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The Hartford Courant
Riffs: Ed Fast at Baby Grand
January 21, 2012
by Owen McNally

As the percussion playing leader of Conga-Bop, the hard-swinging Latin jazz ensemble, Ed Fast has become a celebrated figure in town through his band’s many well-received appearances in Hartford, including its soulful, sizzling sessions at The Firebox Restaurant.

As a versatile, Hartt School-trained percussionist, Fast is also right at home sitting-in on occasion with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, touring with premier Broadway road shows throughout Russia,> China, Japan and South Korea, or gigging in backup bands at Foxwoods or Mohegan Sun accompanying big-name, casino favorites like Aretha Franklin and Paul Anka.

Besides being a bandleader, composer, arranger and much-in-demand utility player, Fast is a multi-instrumentalist who not only plays drums but also timbales, congas and, far too rarely, vibes, a weighty, bulky but beautiful mallet percussion instrument he dearly loves but loathes to lug to gigs.

“Vibes is a great instrument, but if I’ve got to chose between drums or vibes it’s a real problem because I can’t fit them all in the car for one thing. And, besides, a lot of clubs just don’t have the kind of space they need,” Fast says by phone from his Hartford home.

For The Hartford Public Library’s enormously popular, admission-free “Baby Grand Jazz” series, Fast is putting the drums aside for the moment and packing his beloved vibraphone into his car and driving it to his vibes-centered concert with his quintet Sunday at 3 p.m. in the downtown library’s scenic atrium, 500 Main St.

Helping the mallet master bring good vibes to the “Baby Grand Jazz” series will be Jesse Hameen, a timbales wizard from New Haven; George Fuentes, congas; Sam Parker, piano; and Matt Dwonszyk, bass.

“We’re going to do a lot of Latin jazz featuring the vibes, mostly things by Cal Tjader and Tito Puente, some originals and one number that the great vibraphonist Milt Jackson liked to play a lot, Horace Silver’s ‘Opus de Funk.’ We’ll add a couple horns with a few special guests on a couple numbers.” Fast says.

As a junior high school student and budding percussion player, Fast, who was born in Albany and grew up in Old Lyme, took marimba lessons as his first step towards playing vibes. As busy as he is playing drums with Conga-Bop or in Broadway pit bands, he retains his deep affection for vibes, an instrument that gives him the opportunity to express melodic and harmonic ideas.

Fast’s love for Jackson, a premier jazz vibraphonist, goes back to when he was a kid discovering the world of possibilities in jazz.

“Milt Jackson was the first vibes player that really knocked me out playing with Thelonious Monk on ‘Willow Weep for Me.’ I sat down and transcribed the whole thing, note-for-note,” he recalls.

But it was the swinging, sophisticated music of vibist/bandleader Cal Tjader that sparked his passion for Latin jazz, the musical love of his life. What got him hooked, he says, were Tjader’s arrangements with their meticulous attention to detail, along with the varied rhythms and array of percussion instruments that powered the Tjader band.

“Cal had some of the best percussionists in his band, including, Mongo Santamaria, Willie Bobo and Poncho Sanchez, who now leads his own great Latin band. And there was my buddy, the legendary Bill Fitch, who’s passed away now but played in that band.”

As a special tribute to Fitch, a musician with a brief, skyrocketing career and a tragic fate, Fast will play the late, great conga player’s renowned composition, “Insight,” as his quintet’s grand finale at the library.

Fitch, who vanished from the scene at the peak of his fame in the 1960s, several decades later played an informal mentor-like role in Fast’s unending quest to explore the open-ended expressiveness of Latin jazz. Fitch, who died in his late 60s in 2010 in Hartford, had been widely celebrated for his superb conga solo on his now canonical composition, “Insight,” which appeared on Tjader’s classic 1963, Verve album, “Sola Libre.”

Fitch’s solo on “Insight” and the piece itself inspired Fast so profoundly that the then young musician sat down and transcribed the exciting number note-for-note.

Years later, in the mid-1990s, Fast, who had long wondered what had become of the elusive, mysterious Fitch, hooked up with the once celebrated conguero in New Haven where the Elm City native had become a non-person, living obscurely in his hometown far removed from his glory days with Tjader.

“At some point Bill fell on hard times in California,” Fast says of his friend’s unraveling fate.

“He lost his gig with Cal and wound up staying in flop-houses in Haight-Ashbury, on a sailboat at a marina in Sausalito, and in the mountains in Tucson, Ariz. Bill eventually received a one-way ticket to New York through a program that Tucson ran to try and deal with the homeless situation out there.

