June 12, 2024


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From Cuban son to ‘Conga Soul,’ hear 10 highlights from Candido’s legendary career: Photos, Videos

At 99, Candido has witnessed and participated in the evolution of the son into salsa; the shift from swing to bebop; and the development of Latin jazz, the rise of rock ‘n’ roll, and so much more. 

Here are 10 examples — one for each finger on his legendary hands — that show the incredible variety of musical experience he’s had as both a sideman and a leader. More importantly, they display the groundbreaking innovations he has made to the art of percussion. Enjoy the ride.

Machito, “El Rey Del Mambo” (1948)

Candido’s first record date in the U.S., and it’s with the pioneers of Afro-Cuban jazz, the Machito Afro-Cubans. Listen to how he drives the rhythm with Puerto Rican Ubaldo Nieto on timbales and José Mangual, Sr., on bongó. It sounds so modern you’d think it was recorded today. And it was during a time when there no overdubs.

Billy Taylor Trio, “Different Bells” (1954)

Besides Dizzy Gillespie, virtuoso pianist Billy Taylor also embraced Afro-Cuban music. He even subbed for three months in the Machito Afro-Cubans. Candido here is featured on a set of bongó and one conga playing them simultaneously at the top in bolero rhythm, sounding like two players. Check out how he first solos on the bongó, then slowly incorporates the conga, going deftly going into double time and displaying his coordinated independence with form and development. It’s something that he was the first to develop on Afro-Cuban percussion.

Candido Camero, Candido’s Camera” (1956)

His first date as a leader in 1956. Candido employs the hard-driving Al Cohn on tenor saxophone, Dick Katz on piano, Whitey Mitchell on bass, Joe Puma on guitar and Ted Sommers on drums as they swing hard and take no prisoners on Sommers’ up-tempo minor blues. It’s named after the camera Candido had brought to the session. He gives a virtual master class on how to play congas in a jazz swing context. His solo is the topper, displaying chops, finesse, and theme and development — and it’s all on one conga!

Sonny Rollins, “Jungoso” (1962)

This date features Candido with tenor master Sonny Rollins. It’s fire from the jump, as Candido inspires Rollins to react to his powerful playing and fills while Bob Crenshaw’s bass tumbao holds down the fort. Check out what happens as they suddenly stop in mid-performance, yielding some incredible dialogue between Sonny and Candi. It foreshadowed some of the similar things that conguero Jerry González would later do with his brother Andy on bass.

Candido, “Conga Soul” (1962)

Although players like Ray Barretto, Ray Mantilla and Candido would all be asked to record on record dates with leading jazz players, it was Candido who was the first between them to become a leader on record dates in the jazz world. Here Jimmy Cleveland is featured on trombone while Candido dialogues with drummer Charlie Persip. The melody of this blues tune in 6/8 meter evokes West African-rooted ritual music as played in Cuba. But it’s Candido who is playing the melody. It’s another example of his several innovations: melodicism applied to the congas.

Tony Bennett NBC Special (1966)

Candido began appearing on television in the late 1950s. Although rock ‘n’ roll had had hit the scene in ‘56, jazz coexisted with pop and rock, and was still in the eye of the mainstream. A case in point: this big-budget Tony Bennett special for NBC.

Bennett was at the height of his powers and popularity, and his large orchestra featured the best jazz and studio musicians in New York. Candido’s segment begins at 52:20; he kills it with just one conga and a set of bongó between his legs, displaying one of his other innovations, solo playing all by himself. But I recommend watching the whole special. It’s a moment in time that will never ever be repeated, as jazz was still part of the lexicon of mainstream America. (Candido and Bennett are still the best of friends today; you can see their warmth after his segment here.)

Ellen McIlwaine, “Pinebo (My Story)” (1972)

Singer-songwriter Ellen Mcllwaine emerged on the Greenwich Village café scene in the 1960s, before forming the blues-rock band Fear Itself. Her solo debut, Honky Tonk Angel, was released on Polydor in ’72. Its Side B opens with a version of Guy Warren’s “Pinebo,” with Candido applying Afro-Cuban ritual rhythms to her performance. It’s trad and rad at the same time, demonstrating an interesting side of his career that most people don’t know anything about. (Special thanks to my wife, Elena Martinez, for hipping me to this track.)

Candido, “Jingo” (1979)

Few jazz or Latin musicians can claim a genuine pop hit. In this case, it was Candido striking gold with a Latin House / disco remake of Michael Olantunji’s “Jingo,” which had been a hit for Santana. Candido remembers: “I was doing a lot of studio work, jingles, etc., and the producers knew me from that world. They asked me to do it and I said yes.” The result has been a remake of a remake that is part of any smart DJ’s collection, and has made people rock the dance floor worldwide.

Alfredo Valdés, “Busca El Alfiler” (1985)

Cuban vocalist Alfredo Valdés is a legend in the tradition of the son (Cuban folk song). When he recorded again after a long absence, he asked none other than Candido to play the Cuban tres. There was one problem, as Candido recalls: “I told Alfredo, ‘Listen, I haven’t played in years.’ And worse, I didn’t even have an instrument! He told me not to worry, that the session was in a month and that he would get me one. He did, and I practiced for a month and did the session.” From the opening bars, you can tell Candido hasn’t missed a step. It’s an amazing display of cultural memory from a master. And as if that weren’t enough, check out his solo!

Bobby Sanabria Big Band, “Manteca” (2000)

I’ve known Candido since 1980, when we first met and played with the great Cuban pianist Marco Rizo’s big band and quartet. Since then, we’ve played literally hundreds of live gigs and recording sessions together. Here he is performing the Chano Pozo / Dizzy Gillespie classic “Manteca” live at Birdland with my big band. Keep in mind that Candido was 78 years old at the time off this recording. I’m on drums, and he’s pushing me! In true descarga (jam session) fashion, there are a lot of soloists. But the killer is “The Man of a Thousand Fingers.” Again, his clave consciousness and melodicism reign supreme.

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