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.