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
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."
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
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."
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 lpmusic.com for ordering information).
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.
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.
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."
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.
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."
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.
quotes taken from an interview conducted by Martin
Cohen in September of 2000.
by Jim McSweeney.