Oskar Cartaya's Journey from the Tropics to the Top

March 17, 2017

Faced with invitations to play at bass events on opposite coasts on the same weekend, most musicians would pick one and beg off the other. Not Oskar Cartaya. He hopped a plane from Los Angeles to New York, where he put together and rehearsed a band to perform at La Bella’s annual Lords of the Low End concert. He then got up at 4 AM for a flight back to L.A. for his afternoon clinic performance with his nine-piece band, Oskar Cartaya & the Ricannection, at Bass Player LIVE! 2016. That’s business as usual for the charismatic Cartaya, whose spicy grooves and tireless work ethic have taken him from the dangerous jungles of South America with Willie Colón to musical-directing sold-out tours for Jennifer Lopez. This time, however, Cartaya is doing it for himself. With his solo artist side at last coming into focus, Oskar has released Bajo Mundo, a 13-track album featuring robust, melodic compositions set to sizzling south- and north-of-the-Equator feels, plus guest turns by Stanley Clarke and Marcus Miller. Central to the journey is Cartaya’s bravura bass work, be it improvised rhythmic counterpoint on Baby Bass, hard-plucked bass guitar heads, singing fretless flights, or timbre-rich tumbaos on upright.

Born in New York City on May 19, 1963, Oskar moved with his family to Puerto Rico when he was six, to be raised in “la Ciudad Progresista” (the progressive city) of Bayamón. Though not from a musical household, Cartaya got a guitar and lessons at age nine, only to become obsessed by bass a year later. “I don’t remember the attraction, but I sawed off my mom’s broom handle, taped it to the bottom of my acoustic guitar and played it like a standup bass.” A Les Paul-style electric bass came next, followed by upright training when he enrolled in the island’s prestigious Escuela Libre De Musica, in the eighth grade. From there he was on the fast track: rising through the local island scene, moving out to Los Angeles to study and teach at Musicians Institute, returning East to create a rumble as he climbed the ranks in New York City, and finally moving back to Los Angeles, where his career file has been ever-broadening. A peek at the 53-year-old’s resumé runs the gamut from Celia Cruz, Tito Puente, Spyro Gyra, Arturo Sandoval, and Herb Alpert to Steve Winwood, Robbie Robertson, Christina Aguilera, Andraé Crouch, and All 4 One, with a steady flow of musical directing, producing, and film-scoring projects. Bajo Mundo is front and center for Cartaya now, and that’s where we began our wide-ranging discussion, on a Christmastime call from Bayamón, with the sound of the native coqui frogs chirping in the background.

What was your concept for the album?

I describe Bajo Mundo as taking an imaginary trip around the world with my bass and my backpack. When I started writing for it, I realized I was mixing my influences, so rather than try to be authentic in each style I was covering, I decided to do my take on them—like a chef utilizing different flavors. But what I did do was hire musicians who knew the traditional rhythms of these various styles, and they helped me apply them to my arrangements. My goal is to both engage and challenge the listener along this global journey. The album title has dual meanings: In addition to the literal translation of “bass world,” the term el bajo mundo refers to the underground or underworld and the mysterious, unsavory characters who populate it.

How would you describe the role of the bass on the record?

I’ve found as a composer you view the instrument differently. I have the liberty of figuring out how dominant or how subliminal I want the bass to be. Taking a cue from all the great bassist–composers, I’ve learned that the stronger you make the foundation, the more you can put on top of it. That said, the bass speaks on all different levels on the album, from front-and-center to deep in the pocket, and that’s the blessing of being in charge.

The opener, “Truky Paco,” has that sense of being built from the bottom.

Exactly. That came about while I was practicing and my two dogs started playing and running about wildly. I tried to mimic their movements with notes, and that’s where the core rhythm line came from, and I wrote upper melodies for the horns from there. Then I went in the studio with [drummer] Chris Coleman, told him what I was looking for, and turned him loose. Later, I added the flavors of Latin percussion and the violin playing steady 16ths, hillbilly-style.

“Gafieira” and “Flamencocho” have a Brazilian and flamenco flavor, respectively.

