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 1″
Questions compiled and edited by Jose Sierra Produced by Gilberto Vera
Hosted and coordinated by José Sierra on behalf of Voices Of Latin Rock
Voices Of Latin Rock is honored to welcome Abel Zarate of the “Global Jazz” group Zarate Pollace Project, which released it’s debut CD “Soul Redemption” in 2005. Abel, an original member of Malo, is widely known as co-author of “Suavecito,” the Latin rock movement’s most popular and enduring love ballad, as well as a respected guitarist whose lyrical tone and improvisational skills have led him to perform at some of the world’s most prestigious music venues. In a remarkable but frustrating career filled with false starts, this guitarist, songwriter and vocalist par excellence labored for years alongside friends and bandmates from Santana’s extended musical family, only occasionally entering the spotlight and never gaining the full recognition deserved by such a triple-threat talent. Few are better qualified than Abel to describe the San Francisco scene that gave birth to the Latin rock sound of Santana and Malo. With special thanks to Roy Murray for historical background on Abel’s early days, we’ll ask Abel to paint a portrait of that scene and to tell us of his life and career. [editor’s note: several Café readers submitted questions about the history of what Roy Murray calls the "Malo musical-go-round" of personnel changes. So that we may focus on other aspects of Abel’s career in this interview, we direct readers to the book “Voices of Latin Rock”, also referred to in this interview as “VOLR,” particularly pages 123,134 and 146, for that Malo information]
MC: Abel, many music fans may think of you as an enigma, a mystery. Rare among artists of your ability, your unreleased discography is roughly twenty times as extensive as your official one, so your accomplishments are often the subject of rumor and debate. Even in the earliest days of your career you could lay claim to some pretty spectacular distinctions: the only guitarist to win an audition over Carlos Santana (though you would downplay this) and the only artist to be simultaneously featured in “Tiger Beat” teen pop magazine and nominated in the “Playboy” Jazz Poll. Proclaimed by former Malo manager Chris Wong as “one of the great prodigies of that era,” you’ve had hits on the pop and jazz charts and performed with some of the world’s greatest musicians, yet you toiled, forgotten, in the work force while much lesser talents showcased their multi-million dollar “cribs.” We’re glad that you’re playing music again, and that you’ve joined us to share your untold story!
ABEL: First, some disclaimers: I never actually saw the “Playboy” Poll, Chris Wong may have been the one that told me about that one. I don’t remember the “Tiger Beat” magazine article either. When it comes to the early 70’s it seems my friends remember more than I do (smiles). On a serious note, I couldn’t talk about this stuff for many, many years… the heartache, let-downs, and disappointments were just too painful, but it’s all good now. I spent eleven years trying to forget, but as they say “your past is never far behind, and the more you run from it, the more you run into it.” So let the dice roll…
MC: During your youth in the early 60’s, you sang do-wop and soul harmonies on the corner of “funky” Folsom Street. Describe the experience…
ABEL: Now I feel old! My friend and long-time conga drummer Jose Marrero lived in the Bernal Dwellings Projects on Army Street at the time and ran with some guys who were pretty badass. A lot of them were real cool after you got to know them, though, real soulful cats. It was common for them to hang and sing soul songs and do-wop in the evenings for entertainment. The do-wop singing also happened at party gatherings, not just on street corners, and it wasn’t just on Folsom Street…it was all throughout the Mission District. Just some old-school fun. I witnessed the changing of the times. I caught part of that duck-tail, cigarettes rolled up on the sleeve, jacked-up Chevys, and pachuco “mun” era and watched it segue into the 60′s, when people started “turning on” and ideals began to shift and change…
MC: What influence did your growing up in San Francisco’s Mission District have on your musical development?
ABEL: I fell in with the guys in the barrio, most of my friends were Latin. There weren’t many Filipinos in my school, so they thought I was a “Lat-Asian” or some sort of Mexican/Japanese mix because of my last name. I joined a neighborhood band called the Righteous Ones and some of the guys made sure I got turned on to all the new music that was popular with the vatos and pachucos…that’s how I got into the Motown sound, and learned about Chico Hamilton (with Gabor Szabo on guitar). Because I lived right in the heart of the Mission there was also lots of Latin music playing everywhere, so the rhythms and “feel” of the music were embedded in me. Because it was also right smack in the middle of the Summer of Love, the other form of music that I was exposed was the blues…not so much rock, but the blues. Discovering music got me off the path of street fighting and mischief that my hard-case friends were following. It changed my whole chemistry, and I chose to leave that ignorance behind. When I was about twelve years old I met a guy named Rick Tiffer at a street hangout. Rick was half-white and half-Puerto Rican, about six years older than me, and we became good friends. He was kind of ahead of everyone else because he was listening to all the hip music: jazz, blues, Mongo Santamaria, Willie Bobo. Rick used to play bass at garage parties and I’d sit, listen and watch with the other neighborhood kids. Three years later he would become the first bassist in my band Naked Lunch. Another early mentor and friend was Danny Williamson, who played sax in a band that the Righteous Ones used to gig with, Freddie and the Stone Souls, with Freddie “Stone” Stewart and Gregg Errico, who were soon to help form Sly & the Family Stone. Danny lived in the Mission, too, and he would invite me over and turn me on to music that he thought would help my playing. He told me stories of Carlos Santana and Ralph Wash, a hot neighborhood guitarist that Carlos used to jam with, and said that he thought I had the talent to be just like them.
MC: What was it about Gabor Szabo’s playing that caught your ear and moved you?
ABEL: There was something mystical about his sound, and he was very lyrical. Because I’m an ear, gut, and heart player it was easier for me to emulate Gabor’s style over someone like Tal Farlow, Kenny Burrell or Barney Kessel. I didn’t know about Charlie Christian until way later. (smiles)
MC: You’ve said that your other big early influence on guitar was Michael Bloomfield. What was special about Bloomfield? What set him apart from other blues players?
