This is a re-mix and re-posting of a detailed piece on Abel Zarate; one of the very best musicians to come out of the Bay Area Latin Rock confluence in it’s explosive heyday.
We are proud to explore the life and times of this exemplary guitarist and songwriter. Who also contributed heavily to the compositions and sound of the early Malo group and their first dynamic recording. Abel has also been involved musically with Luis Gasca, Willie Bobo, Attitude, Jet, Wizardz, Sapo, Casanova, Suave, Mingo Lewis Band plus a projected band with Gregg Rolie as well as the more current Zarate Pollace Project..
“In Carlos’ Shadow – A Conversation with Abel Zarate – Part 2″
MC Abel, here’s a fantasy question. You worked with, jammed with, knew and observed all of the principal musicians in the Bay Area Latin rock movement. If you could form a fantasy “all star” band from that pool of players with yourself as guitarist, what band members would you select? You can choose from among players still living as well as those that have passed on, remembering them at the height of their abilities (without regard to personality, just ability). At the very least, we’ ll need keyboards, bass, drums, congas, timbales, sax/flute, trumpet, trombone and a lead vocalist. Who’s in the band?
ABEL: Because this is my fantasy lineup, I just went with the people I knew best, players I thought it would be interesting for me to play with and who I’d get along with: Kermode and Jay Wagner on keys. Kim Plainfield or Chuck Burgi on drums. Dave Margen on bass. Mingo and Michael Carabello on conga. Coke on timbal. Bob Olivera on sax, Mike Heathman on trombone, Roy Murray and Tom Harrell on trumpet and flugelhorn. Richard Bean and Rico Reyes on vocals… now if egos didn’t flare, this would’ve been one hell of a band! (smiles)
MC: After LASB, you reunited with Richard Bean in a re-formed version of Sapo (some of the original players having left when Arista purchased Bell Records, leaving the band without a record deal). The new lineup had you and Richard sharing lead vocals (and playing guitar and timbales, respectively), Richard Kermode on keyboards, Raul Rekow on congas, Thaddeus Reece on bass and Chuck Burgi (who would later play with Hall & Oates and Brand X) on drums. A rehearsal/and or demo tape of that band has circulated for years pairing instrumental jazz like your fusion samba “Fiesta” and a haunting Szabo-influenced guitar piece with some pop-oriented songs, some written by you like “Think of Me” and some by Bean. This band almost seemed to have a split personality, musically (though both sides were good).
FROM DARDO: I grew up in NY and came up listening to hard rock, got turned on to jazz fusion, and am now just getting around to checking out some of the music from the West Coast Latin scene. I like Sapo’s version of “Linda Chicana,” and also “Fiesta” and “Think of Me.” What was the atmosphere like in the band at that time and what were your goals? Did you attract any record label interest? Was Raul’s decision to join Santana what ended this incarnation of Sapo?
ABEL: Hey, Dardo, this is really stretching my memory! Richard Bean had asked me to join the band. At that time he was open to experimenting with a “new” Sapo sound, so we mixed in a few fusion instrumentals while still trying to write pop/vocal tunes. I really enjoyed that band, and it really rekindled my friendship with Beano and Raul. Sapo gigged quite frequently all over. Chuck Burgi was a true gentleman and monster drummer. Some of those gigs I did with Kermode and Chuck Burgi in Sapo were musical highlights for me. I left because Coke asked me to record and tour with him. I sort of lost touch with Richard after that, as I think he started working with Jorge Santana again.
MC: Were you ever a member of Azteca? What was the extent of your involvement with that band? Are you able to shed any light into how Azteca morphed into the Pete & Sheila Escovedo band? What role did Billy Cobham have in that transition?
ABEL: My involvement came after the original Azteca lineup had broken up, as Coke was now doing his solo career. I had appeared on the same bill with Azteca through the Mingo project, and later with Sapo. Pete Escovedo and I had hit it off, and I became a regular at his house in Oakland. That’s how I became friends with Ray Obiedo, who lived around the corner from the Escovedos and was also playing guitar in that latter-day lineup of Azteca. Ray mentored me a little bit on some jazz stylings, and sometimes I would “sub” for him on casuals and sit in on some Azteca gigs. Though I never was really part of Azteca per se, I was very close to the Escovedos at that time and was asked to sit in on quite a few occasions. One of these gigs was at the Reunion club on Union Street…Billy Cobham came by one night and was floored by Sheila, which led to his helping with the “Pete & Sheila” records. Unlike Coke, who carried himself with a rock star aura, Pete was very down to earth and matter-of-fact about the music business. There was no hype surrounding whatever he did, it was simply playing music and trying to put food on the table. Something changed when I met Pete, Sheila and Ray Obiedo. Hanging around them made me more curious than ever about jazz stylings and funk, so I left the Latin rock Santana sound and started moving into a more improvisational style of playing.
MC: We have a lot of Azteca fans who would be interested in knowing who the players were in the last days of Azteca, other than Ray, Pete and Sheila (with yourself often sitting in). Were Wendy Haas, Errol Knowles and Rico Reyes still in the band? Who were the horn and keyboard players, the bassist and drummer?
ABEL: Errol was still there, Lady Bianca would be included from time to time on vocals. They had Mark Soskin on keys and Gaylord Birch on drums. The bass spot would change according to who was available. As far as the horn section, I remember Al Bent being a regular on trombone, plus Roger Glenn, and the rest is too fuzzy to remember.
