You may not know his name, but if you have enjoyed the music of The Tito Puente Orchestra, Machito and His Afro-Cubans or the Tito Rodriguez Orchestra, chances are you heard saxophonist Bobby Porcelli. Porcelli, a charter member of the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, is one of the musicians who will be honored by Arturo O’Farrill & the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra in their Tribute to the Great Sidemen of Latin Jazz, at Symphony Space in New York City, on January 29th and 30th.
Porcelli, who recalls his debut playing Latin music at the fabled Palladium Ballroom “late at night, after the main attractions had played,” has had an extraordinary career that includes recordings with George Benson, David Byrne, Eddie Palmieri and T.S Monk, but has long been defined by his long stints with the seminal bands of Afro-Latin jazz: The Tito Puente Orchestra, Machito and His Afro-Cubans and the Tito Rodriguez Orchestra. “Those bands were so good that I couldn’t answer if people ask me which one was better,” says Porcelli. “They each had a different style, but they all had big time players and great writing. They were wonderful.”
An unassuming mainstay of some of the great orchestras in Latin Jazz, Porcelli draws the musical portraits of those ensembles and their leaders in quick, broad strokes. “Tito Rodriguez was very formal,” he recalls. “You couldn’t just hang around with him, and also I was very young, then. That was my first of those big bands. The Tito Rodriguez Orchestra was very precise, very well rehearsed, very serious and the music had a little bit of a jazz feeling, as if the people writing for him had more of a jazz mentality.”
“When I got into Tito Puente’s band after being in Tito Rodriguez’s orchestra, for a few minutes I was a bit disappointed,” he says. “It didn’t sound to me like the writing was as good [as in Rodriguez’s band]. It didn’t have the same feeling. But then I started to realize the strengths of the band, how hard it was swinging and what a tremendous rhythm section it had with Tito and Bobby Rodriguez and Frankie Malabe congas. It was unbelievably great. In time, Tito Puente and I got to be very friendly. He loved jazz and he knew that I was a jazz musician so he liked talking to me. Later on when he had the smaller band, the jazz band, I was his jazz connection, I got a chance to get really involved, bring music to the band and he wrote things featuring me, something that was not very common. I was very honored by that.”
Then in 1965, Porcelli joined Machito and his Afro Cubans, led by singer and maracas player Frank “Machito” Grillo and under the musical direction of saxophonist Mario Bauzá. “Now, many of the original guys were still there and the band had that sound. From the first notes of the first song I was knocked out,” recalls Porcelli. “I remember sitting with all that sound around me thinking ‘This must be what it would sound like if I sat in with Duke Ellington’s band or Count Basie’s band.’ These were old pros who really knew how to play this music. It was just great.”
For young writers, players and fans of this music, Porcelli has a very simple note of advice: “If you are trying to write or play, jazz, big band music or Latin jazz, listen to the people who know how to do it. Listen to those records. Go to hear them play. I was lucky that I grew up at a time when I could still hear the masters of this music. I learned so much from them …”
This post also appeared on The Afro Latin Jazz Alliance blog