ABEL: Bloomfield played with a lot of feeling, and he put his whole body language into each note. He could make you feel what he was feeling, and that really spoke to me. Plus, the sound of his Les Paul was just awesome! Later on, I went to see guys like B.B. and Albert King play at the Fillmore West, but it was Bloomfield’s sound that first pulled me into the blues, even before Clapton in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers.
MC: So you shared influences with Carlos Santana, who has also cited both Szabo and Bloomfield as inspirations?
ABEL: Yes, like Carlos, those two guitarists caught my ear early on. They had a lot to do with how my playing and Carlos’ playing evolved, I believe. If you listen to the track “Another Country” that Bloomfield recorded with the band Electric Flag, the guitar solo is straight-up Dorian Mode Latin. The first time I heard Carlos live at the Avalon Ballroom at age 15 1/2, I immediately recognized the influence and what he was doing with it. Carlos’ solo on “Shades of Time” showed me the way to blend my guitar influences. Up to that point I really hadn’t narrowed it down, but afterward I knew that I wanted to sound like Bloomfield, Szabo, and Santana, for starters!
MC: In your teen years, you spent a lot of time in the audience at the Fillmore and Winterland when you weren’t playing, even meeting Jimi Hendrix once. Can you share the Hendrix story and any other memories of the atmosphere and experiences of being an audience member at those venues?
ABEL: Well, you know, I was 15, and my friends and I were hanging behind the stage at Winterland one night. When Jimi came off the stage after his set, I ran right into him as he was heading back to the dressing room. He just smiled and said “Hey, little brother!” and I was like “Wow, man, that’s really cool!” (smiles) As far as the atmosphere of the Fillmore and Winterland, I remember the scent of patchouli oil, incense, the far-out light shows, and all the “beautiful” people hanging out. It was like being in a Beatles fantasy with all the mod ladies dressed to kill.
MC: What other artists influenced your development as a musician/songwriter/singer?
ABEL: Little Anthony, Santo & Johnny, the Ventures, Smokey Robinson, The Temptations, and every soul artist in between. I really dug the Young Rascals… those guys rocked, and I loved their main singer/songwriter, Felix Cavaliere. The Beatles absolutely floored me when they hit…I loved their songwriting and Paul McCartney’s singing. Vocally, I’ve always been a ballad guy, and Gilbert O’Sullivan was someone else whose voice I admired during that time. As far as guitarists, there have been many. I’ve listened to just about everyone: in addition to Szabo, Bloomfield and Carlos, I would say Jim Hall, Pat Martino, Joe Pass, Jeff Beck, Freddy King, Django Reinhardt, Peter Green, Kenny Burrell, Grant Green,and of course the great Wes Montgomery, we can’t forget him. George Benson came much later, but at one point I listened to a lot of George B., as well as Lee Ritenour. I gravitate toward the more bluesy/melodic players, because I’ve always been drawn to strong melodies. Larry Carlton, Paul Jackson Jr., Robben Ford and Pat Martino have really influenced my playing lately… my current sound is somewhere between these three great guitarists, and I’m interested in further exploring Carlton and Jeff Golub’s blues/jazz blend.
MC: What are your favorite Carlos Santana solos?
ABEL: In no particular order: “Incident at Neshabur,” “Se A Cabo,” “Awakenings (with Narada Michael Walden),” “Samba Pa Ti,” “Flame Sky,” “Full Moon,” “Blues for Salvador,” and “Love is You.” I love the way Carlos plays ballads.
MC: You’ve said that Carlos Santana’s impact on your life went way beyond being an early guitar influence.
ABEL: It would be good for people to know the depth of my respect and admiration for the man. We grew up in the same ‘hood and knew the same people, only he was five and a half years ahead of me… Carlos was a role model for me, to be sure. I met Carlos in the late 60’s, and even then he was concerned about enhancing life and being purposeful. I think his life shows evidence of that. After meeting Carlos, I was so impressed by his demeanor that it helped shape my purpose. Up until then I was just in it for the glitz and chicks, but Carlos made me realize that there was a higher calling if we just looked deeper within. I watched the man’s transformation out of a life of drugs, sex and rock ’n’ roll and saw so many others fall…so yes, he had an impact on my life. Carlos also definitely influenced my convictions and directions in music. Carlos and Richard Kermode were the ones that taught me how to really listen to jazz. I will always have an admiration for Carlos, because he was an older peer from the neighborhood, had the conviction and the determination to succeed, plus he was an innovator in terms of what he was listening to (for a rock guitarist). I was awed by his record collection when I went to his home for the first time. Carlos gave me confidence that someone from the neighborhood could cross over and make it if they worked hard at it.
FROM SCOTT E: Hi, Abel. This is truly an honor to speak with you. Congratulations on your new band and the great review you received on your last gig. At what age did you start playing the guitar, and do you play other instruments?
ABEL: Hi Scott, I play a little bass and piano and I mess around on drums and percussion, but the guitar is my main Lady and Axe. I began playing at age 13 ½. Thanks!
MC: How were you first drawn to or introduced to the guitar? What did the guitar mean to you in your youth? You must have practiced obsessively to make such rapid progress!
ABEL: In the mid 60’s, many of my friends were in or forming bands, and guitar was the instrument of choice for most. I loved the way George Harrison played, so I also gravitated toward being a guitarist. It gave me a feeling of self-worth and a way to express myself. At first it was just strumming chords and singing, but once I heard Gabor Szabo on Chico Hamilton’s track “Conquistadores” (later covered by Santana) I knew I wanted to be a soloist as well. Yes, I spent a lot of time indoors practicing and listening to records to cop licks in my teens, just like a lot of other guitar players.
FROM OSCAR & MC: Are you entirely self-taught or did you ever have any formal lessons on guitar, in music or jazz theory? If so, with whom did you study and where?