MC: Within a couple years of your leaving Malo, Brazilian colors had found their way into your music, and also Santana’s. This was a time when Airto & Flora Purim were becoming influential musicians and samba-flavored jazz fusion was frequently heard. Does your interest in Brazilian sounds go back to the Getz/Gilberto and Brasil ’66 era, or did it begin during that 1970’s wave? ZPP often uses Brazilian grooves…what appeals to you about them?
ABEL: “The Girl from Ipanema” was on the radio back in the ‘60’s, and the crowd I hung with in the Mission all liked it. I love bossa nova, Jobim and other Brazilian composers, the rhythm just appeals to me. Early on, I started to pick up on bossa nova influences in music by Steve Lawrence & Eydie Gorme, Jose Feliciano, and the song “Without Her” that Al Kooper sang with Blood, Sweat & Tears. It wasn’t until the 70’s, though, that I really got into Brazilian music. Kermode was the person who helped me discover it. I’m a romantic at heart, and Brazilian music just conveys romance and love to me.
MC: Many of your more adventurous original compositions over the years have featured complex rhythm breaks and unusual time signatures, a trait that is in evidence in the Zarate Pollace Project. Was this something that you picked up from Chick Corea’s music with Return to Forever?
ABEL: Actually, I picked it up from listening to so much salsa and Latin music. I was influenced by RTF, but it was my friends who played conga and percussion that influenced my “breaks” and rhythmic ideas, so I thank you guys, and you know who you are!
MC: FROM EDDIE RODRIGUEZ: Hi Abel, I always wanted to ask you how you get that unique soulful tone on your guitar? There are certain notes you play that are deep and sweet at the same time. Good luck with your new band, can’t wait ‘til you play L.A.
ABEL: Hi, Eddie! As many guitarists will tell you, a lot of it is in your touch. I remember watching Bloomfield and Carlos up close and noticing how they caressed each note. Also, because I’m a blues-based player, I learned the importance of knowing how to bend a note. Finding the right amplification also helps. Your sound comes from your heart, through your fingers, onto the fretboard and out through your amp, but a player’s touch affects his tone…that’s about the best way I can explain it.
MC: What have your preferred guitars, amps and effects been throughout your career, and how have those helped you achieve your sound?
ABEL: For the longest time I favored the Gibson Les Paul. In the 80’s, though, it got really hard to find a good one, as Gibson was just pumping them out. Twin Reverbs were my amp of choice back in the day (Black Face ones). I’ve played Strats and BC Rich guitars, but never quite got comfortable on them. I currently play a Gibson ES 336, which I love, and a PRS Custom 22 that screams. For amplification I discovered the Fuchs and Two Rock Amp in 2005, and just fell in Love. It reminds me of the prototype Boogie I owned in the early 70’s, but on steroids! I use a Choral Flange and Delay live, and I’m constantly checking out pedal boards to see if there’s something else I want to add to the palette. A lot of amps sound too harsh and brittle, but the Fuchs Amp just has a very warm, cushy, sound to it in the clean mode, very audiophile-quality. I’m a big Larry Carlton fan, and this setup gets me close to his vibe and tone.
MC: More than most guitarists, you have long been adept at making percussive effects like agogô, claves or temple blocks with your guitar. You not only know how to make the sounds, but know exactly where they fit in the music. How did you come to use and develop this delightful and highly-musical trick? What technique is involved?
ABEL: As far as knowing where, it’s just “feel,” I just have fun with it. I crank up the reverb and just mute the strings. Actually, a lot of Los Angeles players like Carlton and Ritenour have been doing this for years! Maybe I just do it differently? I just try to help the groove along…
FROM XAMAN: Abel, what do you think of Al Di Meola’s composition “Nena?” The tune doesn’t sound like Malo’s “Nena,” but instead it seems to pay homage to some of your parts from the “Peace” guitar bridge, and the jazz guitar parts of “Suavecito” and “Just Say Goodbye.” I can’t pinpoint it. I mean it is Al Di Meola, but maybe, like many, he was once blown away by Malo? This song was from “Tour De Force Live” and there’s also a studio version. [Editor’s note: Xaman provided an mp3 file of the song for Abel to hear]
ABEL: I just listened to it, Xaman, couldn’t resist. (smiles) Yes, it does sound like something I’d do, and his tone is reminiscent of mine back then. Thanks for sharing this with me. It’s funny because my guitarist nephew was studying Di Meola for awhile, and he noticed similarities in our phrasing. Di Meola is a master, so I’d be flattered if he took anything from my playing at all! Nena Godinez was a singer In Cokes’ band when I was in it, and she and Al were a couple at the time. Perhaps he heard some tapes of my playing, but I can’t say for sure. Anyway, I love the way Al plays on this song.
FROM XAMAN: What is your favorite post-Abel Zarate Malo song (something released after you left the band)?
ABEL: Well, I liked “Love Will Survive.” “Moving Away,” “Everlasting Night,” and “Close to Me” are very good songs, too. I was also really pleased with the way my tune “Momotombo” sounded on “Dos.” Tom Harrell helped with the horn arrangements and Pablo and I really worked hard on that song. It still rocks!
MC: Coke Escovedo was a fiery timbalero who was one of the first to take his instrument beyond traditional Latin music in a highly effective and exciting way, and also a Latin/soul/jazz visionary with his creation of the band Azteca. You spent a lot of time with Coke, working together on Malo’s debut album and Gasca’s “For Those Who Chant.” After Coke went solo, you spent two lengthy stints in his R&B-based band, recorded on his sophomore album “Comin’ At Ya,” and also gigged in his Latin jazz combo (which often included Richard Kermode). What affinity kept drawing you and Coke to play together? Can you tell us what Coke’s best qualities were as a person and a musician? Please share any insights into what made Coke tick, what made him great and what led to his downfall?
