I must have been eight or nine years old when my father brought home that LP of Benny Goodman, recorded live in 1938 at Carnegie Hall with Harry James, Gene Krupa, Teddy Wilson, and Lionel Hampton—who was, after Benny, the one that impressed me the most, mainly because he played beautifully an instrument that I had never heard before: the vibraphone. I was always fascinated by this instrument, and since I settled in the United States in 1980, I’ve shared the stage with multiple vibraphonists, including the Old Gates himself as well as Milt Jackson, Gary Burton, Hendrik Meurkens, Tito Puente, Bobby Hutcherson, Stefon Harris, Victor Mendoza, Alfredo Chacón, Jay Hoggard, and the ineffable Dave Samuels, from whom in September 1993 I received a call for a concert at the New York Central Park Zoo, organized by the radio station CD101 and also featuring steel pannist Andy Narell.
I already knew about Dave’s work through his recordings with Spyro Gyra, and we’d been briefly introduced on one occasion at the Village Vanguard. As soon as he mentioned Andy Narell’s name for the gig, I accepted the offer, since for a long time I had wanted to personally meet that artist, who so ingeniously spiced jazz with Caribbean musical elements.
Dave later wrote (in my book My Sax Life), “Almost instantly during our first rehearsal we became aware of the unique timbre that resulted from blending the sounds of our three frontline instruments. I had played and recorded with Andy previously and was familiar with our instrumental combination, but by adding alto and clarinet, a completely new dimension was created.”
That was the beginning of the Caribbean Jazz Project, a brainstorm from the fertile imagination of Dave Samuels, and with the CJP we traveled all over the world, reaching great popularity, partly as a result of our versatile and powerful rhythm section: the Argentine pianist Dario Eskenazi, the solid and creative Peruvian bassist Oscar Stagnaro, and Mark Walker, one of the most professional drummers I’ve ever met. With the sound of Andy’s magical steel pan I felt like a child with a new toy, and I was so dazzled by Dave’s elegant, firm, and expressive style that I almost immediately asked him to appear as a guest artist on my album A Night in Englewood with the United Nation Orchestra. (The other soloists were Slide Hampton and Claudio Roditi.)
Dave had a slightly dark sense of humor. He always made fun of my Cuban accent when I speak English; once he even accused me of anti-Semitism because, according to him, I wanted to play the standard “There Will Never Be Another Jew.” With all those Latinos in the band, we joked with him all the time. He laughed a lot when I said on the microphone that in this group, Andy was the Caribbean, he was the Jazz, and I was the Project. And he once told a journalist that I looked like Pete Fountain after eating too much rice and beans, that I had the humor of Spike Jones and the flatulence of Shamu, the killer whale.
My pianist friend Esko Linnavalli once wisely said that when you think you’re a finished musician, you’re really finished, and in my personal case, I don’t think I have enough words to express how much I learned just from closely listening to Dave Samuels’ impeccable playing. He was certainly one of the greatest mallet players in the history of jazz.