ABEL: Oscar, I’m strictly an ear and heart player. I came from the “School of Street Music” and to this day my knowledge of music theory and harmony are limited. Fortunately, I’ve always had a good sense of “feel” and a natural ability to hear things. When I did the record with Willie Bobo, the engineer was Hank Sanicola, Jr., whose dad had worked for Sinatra. Hank commented on my ability to hear the right parts. I will say though, that my good friend Ray Obiedo helped me to understand certain things about music and jazz stylings.
FROM SCOTT E: Has Raul Rekow always been the positive, smiling, happy, person he presents himself as on the stage during performances? He appears to always to be having a great time and loves what he’s doing as a true master conguero.
ABEL: As far back as I can remember, Raul has always had that smile… I think he just truly appreciates every opportunity he gets to play his drums, and I respect him for that.
FROM SCOTT E: Have you ever played with Carlos or any of the Santana band members other than Raul?
ABEL: Yes, Scott, I’ve had the honor of playing with Carlos and several of the Santana band members. I first played with Richard Kermode and Pablo Tellez in Malo, both of whom later joined Santana. I also had the pleasure of performing or jamming with all of the “Woodstock era” Santana band members except for Michael Shrieve. I’ve played alongside or jammed with Neal Schon, Coke and Pete Escovedo, Armando Peraza, Karl Perazzo, Marcus Malone, Victor Pantoja, David Margen, not to forget Gus Rodriguez and Danny De Haro from the early Santana Blues Band. Although there were a few inaccuracies in the “Voices of Latin Rock” book, the one thing that bothered me is that I was quoted as having played with Michael Shrieve at one of Luis Gasca’s gigs at Andre’s club in North Beach, but in truth I was only there as a spectator. I’ve never had the chance to play with Michael and have only spoken to the man on a couple of occasions
MC: Can you tell us about your experiences playing with Carlos?
ABEL: The first time was when Malo had just come home from our first tour. We had been on the East Coast – New York, Connecticut, Philly, opening for a few different headliners, and had returned home to San Francisco to play Winterland for Bill Graham. Carlos sat in with us on my song “Latin Bugaloo.” He took a solo and then I took a brief one afterward. Carlos was on the other side of the stage from me, so I could barely make out what he was playing, but I was thrilled to be performing with him. It was a total delight for me.
The other time was more informal. Michael Carabello took me to Carlos’ house on Mt. Tamalpais just before I was to fly to L.A. to audition for Willie Bobo. Michael had wanted to re-establish his friendship with Carlos, and this was also an opportunity for Carlos to give me advice on working with Willie. He told me to be open to the experience, and see what doors it might open for me. After a while, we all went downstairs to the studio that Carlos had built and the three of us jammed. Carlos started riffing on the bass, with me on guitar and Carabello on drums…it was a song from “Inner Secrets” which we messed around with for a few minutes. Then Carlos and I switched instruments with me laying down a “Song of the Wind”-type bass groove for him to play over. Later, Carlos jumped on drums and he and Carabello messed around with some rhythms and chants. It was nothing serious or heavy, we were just having some fun.
MC: Beyond the jams you’ve mentioned, can you tell us what your relationship has been like with Carlos over the years? You’ve talked about feeling that your life was interconnected with his.
ABEL: First of all, my family lived within blocks of Carlos’ family. I met Carlos for the first time at that Righteous Ones band audition, and a few times after that in Golden Gate Park, but I also grew up with most of his high school chums and would run into him in the neighborhood from time to time. My family moved, and where did we end up living but right down the block from where the Santana Band lived, near Precita Park! I’d see those guys driving down the hill many times and would wave to them. It’s amazing how the people surrounding me in life and music also had ties with Carlos. The Marcus Malone Band, which I was in, was rehearsing out at Playland at the Beach (a seaside amusement park where there were some rehearsal spaces) two doors down from the Santana Band. I remember once that Carlos came over and peeked in because we were playing “Fried Neckbones.” Gus Rodriguez was playing bass with us, and we had Jimmy Martinez on timbales.
As the years passed, Carlos and I would have the connection through his brother Jorge (leader and co-guitarist of Malo). Carlos came to one of Malo’s early rehearsals. He was kind, gracious and very encouraging to us, which I later learned was the norm for him. Then right around the time of Malo’s debut album release, Jorge, Pablo Tellez and Rich Spremich (Malo’s drummer) and I went to visit Carlos at his home on Mt. Tam. We hung out for a bit, and Carlos turned us on to Gabor Szabo’s “High Contrast” record, which had just been released. Carlos mentioned that Larry Coryell was staying with him at that time. I think his friendship with Larry is what led him to the John McLaughlin connection.
Another time, Mingo Lewis invited me to a Santana rehearsal in Pacific Heights (a wealthy neighborhood near San Francisco’s Presidio). Carlos and I talked for a bit. He acknowledged my guitar playing and seemed genuinely interested in my career, what I was going to do next. Carlos was consistently friendly toward me and we got along great. We’d run into each other at clubs like Bojangles, Basin Street, and Sneaky Pete’s here in S.F. There were a few occasions when he invited me to call him or to get together, but I never followed up. We haven’t seen each other or spoken now since the early 80’s. Many compared me to Carlos early on… they said I had the same expressive feeling that he did, which I took as a compliment. Because I carried some of the same “fire” that Carlos had, people like Mingo and Coke always tried to push me to be more “out front.” Meanwhile, though, I wanted to move more toward jazz and establish my own voice on the guitar. For years I actually had to battle consciously to avoid sounding like Carlos. My friend Alfonso Frias once said, “When Carlos plays his guitar it’s like the last time he’s ever gonna play it!” When I jammed with Carlos in his home I got to witness that first hand… the man attacks the instrument with fierce passion. (smiles) Nowadays with so many trying to emulate his style and sound, it’s important to remember that at some point you really do have to find your own voice and move away from copying your influences too exactly. Carlos’ fingerprints are so indelible. This is why I chose to play global music, which incorporates a little of everything… and why I chose not to play too much overdriven, “sustain-y” guitar on my CD with Michelle Pollace, “Soul Redemption.”