ABEL: We’ll take the high road… Coke just believed in my ability. He always encouraged me to be more out front. I never questioned his choices and decisions, I just played music with him whenever he called me to play. Coke Escovedo was a very important part of my early musical journey.
MC: During your first tour of duty with Coke, you appeared before a nationwide U.S. TV audience on “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert.” This was a first-class late night music show that featured the best in rock and soul music and occasionally electric jazz. Was Linda Tillery still fronting Coke’s band at that point? Do you remember what songs you played and what the experience was like? You used to play a great live solo on Coke’s hit “Make It Sweet,” with a beautiful quote from “Theme From A Summer Place.” Did you perform that tune on TV?
ABEL: Linda Tillery was no longer singing with Coke, as Errol Knowles sang lead with us at the time. One of our female backup singers, Lynn Mabry (formerly of Parliament-Funkadelic), sang “Make it Sweet,” and yes, we did play that song on “Rock Concert.” I wish I could tell you more, but that was oh, so long ago. (smiles)
FROM MC & OSCAR : Other than the gigs that have been mentioned, are there any from the years before your joining Willie Bobo that give you particularly positive memories today, and can you tell us about them?
ABEL: There are two that stand out musically, and both were with Coke. One was at the Clam House in L.A., which was a popular spot for Latin Jazz. We played down there on a bill with Pete & Sheila, and of course Coke had both of them sit in…along with Tito Puente! “Linda Chicana”, “Picadillo” and Eddie Palmieri’s hit “Nada de Ti” were songs in our repertoire then, along with some originals by Al Bent, so it was always fun to have those jams. I also liked the gig we played at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley. It was a summer concert, and we were sharing the bill with Tito Puente. Our band was sounding good! Tito sat in, and he and Coke traded a bit on timbal. Jorge Dalto also played that day, and he was a fave of mine.
MC: During a stretch in the mid to late 70’s you led groups like Tilt, Paradox and The Force, all of which performed your original material. Some of the more notable players were one-time El Chicano drummer Angel Orozco, keyboardist Steve Carter (Los Mocosos), bassist Earl “Bo” Freeman (Bill Summers, Peter Apfelbaum, Don Cherry) and the aforementioned Carey Williams, a talented Al Jarreau/Gil Scott-Heron influenced singer-songwriter who you first met in the Mendocino All-Stars. Carter, Freeman and Williams also joined you to form part of Coke Escovedo’s band at a time when Coke was trying to revive his career and get a new record deal. Do you have any particular feelings about or recollections of these groups?
ABEL: Eric McCann (bassist with Al Di Meola) also played in Tilt and Paradox. It was just a very busy period for us. Actually, Carter, Freeman, Paul van Wageningen and I were the rhythm section for a few different projects at that time. It was fun to be playing out so much, and learning new music all the time. This was also right around the time that I hooked up with Michael Carabello for the Attitude band.
FROM PARK & MC: Abel, I read where you played in Michael Carabello’s band Attitude, and that you guys did some demos at the Automatt. Did those ever surface for fans to hear? Can you tell us about the band?
ABEL: I did do a couple of demos with Michael. Both had David Brown on bass and Chepito on timbales. Angel Orozco played drums, and Karl Perazzo, too. Steve Carter played keys, and Steve and I both contributed some original songs. “VOLR” lists Errol Knowles as the singer in Attitude, but in fact Carey Williams was our lead vocalist while I was with the band. We did a reggae cover of McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed” that I thought was pretty cool. I left the band to join Willie Bobo, and Attitude continued for a while with Michael Sasaki on guitar. That lineup released a single.
MC: How did the opportunity to play with Willie Bobo’s band come about?
ABEL: Errol Knowles and guitarist Bill Courtial from Azteca had been playing in Willie’s band. Bill left, and Errol got me an audition. It wasn’t easy getting the gig: Willie disliked the San Francisco Latin rock sound, and didn’t like guitars with sustain or distortion. What’s more, I had to beat out two L.A. guitarists for that gig…competition was stiff! Initially, Willie just hired me to tour with him, but he eventually warmed up to my guitar style and decided to let me record the “Bobo” album with him. In return I agreed to lend my composition “Latin Lady” to the album. [Editor’s note: at this time, Willie Bobo was calling his band “Bobo.”]
FROM MC & MIKE L.: What was it like going from playing Latin rock to playing with an old-school jazzman like Willie? What were some of the “cultural differences” between the rock world and the jazz world that struck you? Can you remember any episodes that illustrate this, or any other interesting stories about your time with Willie?
ABEL: Mike, Willie was definitely Old School. He came up the hard way and he was a tough bandleader. Most jazz musicians are more evolved than your average rock player. Jazz is a tradition that holds a lot of “sensitive” history for many players, especially black musicians, just as Afro-Cuban music does. When I toured in Europe with Willie, we played all of the major jazz venues. We were in the company of people like Dexter Gordon, James Moody, Gerry Mulligan, Slam Stewart, Hancock and Corea, et al. Some of the musicians were total purists and were unapproachable, while others like Bucky Pizzarelli and James Moody were totally warm and open. Other than Weather Report, Willie’s Band was the only group not playing straight-ahead jazz in most of the cities that we played, so it was a bit awkward on some shows. Jazz audiences in Europe really listen, so it’s not about rocking out on stage, it’s about putting on a good performance and pulling the audience into the moment with you. Playing with Willie was a growth experience for me. It forced me out of my comfort zone.