“Gafieiera” was a tune I had in my head, with wordless vocals and Brazilian guitar-like comping, which I did on bass. The rhythm of the track—a batucada, which is a type of samba—was created by percussionist Alberto Lopez, who is Colombian but is an expert on Brazilian rhythms. The song got its title from legendary engineer Moogie Canazio, who mixed the album. He said it reminded him of the sounds in a gafieira, which are speakeasies in his native Brazil.

Credit for “Flamencocho” goes to my beautiful wife, who makes an amazing half-flan/half-cake dessert called a flancocho. When I brought a piece to my friend, the great flamenco dancer Manuel Gutierrez, he tasted it and jumped up in joy and started doing some serious flamenco moves! That gave me the song idea. I had my bass with me, so we started working on it. Afterward he said, “I want to change my artistic name to Flamenco-cho.”

“Mateo’s Lullabye” and “Alma Gemelas” feature your fretless playing.

The lullabye, named for my son, came to me the day my wife told me we were going to have a baby. Originally I envisioned just the toy piano you hear at the start, and fretless. Then I felt it was asking for more, but I was too attached to the piece to do it justice. I called my friend Franky Suarez, who writes for the symphony orchestra in Puerto Rico, and he created a beautiful arrangement with strings and French horns.

“Alma Gemelas” means twin souls or kindred spirits, which is how I feel about pianist Carlos Rodgarman—I co-wrote this with him, and he included the same version on his excellent upcoming album, The Rodgar Band. The piece is like a classical work, where it’s all about the interpretation of the melody. I used my fretless Mayones Patriot on both songs; it has a semi-hollow body with magnetic and piezo pickups that you can blend, all of which give it a unique, singing tone.

You reach for your Kala U-Bass, your Baby Bass, and your upright on “Los Del Sur,” “Tumbao Cachao,” and “Get Up.”

“Los Del Sur” is my anthem for young immigrants, utilizing various South American rhythms. It was inspired by a news story in which homeless children from across Latin America were bused to Arizona only to face picketers and opposition. I couldn’t find a bass that sat in the track right until I thought of my U-Bass, and it fit like a glove. “Tumbao Cachao” is dedicated to the one and only Cachao. The melody is typical of him, zig-zagging through the rhythms and the clave and tying them all together like a needle and thread. I played my prototype Lemur Stanley Clarke upright, which was a gift from Stanley. “Get Up” is a live party track, to close the album on a high note. It has a boogaloo groove, which was the mix of Latin and soul music that was happening in the ’60s, before salsa arrived in the ’70s.

Stanley guests on bass guitar on “A La ’70s.”

What can I say about Sir Stanley? He’s the Lord of the Low Frequencies, and he’s been such an important mentor to me in and away from music. That song started with the little Stanley-like phrase that opens the track, and it built from there into a tribute to the early days of fusion. I asked Chris Coleman to channel Billy Cobham for his part, and it was fun adding all the keyboard sounds of the era. I told Stanley I had written a track for him to play on, but first I sent him “Tumbao Cachao” to check out because he’s a big fan of Cachao. He dug that, so then I sent him “A La ’70s.” When he got off the road he came by, threw down his solo in no time, and said, “Let’s go eat!”

“Tum Tum” pays homage to Marcus Miller and also features him.

Cartaya with Bobby Valentín (L) and Junior Irizarry (R)

In addition to being a pivotal bass stylist and composer with unparalleled musical versatility, Marcus to me defines what a true artist is, and that’s someone who makes the very complex seem so simple and easy that it entices you to try it, and then you realize how difficult it is to do! I came up with the melody for “Tum Tum,” and I wanted something with an eerie sound to double me playing it, and it hit me: Marcus on bass clarinet! The bridge is a nod to his writing style, and his influence on my playing is evident throughout. As I always say, we borrow from everyone else to create our own musical persona.

Both “Bomballenato” and your new version of your Spyro Gyra hit, “Para Ti Latino,” have elements of your native Puerto Rico.