MC: Abel, can you tell us how you would come to be known as one of the most stylish dressers in the S.F. music scene? Who was Donnell Hatter, and what was his role in preparing you for success?
ABEL: Donnell was a street hustler from San Francisco’s Western Addition who envisioned himself as manager of my band Naked Lunch. He told me that if I wanted to be a star I had to look the part, and encouraged me to think about how clothing and hairstyle changes could make me more marketable. It was partly a show business decision, trying to capitalize on trends that were going on.
FROM MC & ROY MURRAY: At age 16 you became lead vocalist, songwriter, and lead guitar for the group Naked Lunch. Did your focus on the band at such an early age make you grow up too fast or deprive you of some of the normal high school experiences?
ABEL: Absolutely, I missed out on most of the teen dating, and normal things that 15 – 16 year-olds do. I was already playing in blues clubs and doing concerts, and I had little time to hang with my friends and play sports or go to bar-b-ques, but in hindsight I think it also kept me out of trouble and put me on a better path. Besides, in the late 70’s I made up for my lost party time…I hit the clubs almost every night of the week!
MC: Naked Lunch teamed you, Roy Murray and Rich Spremich with organist Ludwig “Fist” Stevens (who had also briefly replaced Greg Allman in the Allman Brothers band). Rick Tiffer played bass at first, later replaced by Charles Fletcher. Naked Lunch famously upstaged Creedence Clearwater at Fillmore West, and opened for Ray Charles and B.B. King. You had a two-man horn section and Roy describes the sound as “powerful and straight at you.” It must have been quite a potent band! Bill Graham almost signed you to his new record label, Fillmore Records. Oh, and what was it about William S. Burroughs’ novel “Naked Lunch” that fired your imagination?
ABEL: Naked Lunch had a raw sound: sort of Electric Flag meets Santana with a little Blues Image thrown in! Roy Murray actually chose the name Naked Lunch…I had no clue who William S. Burroughs was back then. Our horn section consisted of Bob Olivera on tenor and alto sax, from a musical family (with very good chops), and Roy, who played trumpet, trombone, flute and soprano sax. José Marrero was on congas. We made our mark, but due to our young arrogance and some very bad choices the Fillmore Records people dropped us. After that, things weren’t looking good for the band. Naked Lunch was pretty much defunct, so I took Chris Wong up on his offer to see Jorge about forming Malo.
MC: There seem to have been a lot of good feelings and a sense of excitement when Malo began. I remember a story about practice sessions that Malo held right after the band was formed, where you guys would play in a pitch black rehearsal room. Was this done to get everyone to “bond” musically? It’s an image that has always stuck with me.
ABEL: At that point, Luis Gasca was conducting the rehearsals at The Heliport in Sausalito. It was his idea for us to try playing in the dark, so we would rehearse to the glow of our amplifier power lights and a couple of smoldering sticks of incense. It was for atmosphere, because at that time improvisational “free” playing was new to us. That’s how we rehearsed the whole middle section of “Peace” with the trumpet solo and the Szabo-style guitar interlude.
FROM FREDDIE PEREZ: Hello Abel, Peace and Blessings, and many best wishes to you and yours. On “Suavecito,” both the guitars sound so similar to me. It’s hard to tell who’s who. They were so masterfully played and arranged. Who played what parts?
ABEL: In truth, what you’re hearing on “Suavecito” is mainly me. I’m playing all of the “ear candy” guitar licks and fills, Jorge’s guitar is more of a chord pad underneath. The two guitars are more equally blended towards the end when we do the octave “call and answer” parts. Thanks, Freddie!
FROM PARK: Abel, when it comes to Malo’s music can you recommend the songs that really showcase your guitar playing, so I can really put my ears to those songs and listen for your guitar riffs? Thanks for your help.
ABEL: Sure, Park. I would say the raga-guitar interlude on “Peace” showcases where my head was at the time. Also, the wah-solos on “Just Say Goodbye” and Café were a good compliment to Jorge, and of course the sentimental/lyrical parts of “Suavecito.” Those are all on the first album, which was the only album I did with them.
FROM XAMAN: Luis Gasca and Richard Kermode roomed together, and their place was said to have become legendary as “the Party House.” Any comments or recollections?
ABEL: I knew that Luis’ pad had become quite the party hangout, but I was too busy doing my own thing to participate much. The times I went there were to hang with Richard Kermode and just listen to music, or get lectured by Luis, but there was one time I went there with Pablo… (winks)
MC: Richard Bean, singer and co-writer of “Suavecito,” left Malo before the band went out on tour. Of the remaining band members, your voice, with a clear tone blending blue-eyed soul and soft-rock balladry, was the closest in sound to Richard’s. You had sung background vocals throughout the Malo album, but now you found yourself up front singing “Suavecito” in front of the largest crowds of your life. Can you describe the experience? Did you wish that your boyhood friend Richard had been the one in the spotlight for what could have been his crowning moment?
ABEL: I was sad at the decision to cut Rich. I had known him since age 14, and we played in the Righteous Ones together. Singing “Suavecito” was a bit awkward at first, but I grew to really love the song. I definitely think that Malo should’ve kept Richard in the band, but that option was NOT open for discussion among the band.
FROM PARK: Abel, I know Malo was a band that toured with all kinds of other bands and with a lot of different music styles, so I am curious as to what bands you enjoyed touring with and what bands might not have been so easy to tour with?