FROM XAMAN & MC: Do you have any thoughts or comments on Sonny Henry, the guitarist on Willie Bobo’s classic 1960’s albums on the Verve label, probably the first electric guitarist to play Latin jazz? Did you ever think about how by playing with Willie Bobo and Victor Pantoja you had brought yourself full circle? You were now not only filling Sonny Henry’s guitar chair, but also that of Gabor Szabo, who frequently played alongside Willie and Victor?
ABEL: I loved Sonny’s phrasing and songwriting. The song “I Don’t Know” is one of my faves. I think I wore out that “Bobo Motion” record! As far as becoming Willie and Victor’s guitarist, yes, I find it truly amazing. I can’t believe it sometimes. (smile) All I can say is I’ve been blessed to have been able to achieve and experience dreams beyond my own expectations.
MC: What were some of the most memorable gigs you played with Bobo?
ABEL: Pretty much all the gigs with Bobo were exciting to me… the Newport Jazz Festival, Montreux, Nice, the Alexandria Palace Jazz Fest, these are places I thought I’d never play. Willie sprang a surprise on us at New York’s Avery Fisher Hall – Dizzy Gillespie and Cal Tjader sat in with us together on the Jobim classic “Dindi,” which was a staple of Willie’s repertoire. Michael Shrieve was in the audience that night, too…It was a moment to remember, for sure. Dizzy also sat in with us on the Queen Mary and at the Playboy Jazz Festival. Although he only played percussion, it was daunting having him onstage next to me! Dizzy toured all through Europe with us on the same jazz circuit, along with several of the jazz legends I listed earlier. It was scary and awesome at the same time. It was my first time in Europe, and Willie had us playing in Italy, France, where we did a TV show, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, London, and the Hague, where we played with Grover Washington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Weather Report.
MC: While on the road in the Netherlands you encountered another veteran rocker with a passion for jazz?
ABEL: Charlie Watts was at the big Convention Center where the Den Hague Jazz Festival was being held. I introduced myself, and we hung out for a bit. I was surprised to learn that he was a jazz fan. He was there as a spectator, just checking out the scene at Den Hague. It was surprising to see a Rolling Stone out and about… he was this very quiet, laid-back cat… not a rowdy rocker at all. He’s about my height, which also surprised me. (smiles)
MC: You crossed paths a couple of times with your idol Gabor Szabo, during the sessions for Coke Escovedo’s “Comin’ At Ya” album and again while touring with Bobo in Europe. Did you ever get to play together?
ABEL: I met Gabor briefly during the Coke session, but he and I never played together in the studio…Gabor recorded his parts after I went home. I met Gabor again in Nice when I was on tour with Willie. We just acknowledged that we were on the same tour and circuit and exchanged friendly chit-chat. Gabor was ill (I later learned this), so he was kind of withdrawn, but he played with Stan Getz and Toots Thielemans on that night in July 1979, and it was magical!
MC: Back in the U.S., you played a big show at the Hollywood Bowl. Would you say that was your highest-pressure gig ever?
ABEL: Can you imagine how nervous I was at Hollywood Bowl? We were playing in front of 20,000 people on a bill with Ella Fitzgerald and Weather Report, going on after Chick and Herbie, and Lionel Hampton. Tina Turner and George Duke were in the front row! I had to dig deep to find my center, and when Willie called me up to solo I just played my heart out. Actually, playing at Concerts by the Sea in Redondo Beach was pretty stressful too, as well as the Parisian Room. Both of these places were high-profile jazz clubs, and all the heavies would come out and hang…comes with the gig, I guess. I remember Carlos saying in an interview that the first time he played with McLaughlin, he felt like he should be shining John’s shoes! Well that’s exactly how I felt at the Hollywood Bowl.
MC: In the years afer you left Malo your guitar playing had really came into its own, developing into a remarkable solo voice. Your guitar “cried” like Carlos’, but with vulnerability and yearning, and sparked rapid bursts of notes a la George Benson, but more joyously. The Bobo gig had finally given you a springboard into the jazz world that you seemed to have been waiting for. “Latin Lady,” your smooth Latin jazz-flavored composition spotlighting your guitar playing, was getting airplay. Why did you quit Willie’s band?
ABEL: Even though “Latin Lady” charted in Brazil, Japan, Spain and Italy, Columbia Records dropped Willie, affecting his ability to keep the band going in Los Angeles. The competition in the Southern California jazz scene is tough, and in order to break into certain circles you definitely have to know someone or be able to sight-read. I’m a blues guitarist with some jazz inflection, not a true jazz player, and I found that a lot of jazz musicians have a real hard-edged attitude, very technique and tradition-based. I tried to get by with sticking to my blues foundation and by playing with as much feeling as I could, but the jazz or recording scene definitely wasn’t such a nurturing environment for a player like me.
FROM JOE: Thank you, Abel, for providing us with a unique and distinct voice throughout all these years. You had the wonderful opportunity to play for two bandleaders that were also top timbaleros – Coke Escovedo and Willie Bobo. Please share your memories of the differences and similarities in Coke and Willie’s styles as musicians and bandleaders, as well as any anecdotes that come to mind about them.
ABEL: Hi Joe. To put it plain and simple: Coke was West Coast. I had history with Coke, and there was more of a “homeboy” feel with him. Willie was hardcore New York. He was more of a father figure trying to help out and teach the “youngblood.” (smiles) Both were excellent musicians.
FROM JOE: What happened to you after 1979, and how in the world did you end up driving a cab when you have more talent in your left pinky than most of the guitarists in the world put together?
ABEL: It was a hard period for me. When I came back from Los Angeles, I wasn’t getting many calls for gigs except for once in awhile with Richard Bean, so I drove for Yellow Cab for about three years. I can say that I was in good company, though, as Kermode and Danny Glover (the actor) both drove, too. It actually wasn’t that bad… at least I was paying my own way (smiles). Besides, I needed the down time and lesson in humility.
