Hanging out with Bill Summers and Irvin Mayfield is a bit like being around a longtime happily married couple. As we talk in the living room of Mayfield’s newly acquired Uptown New Orleans home on a warm February day, the leaders of the fast-rising group Los Hombres Calientes joust, laugh, joke and finish each other’s sentences. If Summers disagrees on a particular aspect of a story, he often mouths words behind Mayfield’s back to relay that his partner has it all wrong. Mayfield, aware of the signage, might react by rolling his eyes in mock indignation or bursting into a fit of laughter.
“Irvin and I see things differently all the time,” says Summers, a master percussionist and ethnomusicologist who is most widely recognized for his work with Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters. “He sees red; I see white. He wants to go up; I want to go down. We don’t work together-we work against each other, which works out for us.”
“We have a jazz relationship,” trumpeter Mayfield pipes in. “We resolve conflict every day.”
Thirty years separate this rather unlikely duo, which teamed up in 1998 along with then coleader and drummer Jason Marsalis to form Los Hombres Calientes. The band, which stylistically eludes description as it delves into the various worlds of the African diaspora, played just one date before signing a deal with the fledgling Basin Street Records. Three months later it released its self-titled debut album.
“There was no time for him to think whether he liked being around me or not,” Summers says of Mayfield. “I don’t think that was an option.”
The disc, which marked the second release for Basin Street, received accolades and awards from the local press and became the best selling CD at the 1998 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. It rose to No. 25 on Billboard’s jazz chart in 1999 and in 2000 won the magazine’s award for best contemporary Latin jazz album of the year. Los Hombres’ follow-up albums, Vol. 2 and Vol. 3: New Congo Square, enjoyed similar responses, with the latter CD boasting a Grammy nomination for best Latin-jazz album. (Marsalis left amicably after Vol. 2 to pursue his own projects.)
Keeping up a fiery pace that speaks to the ambition and drive of its leaders, Los Hombres Calientes released its latest album, Vol. 4: Vodou Dance, in late March 2003. It’s not by coincidence that the disc hit the shelves in time for the 2003 Jazz & Heritage Fest-Summers and Mayfield as well as the Basin Street label’s management are hip to smart business practices. Also out on Basin Street just in time for the Fest was a funky, new Headhunters album, Evolution Revolution, on which Summers reunites with his old bandmates. Mayfield’s latest endeavor, Half Past Autumn Suite is a straightahead jazz disc that primarily features a septet comprising drummer Jaz Sawyer, pianist Richard Johnson, saxophonist Aaron Fletcher, bassist Edwin Livingston, tenor saxophonist Marcus Strickland and trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis; Wynton Marsalis guests on one track. Suite is Mayfield’s musical interpretations of the photography of Gordon Parks, who also guests on piano for his own tune “Wind Song.” The Suite was commissioned by the New Orleans Museum of Art, which has worked with Mayfield on a number of jazz works inspired by its collection.
“The reason we can put out so many records is because they’re all different projects,” Mayfield says. The trumpeter maintains, however, that Los Hombres remains his first child. “I’m clearly committed to that. I’m still ready to do volume five and six and seven. I’m always the one the who asks, ‘What are we going to do when we get to volume 10?'”
Los Hombres does receive an abundance of time and special attention above and beyond the pair’s individual endeavors. For the group’s volume three and four discs, Summers and Mayfield traveled to Trinidad, Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica and Brazil seeking local artists, often in rural areas, who keep alive their countries’ music traditions. In doing so, Los Hombres’ goal was to acknowledge the musical and cultural similarities between the people who were transported to these locales as slaves-and to show how New Orleans and its music are a direct part of this history.
In their efforts to fully document the experience, Summers and Mayfield recorded some 10 hours of music in Haiti alone. Eventually, that massive amount of material, which was painstakingly scrutinized and edited, became several of the short, raw, spiritual interludes that connect Los Hombres’ more modern collaborations throughout Vol. 4: Vodou Dance’s 79 minutes.