“Back in New York, Bill was strung-out for a while and was assaulted while staying in a shelter. He was picked up by a cabbie and checked into Bellevue, where he said he met the most interesting people and the food was delicious.

“Eventually, Bill made it back to New Haven where he was suffering from what he described as a nervous breakdown. He suggested that I should never have one. ‘Your nerves,’ he said, ‘feel like ground-up glass.’

“As far as I know, Bill did not play professionally for close to two decades until we met in the mid-1990s.”

Fast ushered his fallen idol back into the music, bringing him to Hartford from New Haven for gigs and to hang out with the talent-laden family of the Curtis brothers. Fitch, he says, was astounded by the phenomenal bass playing of the then 9-year-old Luques Curtis.

“Bill’s first gig with my group, which was called Home Cookin’ at that time, was at The Hartford Public Library on New Year’s Eve, maybe in 1996,” Fast recalls of his personal project to get Fitch back in the groove again.

“I have that recorded on video cassette, along with another one of his appearances with us at the library. We also played at the Wadsworth Atheneum, the Hartford and the New Haven Festivals of Jazz and the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival at the Hill-Stead Museum.”

On his acclaimed Conga-Bop CD, “Straight Shot,” released in 2007, Fast even featured Fitch as a special guest artist.

Musically, Fast says, he learned much from watching Fitch play, absorbing the forgotten old master’s wisdom about everything from the fine art of phrasing to the dynamics of tone.

“Bill was a fantastic musician, close friend and a truly amazing human being. We had some great times together,” Fast says.

Sunday marks Fast’s debut in the “Baby Grand Jazz” series,” which has been drawing enthusiastic, overflowing crowds with its free, one-hour Sunday matinees. Its 2012 season opener on Jan. 8 attracted nearly 400 or, by one count, 441 people gathered in the atrium performance space, by far the series’ biggest, most dramatic turnout since it was launched in 2004.

“I went to that opening concert and the library was absolutely packed with people. People were standing in the atrium where they had to bring in extra seats. There was even a big crowd of onlookers looking down on the concert-goers, hanging over the railing on the level above,” Fast says enthusiastically.

“It’s such a great thing for Hartford! And with that terrific turnout, it just goes to show that jazz is very much alive!”

Copyright © 2012, The Hartford Courant

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The Hartford Courant
Ed Fast, Conga-Bop Jazz It Up at Asylum Church
February 28, 2010
by Chuck Obuchowski

Drummer Ed Fast carried his Conga-Bop septet through two sets of lighthearted Latin jazz at Hartford's Asylum Hill Congregational Church Friday. Moreover, he added a dramatic element to the concert by recounting his personal musical journey in words and photographs.

The slide show -- complete with brief but compelling narrative -- was a brilliant stroke by Fast. He probably surmised that some in the audience wouldn't be familiar with Hartford's vibrant jazz scene, so he offered snippets of local and international jazz history as a way to introduce many of the pieces played by Conga-Bop.

Perhaps Fast's most affecting recollection centered on one of his unsung heroes, conga master Bill Fitch, who enjoyed a brief period of acclaim during the 1960s before vanishing from the jazz scene. Fast tracked Fitch down in New Haven and coaxed him out of retirement for a time. Conga-Bop performed a festive version of Fitch's "Insight," a tune made famous by vibraphonist Cal Tjader in 1963.

Conga-Bop's co-founder, conguero Jorge Fuentes, worked in tandem with Fast all night to provide the rhythmic heartbeat that sustains the group. His conga solo during "Do or Die," an original by Fast, provided one of the concert's most captivating moments. All three members of the horn section also doubled on small percussion instruments, adding to the dance-inducing nature of this music.

Trumpeter Jim Hunt took the spotlight on "The Last Bullfighter," a mercurial tune that opened the second set. His Spanish-tinged horn blasts rang with the machismo one would expect to encounter in a bullring. Tenor saxophonist Chris Herbert another Conga-Bop veteran, functioned as the septet's primary melodicist; his sultry statement during the Gershwin classic, "Summertime," was especially endearing.

"Summertime" also gave Hartt School of Music sophomore Shenel Johns an opportunity to show off her impressive vocal range. Johns remained onstage for a surprisingly uptempo version of "Days of Wine and Roses." She's a young lady with a bright future, if her cameo at AHCC was representative of her capabilities.

Johns' participation touched on another important facet of Ed Fast's artistry: his willingness to nurture young talent. Quite a few of the photos he displayed included Hartford's Curtis Brothers, and their circle of young musical associates. Fast mentored these musicians from the time they were children, and he spoke like a proud father of their current nationally recognized endeavors.