FROM PARK & MC: In “VOLR” I read that David Brown tried to get you into the L.A.-based Asian-American jazz-R&B band Hiroshima, which is one of my favorite jazz bands. I was curious if you actually auditioned for the band?
ABEL: David had done a few gigs with Hiroshima, and he mentioned to me that the guitar spot was open. I never followed up because I didn’t feel that a musical venture rooted in Japanese music and culture would suit me. As Sinatra sang, I was determined to “do it my way,” so for better or worse I made my choices. I also declined an offer to move back down to Southern California in the late 80’s to work with some of the El Chicano guys.
MC: In 1983-84, you, Pablo Tellez, Richard Bean and former Malo timbalero Leo Rosales were playing gigs together. Was it a shock to you when your former bandmate, vocalist Arcelio Garcia, arrived back in town after many years in New York? He had put out the “Malo Coast to Coast” album with some East Coast players and had now recruited new players to re-form Malo in the Bay Area. Did Arcelio’s return force your band (with four Malo members to his one) to shut things down? Were there hard feelings between you and Arcelio, and had he contacted you regarding his plans and the possibility of working with you and your other former bandmates?
ABEL: Arcelio and I had actually gotten along during our days with Malo. He even used to save newspaper and magazine articles about the band for me. Arcelio had had the foresight to stake a legal claim to the Malo name at a time when no one else seemed to care about it, so he was entitled to use the name. Our group had been going by the name Uno Malo. We played in Albuquerque, L.A., and at the Great America theme park near San Jose, CA, but we only lasted for a few gigs. According to the “VOLR” book we disbanded because of Arcelio, but in truth I really don’t know. Arcelio did ask me to be part of the new Malo and I declined, so it wasn’t like he was trying to exclude me.
MC: Your only released output between “Bobo” and “Soul Redemption” was a rare and little-known collection of movie and television theme songs.
ABEL: It was “Hooked On Themes – World’s Greatest Themes” by John Dote (Alonso Records, 1987). John Dote was a session drummer who played on the Hawaii Five-O TV theme and several other big TV show themes. I think he has a production company in Vegas now. I didn’t take any improvised solos, just played melody lines that were given to me, and chordal “chunk” rhythm parts. John used flautist Roger Glenn on another of his records. [ed. Abel is being a little modest here, as he added some searing guitar licks to Dote’s cover of “The Barnaby Jones Theme.”]
MC: After Uno Malo, you pressed on through the late 80’s and beyond?
ABEL: I still did projects with Richard Bean during the late 80’s and through 1990. Our bands Wizardz, Suave and Casanova happened during that time period. I met keyboardist/songwriter/sax player Greg Albright during those years, and he was a part of some of those bands. I took some time to “air out” and start recognizing all the blessings in my life. I think the eleven years I took off actually helped me spiritually.
MC: In the period of 1967-1991 you had composed hundreds of songs, several dozen of which were performed by the many bands you led or joined. Sadly, those years of your career are mostly documented on dusty demos and soundboard tapes and in the memories of those who were lucky enough to hear you play live. This seems a bit tragic, and would be enough to make many people bitter.
ABEL: I consider tragedy to be what happened to Michael Bloomfield, Richard Kermode, Dougie Rauch, Jimi, Jaco Pastorius, Jim Morrison…. the list goes on and on. I try not to think of what might have been, I just give thanks that I still have my Family, Health, and the God given gift of Music. Being bitter is useless, besides I’m still here and I’m back! (smile)
MC: How would you finish the sentence “One thing that definitely held me back during my first go-round in music was…”
ABEL: My stubbornness. Not wanting to compromise my ideals…I think this hurt me many times in the past. Also, I’m naturally a very shy and quiet person and have always just let my music and playing ability speak for me. Part of “playing the game” is knowing how to go along and get along and having the gift of gab, yet I tend to avoid people that I don’t know. I was never a good “schmoozer,” nor did I feel comfortable being fake just to get ahead.
MC: The years passed, and you had done your best to put music behind you. You found some other passions to focus your energy on during that time.
FROM EDDIE RODRIGUEZ: I was lucky enough to hang out with you when I lived in S.F., Abel. You should tell the Café readers about your salsa dancing…you are a real pro at it!
ABEL: Eddie, as you know, I needed something to fill the void of music, so I took up salsa lessons. I danced at least twice a week, mainly at Kimballs’ Carnival in Emeryville, but also Cocomo’s, Alberto’s in Mountain View and a few other places. I used it to express my heart and soul. It was great fun for me, and definitely gave me a way to release my crazy energy and keep in shape. I gave it up when I got the itch to play music again.
MC: How did you find out about the song “Every Morning,” the hit by alternative pop-rock band Sugar Ray that incorporated the “la – la la la” chorus of “Suavecito?”
ABEL: In early ’99 I was down on my luck and things were going very badly for me. I went to a church in the Haight and I prayed for the Lord to guide me, and also for Him to show me a way back to music, but only if it was in HIS will… I prayed for another chance. About three months later, I went to Ron Sansoe’s* house to pick up a royalty check, and he told me that he was in negotiations with Sugar Ray’s people to use part of “Suavecito” in a song. I figured it would never happen. You know, José, throughout the years so many things were promised that never panned out. A few weeks went by, and then Ron contacted me to tell me it was a done deal. He showed me the paperwork confirming the use of “Suavecito’” for “Every Morning,” and gave me a CD copy of the song. I started seeing Sugar Ray on VH-1 and other TV programs, so I knew the song was out. Next thing I know, it’s on the radio and it’s a HIT in heavy rotation. My first “Every Morning” Royalty Statement came in January, 2000, and I was very pleasantly surprised! (smiles) A few months later, Sugar Ray invited us to their show at the Warfield in S.F. on St. Patrick’s Day. “Every Morning” was an event I was very thankful for…it came at a very good time for me.[ * editor: Malo’s former co-manager Ron Sansoe has administered their publishing since 1991]
MC: “Every Morning” was a massive hit and earned you a BMI Pop Awards Citation of Achievement for having co-written one of the most-played pop songs of 1999. What did this mean to you?