“These ain’t jazz records,” exclaims Mayfield of New Congo Square and Vodou Dance. “When I do a [jazz] record it takes me two days. When we do a Los Hombres record it takes like six months-Volume Three took a year. We’re archiving a lot of stuff. When you do these things, you’re documenting what’s going on at a certain period of time. I think we were lucky to capture a lot of that. If you go to Cuba right now, those women [heard on Vol. 4] are singing and playing drums there; in 15 years they might not be there. Every time we do a record, I kind of have like a sigh of relief-‘Damn, we got that.'”
“We just push the envelope,” Summers says of the album’s length and his desire to properly document indigenous music.
“Anytime we can get a little bit more on, we’re going to do it. Another thing is that there’s a lot of music published on one record. If we could put two albums on one disc, I’d do it because it’s getting published.”
The coleaders’ different approaches, demeanors and interests are instantly recognizable on the discs. As a master percussionist who has studied the rhythms of Africa, Cuba and beyond, Summers embraces rootsier, more traditional elements in his compositions. On the other hand, Mayfield’s background in modern jazz is always apparent and it is the trumpeter who brought a gospel element to Los Hombres’ latest release.
The two take advantage of their differences, instinctively relying on each other’s particular talents as was often necessary when recording in the unfamiliar and often primitive conditions they faced during their travels. Their nonverbal communication came into play when challenged with capturing some 40 steel-pan players armed with 100 drums in a shed in a Trinidadian rainforest.
“Because of what was going on and what had to be solved in terms of technically recording it, I jumped on that, and Irvin jumped on the music,” Summers says. “He jumped on the music and started writing it on the board. Irvin took steel-pan lessons while I was figuring out how to record the players,” which included stringing microphones from ropes. “The thing about how we work together is that I can look at Irvin and he can look at me, and we can tell what we should not say to each other or what we should not do. It’s automatic. We have a wonderful relationship, because he’s crazy and I’m crazy too. I disagree with him on everything, and he disagrees with me on everything, but we work it out.”
Summers on the Nile Orleans
“New Orleans is the last frontier,” Bill Summers says. “The last banana republic is right here. After this there isn’t anywhere else to go because everything culminates here. The Mississippi River is the Nile. All of these musics are cousins, and mother is Africa, and everyone comes and visits their cousin [New Orleans].”
Summers is a Detroit native whose family is originally from Louisiana and who as a youth would visit the state each summer. “I always felt I was more a part of the vibe here than where I was living,” he says. The 54-year-old percussionist moved to New Orleans in 1993 with a vision of establishing an educational facility, Summers Multi-Ethnic Institute of the Arts, on some family property in Darrow, La.
Summers is in the process of having the land in Darrow cleared for his ambitious, multifaceted educational center, but presently the percussionist runs the institute, which has received its nonprofit status, out of his home. He not only holds lessons and classes in music and engineering but has also aided many musicians in setting up publishing companies and has been influential in involving law students in the music business.
“I consider every time I sit down with someone and teach them a formal lesson,” Summers says. “Whether it’s about the music business or the music itself, it’s a very academic setting. I think that everything I do, everything I’m involved with is through that institute.”
One of Summers’ major aims is to teach musicians the importance of self-sufficiency, a goal that is often accomplished through example. For instance, Summers recorded and mixed Los Hombres Calientes’ first album in his home studio, which worried some people involved with the project since they weren’t sure how prepared the studio was to handle such an endeavor; the success of Vol. 1 proved the skeptics wrong.
“That’s a lesson,” Summers exclaims. “Actually that’s my life-it’s a breathing, walking, living, international, housed-on-the-planet-earth institute. It has no walls confining it.”
