, Fats Navarro and Howard McGhee.
“My thing is maneuvering around the Latin rhythms, but also being well schooled in the language of Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, and other masters. I’m trying to deliver a combination of both things. It’s a jazz aesthetic with a Latin thing under it.”
Vega, who also plays fluegelhorn and percussion on the release, is joined by Roger Byam on sax, Igor Atalita on piano, bassist Bernie Minoso, Vince Cherico on drums, and Wilson “Chembo” Corniel on congas. Special guests Steve Khan on guitar and Joe Locke on vibraphone add a special dimension to the recording.
He credits Dizzy as a pioneer for true Latin jazz: “Dizzy was a visionary who was willing to take chances, yet he didn’t stand in front of his audience with a serious face that turned people off. He always had fun playing, and that makes people understand and groove with the music.”