ABEL: Just a one-tenth writing share of “Every Morning” erased my debt, replaced my old car, helped me re-purchase guitar gear and plan the Zarate Pollace Project, and eventually helped pay for the “Soul Redemption” CD. BMI’s awards dinner was a black-tie event in Beverly Hills, and I found myself in the company of all these great songwriters. Richard Bean and I shared a table with Brian and Eddie Holland of Holland-Dozier-Holland, who had written some of my favorite Motown songs. As I watched Shania Twain accept awards, and Rob Thomas and Itaal Shur for “Smooth,” I hoped that “Every Morning” might have created a window of opportunity for me.
MC: You were planning a strategy to re-enter the circle of pop songwriters?
ABEL: I was of the mind that if I could write a couple of new hits, then it would finance any other musical endeavors and projects that I had. With the higher profile that “Every Morning” had given Malo, I had talked with Pablo about writing together again, and then called Jorge at the Santana Offices about the idea, but he never got back to me. After that I worked on a wide range of new songs, both on my own and together with a loosely knit group of musician and producer friends. This was during the boy band era, so we were writing songs in that style, plus other music that could be played on pop radio. I tried every industry connection I had but got no takers. My BMI contact told me that trying to break into the business at that point as a songwriter was nearly impossible.
FROM GIL & MIKE L.: Would you embrace a Malo reunion concert in the near future? Do you ever get the urge to sit in with Malo?
ABEL: In April ‘02 , Jorge, Arcelio, Richard Bean, Rich Spremich, trumpeter Tom Poole and I (with Pablo along onstage for moral support but not playing), joined the current Malo band for a “Malo reunion” set. It was part of “Kings of Latin Rock,” a benefit concert for San Francisco’s Mission High School (a school a lot of us had attended). It was my first time on stage since 1991 and I agreed to participate at the special request of my niece and nephew, who were too young to have ever seen me perform. I looked at that show as a one-time thing.
It’s just not in me anymore to do another Malo or Sapo project. In the end it’s like Tom Coster said: you have to play you, and no matter what you play, your heart is revealed. I need to keep creating, to play fresh, new music, and there’s no point in going back.
MC: What made you decide that you wanted to play music for the public again? What brought you back to the stage after so many years?
ABEL: I gave up on the notion of being famous long ago. I felt that I had to let go of music and focus on other things, but every time I would hear a beautiful melody or a song that brought me peace it made me question myself. Music is what I do best…was I going to waste the gift that God gave me, or brush myself off and try again? Through the eleven years that I was musically inactive, I got a lot of flack from my friends who thought I should start playing again. I would go to see Karl Perazzo when he performed with his band Avance, and he, along with Roger Glenn, might have been the ones that gave me the most grief (laughs). Encouragement from my nephew and niece Anthony and Niki was also one of the most important factors. The biggest impetus of all, though, was 9/11. I was working in an office building in San Francisco’s Financial District and I heard about it in the elevator. We went upstairs and checked CNN online, and there was the terrible news. Everyone in my office was devastated, and for weeks there was a feeling of uncertainty. Most people I knew felt a real urgency…all of a sudden their reality was being questioned. During that time I stayed close to my family, especially the kids, and came to the realization that it was time for me to come out of musical retirement. 9/11 was a real wakeup call. It shook me out of my fog and made me determined to put aside all of my disappointments and try to add some healing to the world. That realization set things in motion, and eventually led to the beginnings of the Zarate Pollace Project.
MC: Can you talk about the significance of naming your CD “Soul Redemption,” and the vibrant, mystical artwork that adorns the CD booklet?
ABEL: Soul Redemption was what I was after in life. I wanted the chance to try again and redeem myself to my friends, family and fans. It was about finding the courage to step up and get back in the game. As for the artwork, Mari Hall’s painting “Siddhartha” just felt like it had a connection to my personal journey.
FROM OSCAR: As you know I am a fan of the Zarate Pollace project. How did you and Michelle meet, and what “ah ha” moment propelled you to decide a musical project was in the offing?
ABEL: A couple of weeks after reconnecting with Rich Spremich at the Malo reunion, I went to a jam session in San Mateo that Rich had organized. Rich had proposed starting a band with me. He wanted me to check out some players that he knew, and one of them was Michelle Pollace. I noticed Michelle’s talent right away, Oscar, but it actually took two rehearsals for her and I to connect. I had a couple of business lunches with Michelle and Spremich to discuss strategies, and it was clear that Michelle was hungry to do something a little more challenging. We’ve become the closest of friends, and musically we really do think very similarly. She is the backbone of ZPP, and I’m very thankful to have her as my bandmate. The girl ROCKS!
FROM MC: Michelle has a broad musical background, playing several instruments with experience in many genres of music. Michelle’s familiarity with jazz and Latin music are obvious when you hear her comp and solo, but there also seems to be a stately, timeless aesthetic that she has brought to ZPP’s music, possibly drawn from her involvement with Indonesian gamelan and classical music? Can you tell us what unique contributions and qualities Michelle brings to the band as a person and a musician?