Summers wandering and tireless spirit allows for few restrictions. He freely moves from a recording and touring artist with Los Hombres Calientes, the Headhunters and another group, Summers Heat, to musical director of To Be a Drum, a one-act play at the Phoenix Theatre Circle, in Columbus, Ohio. As author of his self-published technical and autobiographical book Studies in Bata: Sacred Drums of the Yoruba, Summers has been actively marketing and promoting the work as well as seeking to use it as his thesis for a degree at the University of California at Berkley. He’s also in the process of finishing another book about the Yoruba, dealing with the songs of the culture, which began in region around southwest Nigeria and expanded to all parts of the Caribbean and South America through slave trading.
Naturally, the new Headhunters album will be receiving a fair share of Summers’ seemingly endless energies. This time out, the Headhunters, with Summers, bassist Paul Jackson, saxophonist Bennie Maupin and drummers Harvey Mason and Mike Clark, are minus Hancock. Evolution Revolution brings in New Orleans guests trumpeter Nicholas Payton and saxophonist Donald Harrison, and includes several musicians from Los Hombres. Thus manned, the Headhunters and Los Hombres Calientes are hoping to make some live appearances as a package.
The family that plays together, stays together.
“Being in New Orleans, you never disconnect with jazz,” Irvin Mayfield says, with an in-progress orchestra-and-choir commissioned work named “Strange Fruit” resting atop his lustrous black grand piano. “New Orleans music is jazz music. If you want to talk about the African-American spirit, or what Ralph Ellison calls the Negro spirit, it’s here in New Orleans. That’s what Los Hombres Calientes’ music really captures.”
The 25-year-old New Orleans-born trumpeter, who as a preteen began blowing with veteran musicians in the Algiers Brass Band, enjoyed the first-hand experience of growing up in a place where music is used to communally celebrate important events of life: A traditional jazz band might swing in a sideyard at a baptism while brass bands will take to the street for a last salute at a jazz funeral.
Mayfield, who has participated in many such commemorations, sees the music’s ceremonial aspect coming from New Orleans’ Mardi Gras Indians, Haiti’s voodoo customs and Trinidad’s Orisha traditions, and it’s those cultural connections that Los Hombres shares and explores. He believes that it is because of the ceremony that the music’s integrity has survived. “It’s the process of people repeating the same things that your grandfather did and his grandfather did,” Mayfield says. Summers adds that the traditional rivalry often found among these groups, the competition between, say, Mardi Gras Indian gangs, or Cuban drummers, also plays an important role in maintaining the music’s high level of proficiency.
Like his mentor Wynton Marsalis, Mayfield doesn’t seem to require much sleep. He’s been in particularly high gear of late with the release of the Los Hombres CD and his Half Past Autumn Suite, plus the recent debut performance of his New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. Then there’s Dillard University’s new Institute of Jazz Culture, of which Mayfield is the executive director and the program’s author. “People say, Dillard and the Orchestra, isn’t that a lot?’ And I’m like, man, it’s nothing. This is New Orleans. There needs to be institutions for brass bands.”
Mayfield acknowledges that some similarities in concept exist between the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra and the prestigious Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra cofounded by Marsalis. He also recognizes that there are those who accuse him of trying to emulate, or perhaps to associate himself too closely with, his fellow New Orleans trumpeter, who is also on the advisory board for the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra.
“I think some people assume that Wynton has given me some position,” Mayfield scoffs. “That’s just ridiculous to me, and it’s also ridiculous to him. I think part of the tradition of jazz is to learn from the elders. If Louis Armstrong were here, I’d be trying to get with him-and people would be complaining and bitchin’ about that. The thing is, I’m not creating any of these things only for myself. It’s a community effort-it has to be.”
Mayfield brings his gusto to Los Hombres’ projects as a trumpeter, composer, arranger and coproducer. On Vol 4: Vodou Dance, he plays the horn parts, organ, Wurlitzer and sings. “If you do that too early on records, people say, ‘Oh, he’s all over the place,'” Mayfield says of his previous hesitancy to show his multiple musical talents. “But I think right now, since we have so many records out and especially with the Gordon Parks record being in such a different direction, I really didn’t worry about confusing anybody about what I’m trying to do.”