ABEL: I only did two tours with Malo, and we opened for John Cipollina’s Copperhead, Redbone, King Crimson, Quicksilver Messenger Service (who had the “Fresh Air” song that went “have another hit…”), and a few others. All in all, it was a fun time, and the bands we played with were cordial to us. The first time on the road is always crazy for anyone, though, let alone an 18 or 19 year old kid. Our first tour was pretty controlled in that we didn’t get a chance to hang with the other bands very much, except for in the dressing rooms, briefly. We were on a tight schedule, and pretty much were bused back to the hotels after our set. One night, though, Kermode and I were kidnapped by a crazed groupie and almost missed the bus the next morning!
MC: Roy Murray is of the opinion that you were the single most important person in preparing the material for Malo’s debut album, and your contributions on stage were equally important. There is no doubt that when you left Malo the band lost an important piece, and it seems likely that both you and Malo could have achieved greater success had you stayed. Do you have any regrets…could you have done more to keep things going?
ABEL: I was seventeen years old when I joined Malo, eighteen during the recording sessions and turned nineteen right before the record was released. I was a hungry, brash, and overly-confident guy at that time. If I had used my smarts a little better, I would’ve known to lay back a bit and not make anyone uncomfortable. I also should’ve taken much better care of myself, in terms of not partying so hard and wearing myself down. I was on a high from all the hoopla, and the sudden taste of fame may have gone to my head, but that’s the folly of youth. (smile) Yes, I think if the first Malo lineup had stayed together a little longer it would have solidified Malo’s sound a bit more, and we could’ve charted a few more songs, but c’est la vie …
MC: You have mentioned how much you enjoyed working with trumpeter/flugelhorn player Luis Gasca on the sessions for the first Malo album. Luis had an impressive resume and lots of experience, as he had already worked with artists like Woody Herman, Mongo Santamaria and the Sir Douglas Quintet, not to mention performing with Janis Joplin at Woodstock. He also had a Latin jazz album of his own under his belt, “The Little Giant,” featuring an all-star cast. How much of a mentor was he to you, and did you ever gig with him outside of Malo?
ABEL: I did play with Luis at Basin Street West and the North Beach Revival club. Richard Kermode and timbalero Carmelo Garcia were among the regulars with Luis. As far as Luis’ “mentoring” me, it wasn’t in the form of sit-down discussions, but when we were in the studio with Malo or hanging out at his apartment in North Beach he would throw out bits and pieces of wisdom to me all the time…especially tips on the use of space, phrasing and dynamics. Luis was surprised to find out that I already had an ear for jazz stylings and that I knew about suspended and ’11′ chords, as well as flat9′s, and major7/9 chords. He and Kermode felt that I had some potential in jazz. This prompted them to mentor me, and led Luis to ask me to play on the “For Those Who Chant” session.
MC: Luis’ second album “For Those Who Chant” featured Carlos and several other players from Santana and the Bay Area Latin rock and jazz scenes. How did this project come about?
ABEL: Pablo, Jorge, Spremich, and I went to Basin Street West to hear Luis play one night, and Carlos was there. This was the time in the very last days of the Santana III lineup when the band decided to perform without Carlos. Carlos sat next to me and told me he had left the band out on the road… he was a little bitter about it, as I remember. This was before I started gigging with Luis. Mark Levine was in the band, but I can’t remember who else. Carlos sat in…he seemed to be decompressing from what was going on with the Santana band. Afterwards we hung out downstairs, that’s when Luis talked to him about doing the “Chant” sessions. Those pics in “Voices of Latin Rock” with Pablo and I hanging at Basin Street were from that night…I’m surprised the photographer didn’t get a shot of Carlos.
MC: Though uncredited in the liner notes of “For Those Who Chant”, you played on those sessions [ed. later verified by Luis Gasca]. The music was pretty free and wide open with some of the vibe of Miles Davis’ early electric albums. What was that experience like? How much actual structure was there in the arrangement of the songs? So many players were involved, including some who might not have been on good terms with each other during that period. How many of them were actually in the studio at any given time? What tracks can we hear you on?
ABEL: Luis wanted spontaneity, so the “Chant” sessions were very loose and mostly improvised, without much structure. Mixing jazz players like Stanley Clarke and Lenny White with rock musicians like Rolie and Carabello was unconventional, but experimentation was the spirit of the times. As for my participation, my old friend Ralph Saldana (who works with ZPP) and I had a laugh recently when we sat down to listen to an Australian compilation called “Playing With Carlos.” One of the tracks is “Little Mama” from “For Those Who Chant.” If you listen closely, that’s me trading with Neal. Carlos doesn’t play at all on that track, which is sort of an extension of the middle section of Malo’s “Peace.” Jorge, Pablo and I were invited by Luis to come down to the studio, and Luis pulled me aside and asked me if I wanted to play, so I plugged in and did. I only played on that one song, as it was a long movement. It was an overwhelmingly surreal moment, Jose, I was 18 or 19, and while Jorge and Pablo looked on I was sitting in a room playing with Lenny White, Stanley Clarke, Kermode, Gregg Rolie, Carabello, and Carmelo Garcia on Luis’ jazz record! I was on cloud nine to say the least, plus I was sitting and playing right next to Neal who was the hotshot guitarist at the time… so it was hard for me to be totally “in the moment!” I was surprised when the record came out and my name wasn’t on it, but I felt it might hurt my career if I complained. Maybe Luis just forgot that I had played, as the sessions were pretty chaotic. Hard feelings between some of the musicians did come into play, as Carlos was still smarting over the band having chosen to play those gigs with Michael Carabello and without him. Carlos overdubbed at least some of his guitar parts on “Chant”…I don’t think Carlos wanted to be in the studio when Carabello was there. I believe the hard feelings between Carlos and Michael lasted for several years.
MC: Richard Kermode was something of a music teacher for you, and became a close friend. From your standpoint, what was special about Richard the musician and Richard the person?