Bomballenato is dedicated to and features my musical godfather, [saxophonist] Justo Almario; we call him the Latin Coltrane. The groove is a marriage of bomba and vallenato. Bomba is a traditional music of Puerto Rico that draws from the island’s Spanish, African, and native Indian cultures, and is based on the creative conversation between the drummers and the dancers. Vallenato is a folkloric music from the Valle Dupar region of Colombia. Then I used my Sadowsky Metro to bring in the Western elements, like funk slapping and my double-thumbed melody. For “Para Ti,” I wanted to cover it differently and reflect my roots, so I did it in “bomba y plena,” two of the most popular traditional Puerto Rican music styles. And I have a Puerto Rican cuatro [a 5-stringed, violin-shaped guitar] doubling my bass melody. I used my main bass, my black 1989 Sadowsky, which is also on the Spyro Gyra version.

Who were your key early influences?

Three local players defined my formative years. The first was Bobby Valentín, the bassist for the Fania All-Stars, the super-band of salsa. He had a Gibson Ripper and he was known as “El Rey de Bajo”—the King of the Bass. Then there was my cousin, Edwin Morales, who is still one of the most swinging Baby Bass players on the island. I used to go to his gigs when I was 15 and help carry gear, and at the end of the night, he’d let me play on a tune. Last is Junior Irizarry, who was the top bassist on the island. I used to stalk him, showing up wherever he played, and he became a great friend and teacher. When I was 17, he quit the house band at the best hotel on the island, and because I was sitting behind him most nights, I got the gig. So there I was making top dollar and buying a car while still living at home and going to high school. One day Junior came to me with an application to Musicians Institute, and he said, “This is where you’re gonna go.” I was stunned, but he said, “You’ve reached your peak on the island. You’ll spend the rest of your life doing gigs like this, and trust me, it’s not going to satisfy your soul.” So we filled out the application on the spot, I sent an audition tape, got accepted, and I left for L.A. in September 1982.

What was the experience like?

It was life-changing. I had become aware of Stanley and Jaco while still in Puerto Rico, and I had read a Guitar Player interview with Abraham Laboriel that was particularly inspiring, but hearing teachers like Jeff Berlin, Bob Magnusson, and Tim Bogert play in person was a whole new world for me. I could read well, but at first I struggled in areas that were new to me, like playing a blues! I learned quickly, though, and by the time I graduated, I began as an instructor the next week. I also got to play regularly with important role models like Abraham, Justo Almario, and Alex Acuña. Still, I decided L.A. wasn’t for me, so I headed back to Puerto Rico in 1984, with the idea of stopping in New York for the weekend. Well, that turned into a ten-year stop!

How do you reflect on your New York days?

It was a great period. I re-connected with one of my childhood idols, Latin bass legend Sal Cuevas, who introduced me around and schooled me about players like James Jamerson, Chuck Rainey, Ron Carter, and Eddie Gomez. I met fellow bassists Rubén Rodríguez and Gene Perez, and we became an interchangeable trio on gigs and sessions. Within six months I was working with Willie Colón, Tania Maria, and Jorge Dalto. As a kid, I was always the one who put together music for the bands I was in, so that morphed into writing, arranging, and producing opportunities. Before I knew it, I was in charge of records for Willie, Celia Cruz, and two for Hector Lavoe. Then I auditioned for and spent five years with Spyro Gyra, which established me on the mainstream scene and led to my producing Two Amigos for GRP in 1990, with [flautists] Dave Valentin and Herbie Mann.

What brought you back to Los Angeles, where you’ve remained ever since?

A relationship I was in ended, so in late 1993 I came to L.A. just for the weekend, but when I called friends, they had gigs and sessions for me. My car sat at JFK for three months. Even the Northridge earthquake didn’t dissuade me! I went back to New York and got my stuff and moved to L.A. in early 1994. Soon after, Herb Alpert called me to write and produce his Passion Dance album, and I’ve had the tremendous good fortune to remain busy to this day.

How have your roots in Latin bass impacted your overall style, and what insight can you share?

I think of the instrument as a melodic drum, which is the traditional concept. In Latin bass, your rhythmic sensibility comes first. That’s primarily how you create a push-and-pull tension in the music, although you can accomplish it melodically, too. When I play other styles, I may draw from that knowledge and move something over by an eighth-note, and the band will react. That’s no different from an Anthony Jackson or Charlie Haden bringing their R&B or jazz knowledge to the Latin gigs they’ve done, contributing something new to the genre in the process. But I’ve worked hard to learn other styles authentically, as well. My list of credits proves I can play bass in any language, and that’s what all bassists should strive for.

