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Nelson Gonzalez

Martin Cohen met Nelson Gonzales in 1972 at Club La Mancha in New York. Nelson was preparing for a recording date with Cachao, and Martin asked if he could show up and take some pictures. The session, which took place at Rockefeller Center, brought together a veritable who's who of the great players of the era: Patato, Papaito, Virgilio Marti, Negro Vivar, Chocolate, Lino Frias, Cachao, and Nelson. It was this recording date that sparked Martin's interest in initiating a series of albums featuring the great names in Latin music. Nelson Gonzales turned out to be a crucial element without whose participation and diligence that series of history-making recordings might not have taken place. When Martin interviewed Nelson at the LP, studios, he asked him to reminisce about how those recordings came about.

"I remember you had a vision of making an album with all these masters playing LP, instruments. You talked to Patato and told him you didn't want a big band like Cachao, you wanted just drums. And Patato said certainly. And you came and thanked me for helping bring this recording about. Then Patato said to me, come and be part of the recording because the tres is part of the rhythm section. And I was honored to play with these masters but I didn't realize then that we were making history."

Yet, history was made with these recordings. The first album, "Authority" was the all rhythm album that Martin had envisioned. But the follow-up, "Ready for Freddy", was a different story.

"The first album was just drums. But at the time of the second album, Martin was going on vacation and he said, Nelson, can you pull this through for me? And what I wanted to do was have this powerful LP, album, the LP, conjunto. A hit tune from that second album was called "La Ambulancia", and we actually had to wait outside with a microphone until an ambulance or a fire truck went by so we could record the siren."

The recordings were done in Ralph McDonald's newly completed studio, and Martin remembers that Nelson was the one who stayed focused the entire time, the one who took care of business. Out-of-print for years, these albums are once again available on CD (contact for ordering information).

Sometimes mastering an unusual skill or instrument lands you in the spotlight. More often it leads to underappreciation due to lack of familiarity with the instrument. How many great flugelhorn players can anyone name compared to trumpet or sax. Nelson Gonzales understands this only too well. Born and raised in Puerto Rico, he straddles the generation of current young players and the old pioneering masters such as Mongo Santamaria and Armando Peraza, who infused Latin music into the American consciousness. These days it doesn't take more than a glance at the pop music charts to get how strongly the Latin vibe is permeating the entertainment scene. But Nelson's instrument is not the timbales or congas associated with the genre's great names like the late Tito Puente or Patato. Nelson plays the tres.

The tres is the national instrument of Cuba, and at first glance you'd probably call it a guitar. As Nelson is quick to point out though, it's not a guitar but it does come from the same family. It has a different sound, different shape, and has a different purpose musically. It also differs from a standard guitar in that the strings are tuned in pairs. According to tradition the tres was only used for certain types of music. Nelson however, has been the leading exponent of making it an instrument heard on all kinds of music. In addition to playing and recording the tres with such contemporary Latin artists as Gloria Estefan and Marc Anthony-his regular gig-he also has an instruction book coming out from Mel Bay Publications on playing the tres and an instructional video as well. His main goal is firmly establishing this instrument as part of the rhythm section.

"I'm doing an album of just tres and drums with the young players, the young masters. And I want to integrate this instrument, which is from the guitar family, into the drums and percussion. Hopefully I'll get to do it."

Martin noted that even though the tres is the national instrument of Cuba, Nelson's was made in Puerto Rico. The declining economy of Cuba perhaps contributing to the dearth of quality musical instruments and drums being made there.

"I think that right now they're making the best tres in Puerto Rico. They do make them in Cuba, but this is an instrument that has to sound good acoustically. You could take a guitar and turn it into a tres, but you would not get the sound you need to play acoustically. These are not really mass-produced. The tres I have with me cost around $800. But I have others that cost $2000-3000. This is the one I can throw around and I have to put a plastic pick guard on it to protect it because I scratch it when I play."

Since he plays an instrument whose role in Latin music is not well understood; recognition has not come as easily to Nelson Gonzales as to some of his contemporaries. But make no mistake about his place in the pantheon of great player. When he rattles off the names of the great masters of music he has worked with, his own name should always be included. And how many others besides Nelson have worked with both the old and new generations of masters. He is now not only playing with one of the hottest bands in the world; he is a big part of the show. Anybody who catches Marc Anthony in concert can't help but be spellbound by this diminutive player who often handles his instrument like a reincarnation of Jimi Hendrix. And when they get around to inducting players into the Latin Music Hall of Fame, Nelson Gonzales should be a shoe-in on the first ballot.

All quotes taken from an interview conducted by Martin Cohen in September of 2000.

Written by Jim McSweeney.