Five Questions with Ray Vega

Ray Vega
Ray Vega

Native New Yorker, trumpeter, and composer Ray Vega is one of the innovators of the international jazz and latin music scenes. The Puerto Rican musician grew up immersed in the heart of two vibrant New York City music scenes,jazz and salsa. Vega has performed and recorded with Mongo Santamaria,Ray Barretto and New World Spirit, including the GRAMMY® nominated TABOO, and CONTACT. He was lead trumpeter with Tito Puente’s Latin Jazz Orchestra on the GRAMMY® winning MAMBO BIRDLAND, DANCEMANIA ’99, and OBRA MAESTRA. Vega has made his mark on the world of jazz, and latin-jazz. Ray Vega is an entertainer as much as he is a great star of the trumpet.

A person has to be careful when doing business with a company who is not really interested in the art form. – Ray Vega

Check out the list. Ray has played and or recorded with Joe Henderson,
Lionel Hampton, Mel Torme, Paquito D’Rivera, Arturo Sandoval, The Spanish Harlem Orchestra, Steve Turre, Israel Lopez “Cachao”, Las Leyendas De La Fania, Pete Escovedo, The Chico O’Farrill Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra, Jazz at Lincoln Center Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, Paul Simon, John Santos and The Machete Ensemble, Jose Jose, Sheila E., Yomo Toro, Anna Saeki, Frank
Foster’s Loud Minority Big Band, Diane Schuur, The Mike Stewart Big Band, Michel Camilo, Kirk Franklin, The Bob Belden Big Band, Dave Samuels and The Caribbean Jazz Project, Marco Antonio Muñiz, Jeanie Bryson, Eddie Palmieri, James “Jabbo” Ware and The Me, We and Them Orchestra, La Orquesta Sinfonica De Simon Bolivar, Sandro De Las Americas, The Mingus Big Band, The Duke Ellington Orchestra, The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, Bebo Valdez, and Celia Cruz, among numerous others.

Ray Vega with percussionist Julian Gerstin, Ph.D.
Ray Vega with percussionist Julian Gerstin, Ph.D.

Percussionist  Julian Gerstin says of the experience of playing with
Ray’s band: …I had the good fortune to accompany Ray a couple years ago when he was a guest artist at a summer camp, and because Ray is a friendly guy who remembers people. He calls me and Eugene to the stage for a descarga (jam). Now, during the past year Brattleboro has been graced with a new percussionist, William Rodriguez, a former instructor at the music conservatory in Santiago de Cuba, his
home town. William’s got chops like you would not believe. (If you’re familiar with the Cuban music education system, you know what I’m talking about.) I happen to know William is in the audience, so I whisper to Ray, “There’s someone else you should call up.” And, friendly guy that Ray is, he does. Now we’ve got three conga players and three drums, and that pretty much means we’re going to play guaguancó…It’s a fiery, complex rhythm with two support parts and one lead drum. Chembo and I give the lead drum to William, who takes off on a ridiculous solo. My part consists of, basically, one note per bar, but I’ve got to put it in exactly the right spot every time. Do you want to know what kind of lofty, creative thought is in my mind in a situation like this? “Don’t fuck up.”

Following Ray’s recording career, he has amassed an impressive collection of guest appearances and solo releases. Ray continues his legacy now with The Ray Vega Latin Jazz Quintet. This is Ray’s main project now, where, simply stated he presents “Fiery Latin Jazz from a Nuyorican perspective”. This group features: Zaccai Curtis/Piano – Andy Eulau/Bass – Willie Martinez/Drums – Chembo Corniel/Tumbadoras.

I first saw Vega play at a New York afro-cuban dance club in the mid-90’s. He was playing along with his longtime collaborator, the beautiful alto player, Bobby Porcelli, and the band was on FIRE. More than the fact that it was a beautiful summer night in NYC, or that we were a room full of writhing bodies moving to Ray’s vibe, Ray was FUN, and FUNNY. He is a great entertainer, making sure that everyone was having the time of their lives. Ray is just that one-of-a-kind type of performer. Ray Vega is as fun, as exciting to watch as Tito Puente, and as refreshing and powerful to listen to as Dizzy Gillespie or Mario Bauza.

Ray himself reminded me that we share a birthday, April 3. And that’s awesome. 🙂

Thanks to Ray for his time and expertise in answering FIVE QUESTIONS:

1) When I physically saw you last, you were recording for Concord
Records. How is life different in and out of a record label? Do you miss
being represented by a label, or do you like the freedom?

RV – I was signed to Concords Records from 1995 to 2001. While with Concord,
I released “RAY VEGA” in 1996 and “BOPERATION” in 1999. In 2001, I
signed with Palmetto Records where I released “Pa’Lante” in 2001 and
“Squeeze, Squeeze” in 2004. In 2010, I released “East-West Trumpet
Summit” along with trumpeter Thomas Marriott on the Origin Records
label. In 2014, I released “Chapter Two” on the Truth Revolution Records
(TRR) label. I’m currently in the planning stages for my next release on
TRR. I’ve been signed…..I’ve been not signed. To me, that doesn’t define
my worth as an artist. The music business is not always about
music……’s tricky out in the real world. I choose to take it all a
day at a time because you cannot allow an outside entity to have control
over the direction of your ART. To be honest with you, it was a
liberating feeling to receive my release from Concord when I was going
over to Palmetto. Concord went from being a real Jazz label to becoming
a pop label parading itself like a Jazz label. My “Boperation” release
was critically acclaimed……I wasn’t trying to dumb my music down……I’m
sure that they probably would have liked me to do boogaloo record. At
the time of my departure, they were quickly morphing into a company
which I didn’t recognize. A person has to be careful when doing
business with a company who is not really interested in the art form.
Remember, we’re talking about Jazz here. To me, a recording is a calling
card but most important, it’s a way to document your art at a given
time. As I get older, I realize that it’s vital to leave a musical
legacy for my children.

