Self-determinedly genre-jumbling drummer/percussionist Alex Acuña has released his first album as a leader in a decade, Gifts (Le Coq), and the 77-year-old Los Angelino states that its title relates to everything in his life. The talents, family, and second chances he’s been given. The faith he holds dear. The fact that he still practices piano, boxing, and karate daily. The music he makes.
“I call this album Gifts because God gave me this music,” Acuña says enthusiastically. “When I wake from bed at four in the morning and tap out a melody on my piano, that’s God talking. I have made it my mission to make music a gift to the world. Even the songs on this album, each were tunes gifted to me from someone in my lifetime with love.”
True enough; every track has a clear connection to his life and career. Take the Latin-jamming “Cuncho” (Acuña’s longtime nickname), which evokes his childhood in Peru, or the woozily dreamy “Postlude” and his soulful take on Cannonball Adderley’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” both offering tribute to his two-year tenure in Weather Report and the friendship of that band’s co-leader/keyboardist Joe Zawinul. The cinematic “Regalo” echoes the major movie soundtracks he’s played on as of late, such as Encanto, West Side Story, and Spider-Man: No Way Home. There are songs dedicated to his birthright (“Divina”), celebrating his early love of Brazilian music (“Malencia”), and harking back to the symphonies to God that he made with his 1980s Christian jazz ensemble Koinonia (“Amandote”).
Acuña’s interest in music goes back to his hometown of Pativilca, Peru, and a noontime radio program that played a mix of classical, traditional Peruvian, folk from elsewhere in South America, jazz, and rock & roll. “Bill Haley, Stravinsky, Duke Ellington—music had one name to me,” he says. Such diversity came to define Acuña, as he refused to be known strictly as a Latin-music rhythmatist after leaving Puerto Rico (where he’d moved in 1965 at age 20) and the employs of mambo maestro Perez Prado and Spanish cellist Pablo Casals for Las Vegas and session work in the mid-’70s.
“Playing professionally since I was 10, I had already been a studio drummer for the radio and television before coming to Las Vegas and Los Angeles, and loved the process, the camaraderie,” he says of playing for name-above-the-title singers such as Elvis Presley (“Elvis and his drummer Ronnie Tutt were into martial arts when I was into Okinawan karate, and we became friends“) and Diana Ross (“I have a great photo of her kissing me on the cheek. All very pure”).
While Acuña credits John Coltrane for helping him understand what improvisation could truly be (“I never heard anyone soloing with such choice of notes, modal scales, rhythm, and freedom at once”), his personal drumming style owes more to the playing of Trane’s skinsman Elvin Jones, merged with Peruvian traditions and more modern Latin sounds. “When I listened to Weather Report’s first album in 1971, all of that became real in the present day. My father always told me that music is harmony, melody, and rhythm. The fourth element is improvisation, which means composing on the spot. When I heard Weather Report do all of that at the same time, all that my father said came true.”
Point out to Acuña that his tenure with Weather Report coincided with their best-selling albums, the fusion gamechangers Black Market (1976) and Heavy Weather (1977), and he laughs. “They brought so much to my life, Wayne [Shorter], Jaco [Pastorius] and Joe [Zawinul]. It was a thrill to be with them. They played the same tunes during our two years, but different all the time. A real plethora of sound.”
Honesty is a large part of who Acuña is. This comes out when he explains why he left Weather Report in 1978. “Very important to me is my family. I had three children then, wanted to raise them, and Weather Report tours were too long for me to be away. The other reason was the music. We were recording Mr. Gone, and Zawinul came up with this beautiful song, ‘Young and Fine.’ I started that track, then stopped. I realized that I was playing the same beats I had on the last album and had nothing new to offer them, no fresh approach. It wasn’t fair to their progress, so I left.”
Acuña giggles when recalling that that same Weather Report tune, when finally recorded, “featured two drummers: Peter Erskine and Steve Gadd.” (A third drummer, Tony Williams, appeared
Regarding “Postlude,” the spacious nod to Weather Report on his new album, Acuña states that the song was given to him by a Los Angeles violin player, Harry Scorzo, 30 years ago, and its ethereal reach stuck with him. “I wanted to pay tribute to Zawinul on that and ‘Mercy, Mercy, Mercy’ because we were very close. We used to box together. We were spiritual together.”
Something else that Acuña mentions about Zawinul—that the keyboardist once asked the drummer to pray for his wife—connects to his life as a devout Christian, and his time leading Koinonia. “The light that the Creator gave me is huge and bright,” Acuña says, and you can feel some of that light on Gifts’ deeply poignant “Amandote” (co-written with Koinonia bassist Abraham Laboriel and keyboardist Rique Pantoja), which basks in the ambience of spiritual devotion.
“‘Koinonia’ is Greek for ‘community’ or ‘fellowship,’ and even though I had a relationship to God as a child via the gift of music, I lost sight of that in the 1970s being part of the music business,” he says, frankly. “I went away from my Catholic past. I took a detour. But one morning after I left Weather Report, I heard a voice calling to me, telling me that I needed God. Calling for me to come to Him. I was lost. With God, from that point forward, I was found.”
Another gift that seems to have put Acuña ahead of the game is that he studied at the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music in the ’60s at the urging of his musician father. This meant that he could easily read music and play tuned orchestral percussion as well as keeping the beat on conventional kits and ethnocentric accoutrements.
“You’re correct in that such training at the conservatory allowed me to compose, even if I haven’t done as much in my lifetime as I should have,” Acuña admits. “This would serve me well, forever, as I now play with L.A.’s Philharmonic and [its conductor] Gustavo Dudamel, and on so many big Hollywood soundtracks. The film studios call me because I can read and cover so many styles.”
Even though Gifts is a joyful celebration of his life in music, musical friends, education, and faith, it wasn’t an album that Acuña had planned.
“I’m smiling as you ask, because I didn’t want to do solo albums anymore. My music is maybe difficult. Maybe too modern,” he says, referring in particular to the marvelous harmony-driven recordings he made with the Unknowns, such as 1990’s Thinking of You. “But I started working with Andy James at Le Coq, who hired me for every recording they were doing—they’re so wonderful—and they asked me to do this album. And I like it. Gifts is different than my other solo albums. Music is always the star of my life, and Gifts highlights melody, harmony, rhythm and all the different sounds I have made and loved, always.”
Perez Prado and His Orchestra: Lights! Action! Prado! (United Artists, 1965)
Weather Report: Heavy Weather (Columbia, 1977)
Wayne Shorter: Atlantis (Columbia, 1985)
John Patitucci: Heart of the Bass (Stretch, 1991)
Brian Bromberg: In the Spirit of Jobim (Chesky, 2007)
Alex Acuña: Gifts (Le Coq, 2022)