I do have a tip I like to share when I’m asked how to play bass in a Latin rhythm section, where so much is going on: Think of all the percussion instruments as part of an elaborate drum kit—the congas are the bass drum, the timbales can be the hi-hat, the bongo cowbell the snare, and so on. In other words, listen to and play to the overall groove as a whole, just as you play to a drum kit without consciously breaking down and following each part of the kit individually.

Any other thoughts or words of advice?

I’ve always taken immense pride in my heritage and in helping to set a precedent for others with similar backgrounds to follow. I can remember sitting on my porch as a kid and playing along with records by artists whom I would eventually get to work with. I’d like any young bassist in any rural town anywhere in the world to know that you can do it, too. Limitations only come from within, so dream big. In everyone’s career, luck and talent will meet at some point. The key is to be as prepared as possible on the talent side so you can take advantage when that moment of luck and opportunity arrives. Having this album project come together, I feel like I’m entering another period of good fortune, and I’m going to make the most of it.

Bajo Profundo

Oskar Cartaya’s bass is his plucking passport as he journeys through Bajo Mundo delivering deep-seated world grooves, muscular melodies, fretless lyricsm, and upright girth. Example 1 contains the bass melody (written in half-time) of “Para Ti Latino,” at 0:20. Maintain a flowing sense, and let both notes ring at the end of bar 4 and start of bar 5. Example 2 shows the main four-bar phrase of “Trucky Paco,” first heard at 0:28. To match the horns on the unison lick in the second ending, think of it as two breaths—the first six notes and the last two.

Example 3 has Cartaya’s solo at the 3:38 mark of “Flamencocho,” which is written in four but felt in 6/8. In trading ideas with flamenco dancer Manuel Gutierrez on the track, Oskar plays a typical Flamenco rhythm for his descending arpeggios in bar 2. Remember to lay back for the final two descending phrases. Example 4 features three excerpts from Cartaya’s Baby Bass line on “Get Up.” The first two measures have the basic boogaloo bass line. The second two are an improvised step-away at 1:59—lay back on the quarter-note triplets. The last two show Oskar’s variation of the bass line (complete with the G harmonic) heard in the outro, beginning at 4:14. Finally, Ex. 5 contains four bars of the bass melody of “Tum Tum,” at 0:24. Not wanting to overdub a second part, Oskar keeps the bass line going in-between the melody, in bar 2 and the start of bar 3. Be aware of laying back on the melody but locking in the bass part.

INFO

LISTEN

Bajo Mundo [2016, Bajo Mundo Music]; My Music, My Friends, My Time [2004, O.Y.E.]; Carlos Rodgarman, The Rodgar Band [2016, Rodgarman Music]; Humberto Ramirez & Oskar Cartaya, Lifetime Friends [2015, Nilpo Music]; Herb Alpert, Passion Dance [1997, Almo Sounds]; Spyro Gyra, Fast Forward [1990, GRP]

EQUIP

Basses Sadowsky 1989 J-Style, Metro UV70, and NYC Will Lee; fretless Mayones Patriot 5-string; Kala California Acoustic/Electric U-Bass; Sire V7 5-string; Ampeg and Zorko Baby Basses; Lemur Stanley Clarke prototype acoustic bass (with Thomastik Spirocore Solo S43 strings, Gage Realist pickup, and German-style bow)
Strings La Bella RX Stainless Steel and Nickel-Plated (.045–.105) Amps Aguilar AG 500 or Tone Hammer head with SL 112 or SL 410X cabinet
Effects Assorted Dunlop and Aguilar pedals, Xotic X-Blender Other Hipshot XTender (on all 4-strings), Reunion Blues, Gruv Gear, GoGo tuner, D&A guitar stands
Recording Bajo Mundo REDDI Tube Direct Box to Manley 16x2 Tube Mixer to Manley Variable Mu Limiter/Compressor

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