ABEL: Michelle is quite an intelligent and well-spoken woman…she’s my dear friend, and this project probably wouldn’t have lasted if not for her. She straightens me out on some of my harmonic ideas. Sometimes she’ll start a song and I’ll finish it, and it works the other way, too. She’s also a terrific arranger, so it’s a great partnership. We fill each other’s musical voids!
MC: The percussion section on ZPP’s “Soul Redemption” included a couple of old friends who were important to your return to performing. Can you talk about your history with John Santos and Paul van Wageningen?
ABEL: I briefly played in a Cuban tipica group with John Santos, with John Calloway on flute, back in the 70’s…I played tres parts on the guitar. I knew John from the neighborhood, and Raul also brought him to a couple of Sapo rehearsals, as Raul & John were very tight friends in those days. John, along with Ray Obiedo, provided counsel for me when I was planning my return to music. He gave me the ins and outs of doing an indie record, and also hooked me up with Greg Landau, who helped us with the production, mixing, mastering and other aspects of “Soul Redemption.” Paul van Wageningen and I go way back to the late 70’s. Soon after Paul arrived in S.F. with a road company of “Oh, Calcutta,” he walked into Ivan Alexander’s club in S.F. and asked to sit in with my group The Force. My bandmates and I could tell right away that Paul was something special. I recommended him to Coke, Roger Glenn, Pete and Ray Obiedo, and he’s now one of the Bay Area’s top drummers. When I would run into Paul during my musical hiatus he was always disappointed that I wasn’t playing. [ed.Paul van Wageningen, lost a battle with cancer in November 2012. He is mourned by countless fellow musicians, fans, and friends]
MC: Can you introduce our readers to your current rhythm section, drummer Edwin Santos and bassist Ray Uribes?
ABEL: I met Edwin Santos when he was 19 years old. He’s a solid drummer, with the potential to be really great. He played with me in The Force as well as in Coke’s band in 1977 – 78. I’m glad to have him behind me again today. I met Ray Uribes through Edwin, as they play in other bands together. The bassist on our CD, Curtis Ohlson, worked with Ray Charles and Buddy Rich, so Ray had big shoes to fill in the bass spot. He has proven to be a solid player with a good work ethic, and Michelle and I are both really happy that he’s come on board with ZPP.
FROM ROY MURRAY: Your vocal style was much like your lead guitar playing: it had clarity, purpose, sincerity, and urgency. By not currently singing, how does that affect your current playing?
ABEL: If anything, Roy, it adds more fuel to my guitar playing, because I can’t open my big mouth! (laughs)
FROM ROY MURRAY: Your knowledge of chord structures and progressions has come a long way since your Naked Lunch days to your current Zarate Pollace Project. Did you gain this increase from hard work and study, by others showing you, by divine enhancement of gifts from our Creator, or just simply some of each?
ABEL: Roy, as you know, my talent and gift come from God. People have always told me that I “hear” music very well. I have taken bits and pieces from fellow musicians over the years, but never had any formal training. I just rely on my heart to guide me through the melodies, and my imagination to create the songs.
MC: Can you tell us a little about what’s ahead for ZPP? You’ve been playing some new material lately…could these be some of the songs that will be part of your next CD?
ABEL: Well, we’ve been performing some new songs that could make their way onto our next CD. “Ondas do Mar” is sort of a soulful Fourplay medium gospel tune with a nice outro, “Epiphany” starts with a batucada, and “Innocencia” is a throwback to my Santana roots, a very bluesy and melodic cha-cha. Then there’s our newest, “Passionflower” which is kind of Carlton-esque, a very happy tune. Maybe the most significant of our new songs to me is “The Crucible.” It’s a composition of mine inspired by soul-searching and the brutal discomfort of self-examination. It symbolizes a personal pilgrimage, the struggle to find what is true for one’s self, and finally victory and redemption, hopefully. (smiles) As far as developments with the band, we’re actually starting pre-production for our second CD, and will also be finishing some arrangements and a couple of brand new songs in the coming weeks. We’ll be talking a little time off in the near future, as Michelle and her husband Rob are expecting a baby in early March ‘08, but we’ll be ready to hit it again come mid-April, with thanks to Michelle’s family! ZPP is planning to add a percussionist soon, too, but it’s hard to find a good all-around player who isn’t limited to just salsa or Afro-Cuban styles. As Carlos and I once discussed, it’s important to play with band members who share your vision.
FROM MIKE L.: Do you have plans to tour nationally with ZPP?
ABEL: As soon as we find the right management, I would love to take the band out on the road. If anyone is interested, you can write to us at: email@example.com
MC: Are there any musical artists you’ve been following through the years who you feel are deserving of wider recognition? How about any new up-and-coming people who really impress you?
ABEL: I respect people like John Santos, Rebeca Mauleon, Michael Spiro, Ray Obiedo and Wayne Wallace for their musicality and artistry…I strive to be more like them. I listen to just about everything… I really liked Norah Jones when she first hit, and I also admire her for her outlook on life and celebrity. There are a couple of Cuban artists who are favorites of mine: Raul Torres (I like his Cuban/Brazilian mix and pop arrangements), and Hanny, an excellent singer and songwriter. I also really like Jamie Cullum’s music…he’s like a hipper and younger Harry Connick to me.
MC: Is there a pipe dream that you hold in your heart – something that you and the band would love to accomplish?
ABEL: Well, it would be way cool if ZPP got invited to “open” for Santana on a few State Side gigs. (smiles) One of my deepest wishes is that this interview will generate enough interest in what I’m doing, that maybe Carlos and I would have an opportunity to play together… he’d sound great on some of our tunes, and it would give us both an opportunity to do some inspired playing.
