People who fill our ears with melody and tempo.
The clear, bright sound of brass penetrates the rooftops, windows, and walls of every house in a tropical neighborhood just north of San Juan. It’s Soñando Con Puerto Rico, a song many of the island’s inhabitants have been singing by heart since childhood, radiating from the home of Humberto Ramirez — the prolific trumpet and flugelhorn player who’s headlined with such jazz greats as Herbie Hancock, Tito Puente, Freddie Hubbard, and Paquito D’Rivera.
“I can blow my horn like a crazy man,” he says, “and my neighbors don’t mind.”
Ramirez is somebody who performs nights and records days for weeks on end. A while back, the day after the final mix of his Portrait of a Stranger CD, his calendar was booked solid. He flew from San Juan to L.A. to squeeze a performance into a 17-hour stay, then was off to Miami, Orlando, Tampa, and Cleveland, sometimes also magnetizing impromptu appearances by other pros in town.
Four years of arranging and trumpeting with Willie Rosario’s Orchestra in Puerto Rico led to a 1986 Grammy nomination for the work he did on Rosario’s album, Nueva Cosecha. It also led to steady business with tropical jazz musicians, including Cheo Feliciano, Roberto Rohena, and Luis Enrique, and Latin pop artists such as Danny Rivera, Lucecita Benitez and Jose Feliciano, among many others.
Awards include Gold and Platinum Records, Apex Golden Reel, and a 3M Visionary for producing. Back in 1992, he went to Sony Music with his own, independently produced Jazz Project—the title of the CD and the name of the band he still works with—and was the first artist signed to their then-new label, Tropi-Jazz, followed by Tito Puente, Giovanni Hidalgo, and others.
A composer, Ramirez was, so to speak, born with a brass trumpet in his ear. That is, his father’s house guests and colleagues were the likes of Chino Gonzalez and Tito Rodriguez. Musical Director of the San Juan Orchestra, Humberto’s dad dashed his son’s dreams of reaching stardom in the NBA by taking the boy, who would one day grow to a towering 5’8″, with him to work. On his twelfth birthday, Humberto went to his father and asked for the flugelhorn that had been promised to him whenever he was ready. At age 14, Humberto performed professionally for the first time with some of the members of his old man’s orchestra. “What I am today,” he says, “what I know, what I have accomplished, is because of my father.”
Portrait of a Stranger, strangely enough, features some very familiar Caribbean pieces: Felipe Rosario-Goyco’s Madrigal and Bobby Capo’s Sonando Con Puerto Rico, Ramirez’s original jazz arrangements of traditional Puerto Rican folk songs.
He makes no secret about who the “stranger” in the portrait is. “Inside of every human being is someone strange,” he admits, not excluding himself. “There will always be things you can’t know about yourself.”
Portrait of a Stranger was the first time Ramirez included vocals. One was by Latin pop star, Lunna, the other a duet by Gilberto Santa Rosa and Tony Vega. Ramirez also orchestrated for big band, which he loves, with a tribute “To The King,” Tito Puente, and an arrangement of the American standard, My Funny Valentine.
Guests on Portrait of a Stranger include Dave Valentin, Russell Ferrante of the Yellowjackets, Mario Rivera, Ignacio Berroa, Oscar Cartaya, and Willie Rosario. The remaining performers are “Jazz Project,” the musicians who played on both of Ramirez’s previous CD’s, so they’re no strangers to Ramirez’s style, including the almost pioneering effect of combining strings with standard Afro/Latin/Caribbean sound. The strings on another one of Ramirez’s CDs, Aspects, are so lovely, they get you thinking he might be tapping into the time he spent studying film scoring at the Dick Grove School of Music.
If you can get out to the big city any time soon, chances are you’ll be able to hear what Humberto Ramirez is working on live. If not, you just might hop over to the island instead and catch a sound that couldn’t be more at home than the clear, bright soul of a native son’s trumpet. The neighbors “don’t mind.”
Fans of Humberto know this is an old review and that “Portrait of a Stranger” is not a recent release. So if you can update us on Humberto’s latest, please leave some comments, or log in and post.
Baby Rock-Star Drummer!
Name: Howard Wong
Age at time of recording: 3
Howard Wong is Chinese. Or at least it sounds like that’s the language his parents were speaking when he was about a year and a half old, sat down at a drum set, started accompanying his parents on tunes like “Old MacDonald Had A Farm” and was knocking out rock and roll standards like Joan Jett’s “I Hate Myself For Loving You” soon after that.
We’re told that in the video above, Howard is performing at the Sunway Carnival Mall in Penang, Malaysia, as Wong’s father plays lead guitar for the band. The family will probably post new video of Howard Wong when they’ve adjusted to and prepared for the potential of this overnight sensation!
Update 2018: Howard Wong is still going strong!
Have you ever been loved? I bet you have been loved so much and so deeply that you have become jaded about the enormity of the grace it confers. So let me remind you: To be loved is a privilege and prize equivalent to being born. If you’re smart, you pause regularly to bask in the astonishing knowledge that there are many people out there who care for you and want you to thrive and hold you in their thoughts with fondness.
Animals, too: You have been the recipient of their boundless affection. The spirits of allies who’ve left this world continue to send their tender regards, as well. Do you “believe” in angels and other divine beings? Whether or not you do, I can assure you that there are hordes of them beaming their uncanny consecrations your way. You are awash in torrents of love.
As tremendous a gift it is to get love, giving love is an equal boon. Many scientific studies demonstrate that whenever you bestow blessings on other people, you bless yourself. Expressing practical compassion not only strengthens your immune system and bolsters your health, but also promotes self-esteem, enhances longevity, and stimulates tranquility and even euphoria. As the scientists say, we humans are hardwired to benefit from altruism.
What’s your position on making love? Do you regard it as one of the nicer fringe benefits of being alive? Or are you more inclined to see it as a central proof of the primal magnanimity of the universe? I’m more aligned with the latter view.
Imagine yourself in the fluidic blaze of that intimate spectacle right now. Savor the fantasy of entwining bodies and hearts and minds with an appealing partner who has the power to enchant you. What better way do you know of to dwell in sacred space while immersed in your body’s delight? To commune with the Divine Wow while having fun? To tap into your own deeper knowing while at the same time gazing into the mysterious light of a fellow creature?
A lot of us are lucky enough to get hit with occasional strokes of genius. Not too many of us follow through and put a brilliant idea into form. And almost nobody:
- ceaselessly sees truths that habit and culture make most of us wholly blind to,
- leads revolutions in thought and lifestyle that (if we’re lucky) actually have the credible potential to transform us all into a species of happy beings,
- magnetizes an entire community of like-minded truth- (and beauty-) (and joy-) seekers who, like little lost lambs from a scattered herd, have been wandering, nameless and leaderless, for years,
- commands superior talent not just in literature but also in music,
- and prolifically — every single day — churns out art and philosophy of the highest quality.
But Rob Brezsny does.
It’s true, too, that genuinely unique beams of original light have been known to be overlooked by most of their contemporaries, praised by some, and scorned by others (maybe people who have either never attempted to do anything difficult, or have tried, given up, and, whining all the way, settled for the mediocrity Brezsny’s genius inspires us all to free ourselves from).
Rob Brezsny is one of the most talented, far-sighted, creative people of our day, and we wouldn’t be surprised if what he’s doing proves him to be one of the most creative, admirable, joy-inspiring people ever.
More power to you!