ABEL: When I first met Richard, he was this pony-tailed, clog-wearing “seeker.” (smiles) Richard was a good soul. He saw the hunger to learn in my eyes, and was a very nurturing mentor to me. He and Ray Obiedo opened my ears to jazz inflections and comping.
MC: You and Roy Murray had been among the first of the original Malo members to leave the band. Producer David Rubinson, believing in your talent and the power of the Malo buzz, immediately committed to working with you in a brand new venture. The group was named “Banda de Jesus” (de Jesus being your middle name, your Mom’s maiden name). According to Roy, you guys “had advanced so much and the music was way, way ahead of its time, and “Banda” was formed with the intent of recording an album and going straight to the top.” You and Roy reunited with Bob Olivera and José Marrero of Naked Lunch; teenaged bass prodigy “Hutch” Hutchinson (known for his work with Bonnie Raitt and Copperhead) was another notable member. You reportedly spent several months writing the material and then recorded the demo with Rubinson and Fred Catero at Pacifica Recording in San Mateo. Rubinson had the “pull” in the industry to help make the group a success. Roy Murray speaks of having meetings in L.A with presidents of major record labels that were interested in signing you. Can you tell us about the music, what went wrong, and what became of the demo?
ABEL: Banda de Jesus was a mixture of the Rascals, Chicago and the Beatles… we had some real forward-thinking music that never got heard. Just as Gregg Rolie and Neal Schon didn’t want Journey to have anything to do with Latin rock, this band was to show another side of me. David Rubinson ostensibly wanted to produce our record but, alas, the demo was shelved. Maybe he was too busy at that point with the Pointer Sisters and Herbie Hancock and we became a low priority, or maybe he thought we weren’t commercial enough??? Who knows? He later tried to hook me up with an all-white rock band playing very poppish rock with lots of hooky melodies, they were actually pretty good (can’t remember their band name). The rock band was a project David was working on. I met them at the offices above the Automatt, jammed with them and they played me their demo. They didn’t think I had the right “look” for the band… but their project, too, was eventually shelved.
MC: After reluctantly giving up Banda de Jesus for dead, you formed a new band called Topaz. The new sound was based in Latin rock but added elements of jazz and Brazilian music. Malo manager Chris Wong and Victor Alemán (a documentary photographer of the Farm Workers struggle, also known for his record sleeve portraits of Malo and Luis Gasca) still believed in you and pitched in to provide a rehearsal space and money for a demo. Topaz was an excellent group with memorable material. The soulful singing and plaintive guitar work you displayed in your appearance on Marcos Gutierrez’s Bay Area TV show “Viento” are still vivid in my mind 34 years later!
ABEL: We played “Señorita Mi Corazón” on that show (a heartbreaking bolero that segues into a faster Latin/jazz/rock groove). There’s a line where I call out, “I want only you,” in that song that is straight-up Felix Cavaliere! Chris Wong tried to lend a helping hand by letting me rehearse at his home in Fairfax (Marin County) and hooked me up with a few players, so the band started there. Chris had a shed behind his swimming pool, which served nicely as a rehearsal studio. Victor Alemán was a fan and friend of mine… he paid for the Topaz demo, which was recorded at the Record Plant in Sausalito. We had a good lineup that included Michael Athanasatos on keys, Brian Godula (formerly of Stoneground) on bass, Tony Parker on drums (later replaced by Raymond Rey) and José Marrero playing congas and singing on “Prelude to Love,” a cool Return to Forever-ish tune, semi-fast with a nice guitar solo. We brought in female singers to help out on “Bajimbala.” A favorite of my own compositions, “Bajimbala” was a mid-tempo Jobim-ish type samba melody. Patti Santos (former It’s A Beautiful Day vocalist) and Jay Wagner (Brazilian/jazz keyboardist known for his work with Viva Brasil and Joyce Cooling) covered the song in their band Pharaoh’s Whistle, but it was never released on record. Anyway, when it came time for Victor to shop the Topaz demo, I don’t think he really had the experience and connections. Topaz played at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go in L.A., but I can’t remember what other high profile gigs we got. Ultimately, at that point everyone said my material was too jazzy.
MC: After Topaz disbanded came a meeting that just might have changed the course of rock history and your career?
ABEL: I was almost in a group with Gregg Rolie. After Topaz dissolved, I had been hanging out with Phil Scoma, a rock guitarist friend of Neal Schon’s who also played with Chocolate Watchband and Elvin Bishop, and briefly with Sapo. Phil had been in Topaz for a little bit, and he and I wanted to keep playing together, and Phil also knew Gregg. So, we visited Gregg at his home in Marin (this was before the Journey project began). I remembered hanging out with Gregg backstage at Winterland at a Santana show after he’d left the band, probably during the “Caravanserai” tour. He told me then that at age 25 he felt kind of burnt out. Now, however, it seemed that he might be ready to get out there again and do something musically. I went to show him some tunes I had. We jammed, and briefly talked about putting a group together. Marty Cohen of CBS Records A&R, a buddy of Gregg’s and Herbie Herbert’s, also happened to show up at Gregg’s place that day and hung with us there, so just think what could have happened! Gregg played with us again once at SIR (Studio Instrument Rentals, a popular South of Market rehearsal studio for many top San Francisco bands) but in the end, he passed on playing with Phil and I, he said that doing our project would be too similar to playing with Santana. Then Gregg and Neal went on to form Journey and the rest is Rock ‘n’ Roll History.
MC & OSCAR: Yellow Brick Road was one of San Francisco’s top nightspots in the first half of the 70’s. The club booked many of the Bay Area’s top acts, and was a great spot to catch jam sessions. You and Neal Schon played together there several times. What was the atmosphere like at Yellow Brick Road, and how did so many jams come about? Can you tell us about one or two of your most memorable jam sessions from those days, either at Yellow Brick Road or elsewhere?