The Hot Men
Summers and Mayfield don’t consider Los Hombres Calientes a band; they view it as an ever-evolving project. The core players include all New Orleans musicians, including the remaining original Hombre, pianist Victor Atkins, along with bassist Edwin Livingston and drummer Ricky Sebastian. Last year, it added a horn section of young players with trumpeter Leon “Kid Chocolate” Brown, trombonist Stephen Walker and saxophonist Devin Phillips. Ronald Markham often comes in on keyboards and records with the ensemble. For its most recent recordings, Los Hombres enlisted not only a plethora of international guests but also other well-known artists from its hometown musicians to fill key roles.
“The project yields to who is in the band,” Mayfield says.
“Everybody’s part of a training process-they’re in school,” Summers says, naturally taking on the educator role among Los Hombres’ members. “All of these musicians have been schooled-they all play percussion correctly now. They’ve had to learn certain things about what we expect from them musically. We stand up and there will be three or four guys playing shekeré,” the African percussion rattle made from a dried-out gourd.
Considering the breadth of music explored by Los Hombres, it comes as no surprise that trying to define it stylistically has stymied more than one critic. Some have tried Afro-Latin jazz, a term that accounts for much of the New Orleans, Cuban and Brazilian influences in the band even as it slights the band’s embrace of the Caribbean. Through the years, Los Hombres’ albums have won honors in both jazz and Latin categories-often for the same release.
“Jazz is a big enough term,” Mayfield says about the issue. “It encompasses people from Frank Sinatra to Mongo Santamaria to Al Jarreau to Chaka Khan.”
Still, Summers says, “I would love there to be a [new] term-like the development of the word jazz. Jazz didn’t come from somebody with some marketing or promotional ploy; it came from a series of events that happened over a span of time. It was spelled jass at one time.”
At one point, the two began referring to Los Hombres’ music as Congo Square. The reference is to the area in New Orleans where slaves were allowed to play their drums and dance on Sundays. That they were able to continue their traditions there, though certainly in a limited manner, is credited by many New Orleanians for the persistent presence of African rhythms in the city’s music.
“[Congo Square] would be a better term,” Summers says, “because all these African people came together there and created what is now known as jazz.”
As the afternoon turns into early evening, Summers becomes itchy to talk about Los Hombres’ adventures in making Vol. 4: Vodou Dance. Summers walks around his partner’s impeccably neat living room as he remembers the man in Trinidad who wired a shed for electricity in just 45 minutes so they could fire up the recording equipment. He tells of the sea of black hands that aggressively reached out to him on their arrival in Haiti wanting something-anything. He feels the importance of relating what he was told when he asked a Haitian gentleman the meaning of the word voodoo. “Voodoo simply means God,” he was told.
Heading out on their musical journey pretty much on their own and with few actual contacts, the pair trusted fate and the spirit of a shared musical community to lead their way.
“When we got to the hotel in Haiti and checked in we went to the desk and told them it was our first time in Haiti and asked them where should we not go and what should we not do,” Summers says. “They showed us where not to go-and that’s where we spent the next two days.”
Even after all those hours of recording, the Haitian musicians refused to accept any money and instead brought the pair and their assistant food.
“Bill is almost engaging in an argument with these people to pay them,” Mayfield recalls with an incredulous laugh. “They said, ‘Our music is not for this.’ It ain’t easy because you’re dealing with things cultural. We’re in Haiti, we’re in the poorest Caribbean place with the richest culture. Their music and their culture are so untouched by the colonizers because they kicked the colonizers off the island.”
“It was the adventure of it,” Summers exclaims, “from dogs attacking and people attacking to going into the rainforest in Trinidad and going to the beach areas and eventually winding up with a priest up on a mountain with birds singing in the background.”
“There’s never a better souvenir than to bring home the record,” Mayfield says.
Naturally, all the traveling, editing, mixing as well as studio time in New Orleans is expensive, particularly for a small, independent label like Basin Street. The coleaders are well aware that few labels would be willing to back such endeavors.