2) You’re a latin-jazz king. Speak about how you felt when they mixed
Latin-jazz into the main jazz category at the GRAMMY®’s. And then how
you felt when they brought it back? Do you feel that the awards process
is a fair one?

RV – I am not a King of any type. My kids can attest to this first hand. Haha
I am an artist and educator who stands on the shoulders of many great
artists who took the time to mentor me and paved the way for me and many
others to hone their crafts and continue to develop as artists. When
NARAS decided to drop the category, it didn’t surprise me. The business
as a whole has never really treated us as serious artists. There’s a lot
of lip service going on….it’s never stopped. It was nice that they
brought it back, but NARAS and GRAMMYs are not about talent…’s about
inner business politics and who’s schmoozing who. This is not sour
grapes. It’s merely my opinion based on years of observing the business.
So, to answer your question: No, I think the whole thing is a popularity
contest based on a whole lot of things which have nothing to do with
high art.

3) Would you talk a bit about practice? How often, what you do? How do
you keep your playing fresh? How do you practice when you’re on the

RV – I practice the trumpet daily. I play a series of daily warm-up routines
which vary depending on what I’m preparing for and or trying to develop.
I try to work on maintaining my chops……the game changes as one gets
older. I am constantly listening to music……some new things and some not
so new things. Listening to players like the great Dizzy Gillespie,
Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Bud Powell and Woody Shaw ( to name a
few) on a daily basis will make any musician realize that they have a
long road of development before them. I try to run through the following
on a daily basis: 1-Joy Spring 2-Cherokee 3-Giant Steps. I travel with a
practice mute which make practicing in a hotel room a little easier.

4) Can you speak about your gear, what type of horn, mouthpiece etc..
you play on? Has any gear ever made a substantial difference in your

RV – I’m currently playing a Bb trumpet manufactured and designed by some
friends of mine on the California. It’s called a Reeves-Stomvi USA
V-Raptor. Kudos to my old friends Bob Reeves, KO Skinsnes and Carlos
Miralles for developing this horn in the early 2000’s. My flugelhorn is
a Stomvi Elite manufactured in Valencia, Spain. My mouthpieces are
designed and manufactured by Stomvi USA. My current equipment has helped
to make trumpet performance a whole lot easier than it’s ever been.

5) As lead trumpet in Tito Puente’s & Ray Barretto’s bands you’ve
recorded GRAMMY® nominated and GRAMMY® winning projects. Isn’t it time for a GRAMMY® for Ray Vega as a solo artist? What projects do you have in the works? What short and long-term goals do you have?

RV – My last two recordings (East-West Trumpet Summit and Chapter Two) are
both straight ahead Jazz recordings leaning heavily on the Be-Bop sound.
They have both received serious acclaim. “East West Trumpet Summit”
actually hit number one on JAZZWEEKs nation wide Jazz radio listing in
June of 2010. “Chapter Two” recently received 3 and half stars in
Downbeat magazine. It would be nice to get a GRAMMY but I’m a realist. I
will continue to create regardless of the GRAMMYs. The people who are
my heroes created music for the sake of music, not to be released with
enough time to be eligible for this or any award.

My next solo CD will continue in the swing mode. I have a new recording
in which was produced in Seattle in May 2014. It’s another session
co-lead with trumpeter Thomas Marriott. It’s slated to be released in
the spring of 2015. After these 2 CDs are released, the next solo
production will lean heavily on the Latin side. My music is
Jazz—–sometimes it swings in a Bop mode…….sometimes it swings with a
Latin mode….nevertheless it’s JAZZ. I only wish that the people who are
not Latino who make a fortune releasing CDs and gigging under the banner
of Latin-Jazz would take the time to learn about the inner workings of
Afro Caribbean music. Hiding behind cats in the rhythm section that do
know the real deal is lame and those of us who know what’s up can hear
the BS a mile away. I’ve been at this game for a real long time. On the
other side of the coin, I long for the day where my last name will no
longer be a marker as to whether or not I can play Jazz. The reason why
my recent recordings are not Latin Jazz session is because I needed to
set the record straight. Yes…..I played and still play SALSA…..I know
what’s up when it comes to what Latin Jazz is and I can swing and play
changes. It’s a process. ☺





2 thoughts on “Five Questions with Ray Vega

  1. To be fare and balanced, I thinks it’s important for me to add something else:
    In my last statement, I made a mention concerning Jazz players who are not really schooled in the intricacies of Afro-Caribbean music taking full advantage of the popularity of Latin Jazz…….by the same token, I’m grower ever so tired of Latin cats wanting to put out recordings under the same banner of Latin Jazz while grossly ignoring some really basic principles and concepts of Jazz improvisation. “Salsa instrumental” is not Jazz. I consider myself to be a student of the music. A day doesn’t go by where I’m not engaged in the music in one form or another. Folks need to do their homework. You can’t play any music if you’re not committed to seriously listening to it.


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