MC: You have a talented nephew, Anthony Sharkey-Zarate, a guitarist whose skills you have mentored and nurtured. The young man is currently attending Berklee College of Music in Boston. What are your hopes for him, and what advice have you given him about the music industry?
ABEL: Anthony can play circles around me – now he’s a jazz guy! He’s got Di Meola speed, Martino chops, and McLaughlin theory, but he still loves the blues. Coincidentally, Anthony had a jazz quintet in high school with Michael Shrieve’s nephew Max…nothing serious, just messing around. When he decides to reveal himself, San Francisco will have a bright new jazz guitarist on the rise! I just tell him to keep it real and follow his heart.
MC: In early 2000, the S.F. “Chronicle’s” veteran music critic Joel Selvin acknowledged you in a concert review that touched on the history of the Malo band. With the passage of time, your contributions to the band seemed to have been glossed over, and history seemed to have been rewritten to show Malo as the work of one or two people. How important to you was Selvin’s acknowledgement? What “behind the scenes” contributions did you make to Malo that most listeners/fans were probably not aware of?
ABEL: The Malo sound would most definitely have been different had I not joined the band. Most of the first LP was re-written and arranged by me with the help of Pablo Tellez. There are huge segments of the music that would not be there without my participation. So, it was nice for Joel Selvin to acknowledge me in that article. He later e-mailed me and told me that it was prompted by something David Rubinson told him! David said I was one of the “main engines” in the band.
FROM MC & MIKE L: Roy Murray has said that over the three years that he played with you, you “would write music almost every day like a Bach or Handel did, in so many styles and riffs from the primitive to the complex.” In “VOLR,” Jim McCarthy spoke of some projects that you were involved in post-Malo that sounded really promising and have never been released. Do you have any of those masters, and would you like to see those old recordings or your old compositions released?
ABEL: I think it’s a great idea, however, I don’t have any of the masters or remember a lot of the old tunes, so I’d need some help putting together a compilation like that. Back in the day for me it was just “write ‘em and forget ‘em.” I hardly ever re-do old songs, I just write new ones. From time to time, I have thought about digging up some old tunes, and re-doing them… of course, I’d need a strong vocalist and the time to re-arrange the songs. Richard Bean has a ton of my material, and there are other songs that not too many people have heard: some from Pablo Tellez’s 1980’s projects, and some that I did with my friend Greg Albright as well.
FROM MIKE L: How about adding a discography to your website? Also, of all that you have recorded what are you most proud of?
ABEL: I’m proud and thankful for “Soul Redemption.”
[editor: Abel’s released discography is brief: Naked Lunch – “Naked Lunch” (2009, World In Sound)[issue of previously unreleased material from 1969 to 1972, including tracks from Banda de Jesus]; Zarate Pollace Project – “Soul Redemption” (2005, Zarate Pollace Project); John Dote “Hooked On Themes – World’s Greatest Themes” (1987, Alonso Records); Bobo (Willie Bobo) – “Bobo” (1979, Columbia); Coke Escovedo – “Comin’ At Ya” (1976, Mercury); Luis Gasca – “For Those Who Chant” (uncredited) (1972, Blue Thumb); Malo – “Malo” (1972, Warner Brothers); Abel’s compositions also appear on: Sugar Ray – “14:59” (1999, Atlantic); Mingo (Mingo Lewis) – “Flight Never Ending” (uncredited) (1976, CBS); Malo – “Dos” (1972, Warner Brothers). Abel’s songs and performances from these original recordings also appear in numerous anthologies and “cover versions” by other artists.]
MC: Can you name a couple of your proudest moments in music, overall?
ABEL: One was seeing Jon Secada, Tito Puente, Arturo Sandoval, and Nestor Torres on TV at the Kennedy Center Awards performing “Suavecito” in front of Colin Powell and Al Gore. Another was sharing the stage with Cal Tjader and Dizzy at Avery Fisher Hall in NYC.
MC: Abel, please accept our sincere thanks for giving so generously of your time and spirit in this interview. We’d like to close with a philosophical question.
FROM SCOTT E: Thanks for taking the time to read my mail, and thanks, from the heart, for becoming part of the Moonflower Cafe patronage. Can you tell us what type of message you try to express to your fans and listeners in the body and soul of the music you create? Some artists express and promote positivity, brotherhood, world peace, oneness, anti-racism, etc. What are your mission and your message in life as a professional guitar player? Peace.
ABEL: We live in uncertain times, Scott. It’s important for people to become aware of the things that threaten our planet and humanity. After 9/11 I felt the urgency of trying to make a difference in the world. They say it’s the prayers and chants of nuns and monks hidden away in the hills that hold this world together…it’s the vibration of those prayers that keep it intact. I believe that music with a positive vibration can help to heal and awaken people. This is the primary reason I came back to play. I love my family and friends, and through my music I want to try and instill some hope in their hearts. I want to be one of those who fights to put goodness back in life, and to spread the message of God’s faith in us. I’d like to thank Gil Vera, Moonflower Café’s webmaster, for allowing and facilitating this interview, and a special Thank You to Rafael Saldana for helping Michelle and I with the Soul Redemption CD! Thank you all so very much. PEACE!
(editor’s note: the Zarate Pollace Project’s CD “Soul Redemption” can be purchased at http://www.zaratepollace.com/music.htm ;
for some of Abel’s great early sounds, check out the Naked Lunch release in mp3 at www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00344LEM2/ref=dm_att_alb7
or full CD with historical booklet at www.cdbaby.com/cd/nakedlunch ).