ABEL: That’s right, I used to hang with Neal quite a bit at the Yellow Brick Road. Mingo and Neal had become close during their short time together in Santana, and Neal and I became friends through Mingo. Yellow Brick Road was always happening on weekends, and packed with people. I remember Michael Douglas being there a lot, as he was filming “Streets of San Francisco” at the time. A lot of local musical luminaries would frequent the club, players like David Brown, Bobby Vega, Sly Stone, Gregg Errico, Larry Graham, Mingo, Carabello, Buddy Miles, Luis and whoever else was in town. It was the place to jam and hang. Generally, the bands would do some kind of free-form funk or Latin jam and call the musicians in the house up to play. Neal and I sat in on a number of occasions with different groups, but we would usually go up separately, as there was normally only one guitar amp on stage. The Reunion, on San Francisco’s Union Street, was a club that featured a lot of good Latin and funk bands throughout the 1970’s, and had its share of jam sesssions. Roger Glenn’s Latin jazz band had a long-running gig at The Reunion. I remember one night I played with Roger’s band on “Nada de Ti,” and the band had Mark Levine, Al Bent, John Santos, Sheila and Pete…that was a pretty slammin’ jam. Guys like Don Alias and Eddie Henderson would show up there from time to time.
MC: Cesar’s Club (later to become known as Cesar’s Latin Palace) became an institution as San Francisco’s premier Latin music club for decades. The club’s proprietor, Cesar Ascarrunz, a Bolivian pianist and perennial mayoral candidate, led a house band, known as Cesar’s Band or Cesar’s All-Stars, which recorded a good Latin/jazz/rock LP “Cesar 830” (featuring Loading Zone lead singer Linda Tillery). You were known to hang out and jam at Cesar’s from time to time. What was the Club like…was it the place where the hottest salsa dancers went? What type of players were in the band, and were there any memorable jam sessions?
ABEL: Cesar’s was a fun place to play, he had the whole after-hours thing going, the club was open ’til 4am. Not only did the house band have a lot of all-star musicians, but lots of good players would come by and sit in after their gigs were done. Guys like Jim Vincent and Eddie Henderson would play there, as well as other heavies. That’s where Roger Glenn (formerly of Mongo and Donald Byrd’s bands) and I became friends…he used to sit in front and watch me play and applaud after my solos. Roger called me to do gigs with him due to Cesar’s Club…it was a great place for musicians to “network.” I think anybody who was “anybody” played Cesar’s in the 70′s. Top Bay Area horn players like Joe Ellis, Forest Buchtel and Hadley Caliman were regulars, as well as Benny Velarde on timbales and Francisco Aguabella on conga, and Roger Glenn on flute and vibes. The lineup was different each time I played, though. There was a lot of spontaneous musical combustion with a hodge-podge of good players on stage. Cesar was lucky to have such a good thing going in those days. I was never an actual member of the band, but Cesar would just call me up to the bandstand if he saw me in the Club, and we’d do some kind of descarga. Violinist Alfredo de la Fe and bongocero “Chuckie” Lopez from the Fania All Stars once played with the Band when I was sitting in on guitar…it was cool hearing those guys play! Cesar used to like to bring me up to play “Sabor a Mi,” which I got tired of after a while. (smiles). I also gigged at Cesar’s with Sapo a few times and yes, all the hot salseros and salseras went there.
FROM MC & DARDO: Can you tell us about your friendship with Mingo Lewis, your band with him, the demo you recorded, and who the players were?
ABEL: Dardo, I can’t remember exactly how Mingo and I met, he might’ve been at a gig that I played. We became friends after he invited me to be his guest at a Santana rehearsal. Later, Mingo left Santana and went to play with Chick Corea’s Return to Forever. Just as Mingo was leaving RTF, I had been trying to re-form Topaz. Mingo called me to start a band with him, so we dropped the name Topaz and it became the “Mingo” project. With Mingo being fresh from Santana and Chick Corea, it made sense for him to be the “face of the band,” even though I was the lead guitarist, lead vocalist, and wrote most of the songs.
This edition of the “Mingo” band included Michael and Brian from Topaz on keyboards and bass, Phil Scoma on second guitar and Kim Plainfield on drums (who would later play with Jon Lucien and Bill Connors). Mingo played percussion, led the band, and handled the business. We recorded a four-song demo at the Automatt in 1973 featuring my songs “Señorita Mi Corazón,” “Coral Isles” (a slightly mystical Santana-like Afro Cuban rock track that might have fit on “Caravanserai”), “Funky Tune” (a funk/fusion instrumental), and “Thoughts of Paradise,” a wistful melody with a mid-tempo cha-cha beat that I had written with Carole King in mind. We rehearsed next door to Journey at SIR for a few months, and we opened for some of their earliest shows at the Great American Music Hall and Keystone Berkeley. At these shows, Journey’s manager Herbie Herbert used to introduce me as “one of Neal Schon’s favorite guitarists,” something that Neal had told him. Coming from Neal, that meant a lot to me, as he didn’t give compliments easily! Columbia Records wanted to sign us…the song that hooked them was “Thoughts of Paradise.” I really felt that “Thoughts” would’ve blended well with what was on the radio in those days and would have to have been at least a minor hit, and here Columbia, one of the world’s biggest, most powerful record labels was offering to release it as a single! Well, as with a lot of people including myself, Mingo wanted an album deal, so he turned the offer down. He held out for too long and Columbia withdrew the proposal. I know first hand what a hit single can do…that song could’ve opened up other possibilities. Losing that deal was the beginning of the end for my involvement with Mingo’s band, and may also have been one of the turning points in my career.
