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St. Petersburg Times

The Little Garage Band That Could


June 27, 2003
Copyright © 2003 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved. 

GULFPORT -- Gumbi Ortiz has played percussion for some of the greatest names in jazz - Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Nat Adderley, Chick Corea, Gato Barbieri and, for the past 16 years, Al Di Meola.

He's pounded the congas and laid down Afro-Cuban beats on more than 200 albums for other acts. But he's never had a record contract of his own.

So when a deal landed in his lap this month, he had to laugh.

He wasn't even trying to get signed.

Ortiz, 46, had simply put together a four-song demo with his local group, the Latino Projekt. He wanted to keep the young guys excited about playing in the band, especially since he tours worldwide six months a year with jazz guitarist Di Meola.

"We were just going to make a CD to sell at our gigs," Ortiz says. "No big deal."

Then, without telling Ortiz, Tom White and Phil Benito of Skipper's Smokehouse in Tampa mailed the demo to a New York-based independent record label they knew, 333 Entertainment.

The brass at 333 liked the sound, a high-octane blend of Latin street music, rhumba, World Beat and improvisation.

So, barely two weeks ago, Ortiz found himself in 333's executive office in Manhattan, getting wooed with a contract offer that includes plans for video, initial pressing of roughly 10,000 CDs, worldwide distribution and touring.

But the offer wasn't just directed at him.

It was also for the group: bassist Kenny Walker, a water-meter reader for the city of St. Petersburg; drummer Frank Martinez, who works in customer service for Pinellas County Animal Services; keyboardist Jeremy Douglass, a full-time musician; singer Freddy Montes, a local music teacher and veteran performer from Cuba; and trombonist Frank Williams, band director at Boca Ciega High.

They can't quit their day jobs, but they'll all likely have a chance to play shows nationally in support of the album, try to create a buzz and make some extra cash.

Ortiz doesn't have to worry about a day job - he has been making "a comfortable living" for nearly two decades, most with Di Meola, a notorious taskmaster with whom many players wouldn't last a month.

"Al can yell and be really hard on the younger players, but I'll go up to them and say, "Hey, don't worry, if you're here the next day, you're fine,' " he says. "Al and I work well together. I think it's my South Bronx sensibility. Nothing fazes me."

In a recent story in Web publication Innerviews, Di Meola was asked about his demanding approach as band leader and said, "These are not seasoned players. Our percussionist Gumbi Ortiz is, but the rest of them need a lot of guidance."

Ortiz grew up poor in the Bronx; his father had emigrated from Puerto Rico, his mother from Cuba. He learned the congas just to keep up with his cousins, but he was the one with the gift.

"I come from very humble beginnings, so I have a great appreciation for the things I have," he says.

His group has humble roots as well.

"At first, we weren't a band," says Ortiz, who moved to Tampa in 1980, St. Petersburg in '84 and into a little home in Gulfport seven years ago."It was just some guys in my garage who wanted to learn to play Cuban music. They were my friends, just kids. They wanted to learn to put this Cuban vibe into their own bands."

Ortiz relished the teacher role. "I can't keep information to myself - I have to pass it on," he says. When he developed diabetes in the mid-'90s, Ortiz cut back on touring with Di Meola for a time and concentrated on molding his young players, helping Douglass master the montuno (the basic phrase in Latin piano), Martinez the Latin rhythm known as the clave and Walker the distinctive bass grooves.

They got some gigs at a seafood restaurant in St. Petersburg, then gelled at a Sarasota club called Fandango's, playing every Thursday. "That's where we became a band, where they went from being guys in my garage to my equals in stage," Ortiz says.

Because of Ortiz's heavy tour schedule with Di Meola, finding regular bookings was a challenge. So Ortiz came up with the idea of an album for the players to remain focused. In 2000, they had made a live recording, but now Ortiz wanted to "keep the guys busy" by trying something more ambitious.

The work began in late 2001 at Ortiz's bustling house. He and wife Yvonne have a 7-month-old daughter named Gabriella Simone, and five other kids from previous marriages: Julio, 13; Darrain, 16; and three who live elsewhere, Eric, 25, Mark, 23, and Michelle, 22. "We're like the Brady Bunch," he jokes.

His house has several Macintosh computers equipped with the latest recording hardware and software, plus a sound module called a MOTU 896 that converts live sound into digital music on the computer.

"My dad was a big Chevy man, and I'm a Mac man," Ortiz says, giving Gabriella a bottle on a recent morning with his wife at work. "So I told the guys, "We're going to make a record, but you all have to buy Macs.' "

Martinez bought his computer first and programmed all of the drum parts onto it (called sequencing). That served as the foundation. Walker and Douglass soon got their computers, so work could be done at different houses, and they could e-mail song files back and forth. The players refined their parts, then recorded them via the 896 to the Mac. Finally, Martinez added live drums, with Ortiz mixing out most of the sequenced parts.

The songs were written by Ortiz, but the group added its own flavor. Montes penned many of the lyrics, Douglass shaped the melodies and harmonies, and Martinez took the lead as producer. The result will be a 13-14 track album called No Es Como Ayer (It Isn't Like Yesterday).

"We're looking at it guardedly right now," says Douglass. "A lot of people can say they got a record deal, but probably a lot more are sitting around, saying wistfully, "We had a record deal.' There's still a lot of work to do. This is just step one."

The plan is for 333 to take the album as is.

"I guess the main thing is that the music is so much fun to listen to," says Brian Mackewich, a partner at 333. "If you like world music or Afro-Cuban, I don't think there's anybody doing it as fresh as these guys are. It's not pop, but it feels modern, and there are parts that are just a flat-out breakdown. Plus, they're using some new technology to give life to a very traditional style of music."

He says the label is discussing a pre-Christmas release for the album.

Ortiz recalls a point in his meeting with 333 when the conversation took on a business-like tone he wasn't comfortable with:

"I said, "Listen, I don't care about none of this; I actually don't care if we make this record.' Because I'm satisfied. I've done what I wanted to do in music. This album will mean more work to me, more time away from my children, more headaches.

"But I do want to take care of my guys. Because I taught them about fairy dust, about what a poor kid from the Bronx can do. That if you work hard and believe in yourself, good things will happen."

Gumbi Ortiz, who grew up in the Bronx, learned the congas to keep up with his cousins. "I come from very humble beginnings, so I have a great appreciation for the things I have," he says.

Latin/Afro-Cuban percussionist Gumbi Ortiz juggles his music and family life. He's on the road six months out of the year with guitarist Al Di Meola. At home in Gulfport, he and his wife have daughter Gabriella Simone, 7 months, left, plus two teenage children. Amid all this, his local band, Gumbi Ortiz and the Latino Projekt, has created its own album and signed with a label.

The Latino Projekt brings its blend of Latin street music, rhumba, World Beat and improvisation to the Garden restaurant in St. Petersburg. Featured from left are drummer Frank Martinez, singer Freddy Montes, Gumbi Ortiz on congas, bassist Kenny Walker (behind Ortiz), keyboardist Jeremy Douglass and trombonist Frank Williams.

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