“It’s not a powerful label in the scheme of things,” Summers says, “but Los Hombres, me and Irvin Mayfield, have been able to put that record company and what we’re doing on a huge map. Sooner or later, the powers that be in the industry, those who hold the strings, will have to reckon with us.”
As Mayfield points out, “can’t do” is not a part of Summers’ logic, and the percussionist’s imagination is easily sparked. “You have to be careful what you tell him,” Mayfield says. “If I say, ‘Bill, I think we ought to go to Japan and South Africa for the next record, he’ll say, ‘I like that idea.’ After that, you talk to him and it’s like, ‘We have to go to Japan. We have to go to South Africa. We’ve got to do this-understand.'”
Later in our conversation, Mayfield casually mentions that Los Hombres Calientes should someday go on the road with an 80- or 90-piece orchestra that would incorporate musicians with whom the band had recorded. That’s all can-do Summers needed to hear.
“We should try that, man,” Summers excitedly exclaims. “That’s what we should try.”
“See, I shouldn’t have said that,” Mayfield interrupts, shaking his head in mock regret.
Summers ignores him and carries on: “That’s a good idea. We need to do some shit like that. We need to-at least once or twice a year-bring all the entities together from some of these [Los Hombres] projects to play a couple of performances.”
After Los Hombres Calientes recorded its first album back in 1998, Summers and Mayfield, much like a couple who realize they have found their soulmates, made a commitment to never break up. While admitting that 180 degrees separate them, the two circle in opposite directions to meet in the music.
“At 9 o’clock and 3 o’clock we look at each other and wave,” Summers says. “I let him do what the fuck he wants to do and he lets me do what I do, and we don’t bump heads. What we have is what the world is trying to get. How can two so different entities be at peace with each other? We have the formula for getting around that-how to peacefully coexist with opposing energies.”
“It’s just a matter of figuring out what he wants and what he wants to do,” Mayfield says. “How can I assist him? That’s what you do, you assist.”
The cover of Vol. 4: Vodou Dance illustrates their night-and-day personalities, musical and otherwise, with perhaps unintended clarity: Summers is dressed in all-white; Mayfield is in all-black.
“This is a very special project that’s divinely inspired, that’s protected by God himself,” Summers says. “He’s pulling the strings. The whole scene is protected by a very big umbrella of heavenly spirits-Orishas and voodoo, Catholics and Jews, Muslims and Buddhists.”
Mayfield says, “We’re doing what Dizzy Gillespie was trying to do and what he really started. He paved the way for us to take that concept of cultural exchange and really do it.”
As night falls, Summers takes off to finish up some last-minute preparations for his trip to California where he’ll join the Just Say No Posse, led by his pianist older brother Darnell, for several antiwar-protest performances. Meanwhile, a car waits outside to pick up Mayfield to take him to the New Orleans Arena, where he will play “The Star-Spangled Banner” to open a Hornets basketball game. The two musicians are heading in separate directions, waving as they go, to meet again in the mutual ground of the music of Los Hombres Calientes.
“We have a saying: The sky is not the limit,” Summers says. “Make your dreams as big as the universe. There you go-that’s me and Irvin.”
Duke Ellington New Orleans Suite (Atlantic)
Miles Davis Porgy and Bess (Columbia)
Igor Stravinsky Le Sacre du Printemps (Polygram)
Ilu Orisha Iroko (Interworld)
Don Pancho y Los Terry From Africa to Camaguey (7 Bridges)
Giraldo Rodriguez Afro Tambores Bata (Orfeon)
Mayfield plays a handmade Monette 997 model B-flat trumpet with a Monette B2 mouthpiece both of which were specifically designed for him. As a backup, he owns at Monette Raja with an integral B2 mouthpiece that was given to him by Wynton Marsalis.
All of Summers’ Brazilian, Cuban and African percussion equipment such as congas, timbales, bata drum and shekeré are supplied by his endorser, Meinl. He uses Zildjian cymbals and Shure microphones.