by: the Asbury Park Press
RICHARD SKELLY (CORRESPONDENT)
Ray Rodriguez hasn't let his passion for salsa and Latin jazz interfere with making a living.
By day, the saxophonist/composer/bandleader works in Manhattan for a small telecommunications company, installing phone systems.
At night and on weekends, he's out leading his dream band, Swing Sabroso, a nine-piece ensemble that plays his original compositions as well as standards from the worlds of Latin jazz and salsa.
Born in Puerto Rico and raised in Spanish Harlem, Rodriguez began playing saxophone when he was 16. He moved to Edison in 1988 and has been living in North Brunswick since 1999.
Interestingly, he began his musical career singing urban group harmony music — in English.
"I began with doo-wop groups, with my little pompadour," he recalled, "but in Spanish Harlem, they have such a rich Latin culture, it wasn't long before I began hearing the masters — Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri and the Machito Orchestra. I was also exposed to the heavy duty jazz guys, music I'm also passionate about, so I started listening to John Coltrane and Miles Davis.
"I grew up listening to all that great music, and in my heart of hearts, I always knew I wanted to be a musician. For some time, I didn't even know how to read music, but I pursued my passion, which is so important in life."
At the Oceanic Restaurant, Rodriguez will be accompanied by his big band, which includes Gil Velez on lead vocals, Eddie Muniz on trumpet, Khadafy Kahn on trombone, Mike Perez on piano, Luis Moreno on bass, Justino Vargas on congas, Carmelo Rios on timbales and Curtis Rodrguez on bongos.
In recent months, Rodriguez has started his own record label, World Stage Recordings, which he runs out of his home. Despite the fact that it can be a way to lose a lot of money in short order, he's actively seeking a distributor for his debut with Swing Sabroso, "Baila con Swing Sabroso" (Dance with Swing Sabroso).
Rodriguez's debut with the larger group, just out, includes pillars of the Latin jazz community, including Grammy-award winning flutist and bandleader Dave Valentin, trumpeter Ray Vega, percussionists Pablo "Chino" Nunez and Paqueno Johnny and guitarist Manny Pacheco.
"We cover tunes from the great masters, but we also showcase my original compositions," Rodriguez said.
The band does a medley of tunes in tribute to late bandleader Ray Barretto.
"We did the medley as a tribute to Ray because I was in the middle of production when he died," said Rodriguez. "It's just called "The Barretto Medley,' and it's three of his songs that were hits in different parts of his career."
Asked to comment on the differences between salsa and Latin jazz, Rodriguez said salsa is a dance-oriented music, whereas Latin jazz can be slower and more introspective.
"One of the nice things about salsa is it's been embraced by the world," he said. "I could not say it's "our music' anymore."