Several months later the Columbia bigwigs had become interested in the band again, and we played a showcase for them at the Orphanage that finally got Mingo signed. By this time we were playing all-out fusion. Mingo wanted me to rival Carlos, but I was trying to find my own voice. I had always respected Mingo due to the fact that he played with Chick, and we were good friends for a while until we started to disagree musically. By the time of the showcase gig I was unhappy, and I quit the band after that night. I didn’t play on the “Flight Never Ending” album…a couple of the tracks were co-written by me, but I didn’t get credit. Mingo and I maintained our friendship, or at least a mutual respect as musicians, for a while after I left the band, and he invited me to the Record Plant in Sausalito when they did a “live” radio performance with my friend Pat Thrall on guitar. Mingo and I would later play together again in the Latin All Star Band, but I finally lost touch with him during his time with the Tubes.
MC: Chris Wong has said that he thinks racial discrimination was a major barrier in your career, that it is what kept you from really establishing yourself in the 70’s. Do you think he’s right?
ABEL: Being an Asian musician during the Vietnam era was not a cakewalk. Some music industry types warned me that America wasn’t ready for a band with an Asian front man, and even told me that I should take opportunities to play in Japan or some other Asian country to make it. I really resented the fact that they were insinuating that because I wasn’t Caucasian that I couldn’t break through in America. I knew that I had strong songwriting abilities…I wrote songs for every band I was in! If I had the chance to be in the right environment and work with the right engineers and producers, I know I could’ve contributed at least a couple of songs to the music charts, but the circumstances surrounding my ethnicity and other politics prevented me from being accepted in a lot of circles.
MC: By 1975, at age 23, your star status was fading fast. What adjustments were required to keep your career momentum and your sanity?
ABEL: Those years right after Malo, age 19 thru 23, were bizarre and topsy-turvy! I was getting called for so many gigs that I couldn’t keep up. There seemed to be so many opportunities, but it was difficult to know which ones to pick…I tried a lot of different things, but nothing felt right. In the meantime, I was racing with Time to hold on to my “fifteen minutes of fame.” What’s more, I was young and not too frugal with my money. I used all my royalties to finance the groups I was in…Banda de Jesus in particular. I paid for all the SIR rehearsal time, rented gear for my musicians, trying to make things happen. I thought the royalties would last forever, but I found out the hard way how wrong I was. As a result, the years that followed, especially after Topaz, were very difficult for me in terms of income. That’s when the bottom started to crumble beneath me financially. During and just after Malo, I’d been getting the star treatment from club and restaurant owners. Now my celebrity was wearing off and I learned some hard lessons in humility. By 1976, when I turned 24, I had purged myself of all the Rock Star hoopla and head trips, and returned to being just a “regular guy.” I think it saved my life. I wasn’t cut out for the rock ‘n’ roll life. It just didn’t agree with me, and the debauchery that went with it always made me uncomfortable. In the next couple of years I was able to start letting myself breathe and have fun again.
MC: After parting ways with Mingo, you decided to get out of the Bay Area for a while. You and Roy Murray left for what Roy calls “one big tour of Canada” with a band called the Mendocino All-Stars. What was the Mendocino connection, and what were the band and the experience of touring Canada like? Did the Canadian audiences know you from Malo?
ABEL: I went to Canada for three months with the Mendocino All Stars with Roy Murray and Peter Oliva, who had played with the Byrds. It was a fun gig. We played lots of blues and rock songs, and they did three of my songs at the time. No, I don’t think Malo was well known in Canada. I met Carey Williams (who would go on to manage Taj Mahal for many years) on that tour. Carey later sang in my band The Force and Michael Carabello’s band, Attitude.
MC: Abel, multi-instrumentalist Roy Murray did some fine work on Malo’s debut album. He seems to have been one of your closest musical friends and allies, having worked in a total of four bands with you. Can you tell us about Roy? How did the two of you meet and come to work together in Naked Lunch, and what it was like to play with him? You’ve mentioned in the past that Blood, Sweat & Tears’ music inspired your musical direction in some of your early bands. As a multi-horn player, how crucial was Roy Murray to your realizing this vision? You seem to have lost your interest in working with horns after Roy moved back to the East Coast. Why the change?
ABEL: We were rehearsing in the Haight-Ashbury one night, with what would become the Naked Lunch band, when Roy came knocking on the door with all of his horns in tow. He just came in and started playing… No words were spoken, we just knew he was right for the band. I always loved bands like the Sons of Champlin, and the early B, S & T with Al Kooper, as well as Electric Flag, so I always fancied playing with a horn section. After Banda de Jesus my musical tastes shifted again, and I moved away from using horns.
MC: You returned to the Bay Area from Canada – it was 1975 and the music industry’s interest in Latin rock was waning. Bands were being dropped by their labels, and Malo, Azteca, Sapo and the original Santana band had all broken up. Promoter Ron Bermudez tried to salvage some of the glory of that era by organizing a revue he called the San Francisco Latin All Star Band, or LASB. Who were the members, and what were the setlist and gigs like? I remember a big gig at the Cow Palace (one of San Francisco’s largest event venues at the time). Did you play many other gigs? How long did the LASB project last, and what kept it from staying together and becoming a regular Latin rock supergroup?
ABEL: The Latin All Star thing included myself, Pete & Sheila Escovedo, Ray Obiedo, Richard Bean, Rico Reyes, percussionist Jorge Bermudez (Ron’s brother, who had played on Malo’s “Dos” and led his own bands), Mingo Lewis, Kincaid Miller from Sapo on keyboards (sometimes Kermode), Pablo Tellez or Thaddeus Reece on bass. Geez, I think just about everyone did those gigs, Chepito and Carabello, occasionally Coke, timbal prodigy Gibby Ross (Karl Perazzo’s cousin, a protégé of Tito Puente). The setlist for the LASB was mostly Santana stuff, some Azteca stuff, and of course “Suavecito.” I never took those gigs seriously… I don’t think anyone did. There was talk about taking the LASB on tour, but it never happened.
Tags: Abel Zarate