Similarly, Fast has recently invited Hartt student Dave Julian to join the group on trombone, and Julian rose to the occasion Friday with consistently solid horn work. His trombone teacher at the University of Hartford, Steve Davis, has often performed with Conga Bop.

Fast's talent scouting recalls that of another drummer, Art Blakey, whose Jazz Messengers band served as a musical university for several generations of outstanding improvisers. Conga-Bop's bassist, Matt Dwonszyk, just 19, sounded right at home in this highly charged percussive setting. Pianist Dan Campolieta, a 2008 UConn grad, serves as organist at AHCC, but his formidable jazz chops resounded throughout the sanctuary during Friday's concert.

The leader's desire to share credit with his colleagues did not diminish his contributions to Conga-Bop's music. He directed the band from center stage, standing behind two timbales, two cowbells and a cymbal. The group played six of his originals, including "Straight Shot," the title track from their 2007 debut recording. Fast's percolating rhythms bolstered each piece, even though he didn't step out to solo until the evening's closer, "Quest."

Conga-Bop encored with a euphoric take on the New Orleans second-line grooves of Marcus Printup's "The New Boogaloo." The snowy night air seemed just a little warmer after that fabulously funky send-off.

Ed Fast and Conga-Bop will perform at the Firebox Restaurant, 539 Broad St., Hartford on Wednesdays, March 24 and March 31, from 8-11 p.m. For details, phone 860-246-1222, or visit www.fireboxrestaurant.com.

Copyright © 2010, The Hartford Courant
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The Latin Jazz Corner
Spotlight: Straight Shot, Ed Fast and Conga-Bop
April 21, 2010

The Spotlight Series highlights upcoming Latin Jazz musicians that have yet to reach national recognition. Many of these musicians thrive in local scenes and some tour in support of releases. All these musicians contribute greatly to the overall Latin Jazz scene, and they deserve our “spotlighted” attention.

Straight Shot, Ed Fast and Conga-Bop
The words straight-ahead get thrown around a lot in the jazz world, often leaving a lack of clarity to the concept behind the phrase. Many people associate straight-ahead playing with the use of swing rhythms and standard repertoire from the thirties and forties. Jump into a tune like “All The Things You Are” at a medium swing tempo and many people will classify the performance as straight-ahead. In a related sense, this concept of straight-ahead also correlates to an old school approach to the music. For many musicians, a straight-ahead interpretation of jazz sits in the past and lacks the hip nature of modern jazz. Both of these ideas allude to a certain type of music, referencing it without describing it too accurately. A better way to frame the idea of straight-ahead might redirect the words towards an aesthetic approach to performing jazz rather than a stylistic description. In this light, straight-ahead jazz includes a clearly defined link to history and tradition without diving into esoteric musical grey areas. Musicians could play swing, Afro-Cuban, Brazilian, or funk rhythms underneath jazz harmonies, but as long as they clearly presented the music in a traditional fashion, they’re still straight-ahead. Following this idea, drummer Ed Fast and his group Conga-Bop delvers some outstanding straight-ahead Latin Jazz on Straight Shot , mixing original compositions and standards into a memorable performance.

Strong Originals That Fuse Hard Bop and Afro-Cuban Rhythms
Fast leads his group through a number of uptempo originals, fusing bluesy hard bop with Afro-Cuban rhythms. The rhythm section establishes a driving rumba guaguanco beneath thick chordal patches from the wind players on “Encarnación,” leading into a menacing minor melody that sets a serious tone. Pianist Zaccai Curtis sends the rhythm section into high gear with a powerful montuno, inspiring saxophonist Chris Herbert into an energetic series of racing improvised lines. Curtis enthusiastically charges into an intelligent statement that plays off the rhythm section before laying down a montuno for an explosive solo from conguero Jorge Fuentes. Bassist Luques Curtis provides a slyly funky bass line before the complete rhythm section jumps into a medium tempo cha cha cha on “Straight Shot,” setting the stage for a laid back blues melody. Trumpet player Joel Gonzalez attacks his improvisation with a combination of bop flavored lines and short staccato notes, while trombone player Steve Davis mixes rhythmic jabs with legato phrases. Guitarist Greg Skaff cleverly mimics Davis and builds upon that initial idea with a blazing display of hard bop virtuosity, creating a masterful statement. Luques Curtis introduces “Once Upon a Time” with a lyrical bass figure over an uptempo son montuno that becomes the basis for an uplifting melody. Herbert moves onto flute for an engaging solo that grows through smart thematic development which transitions into a busy improvisation from Skaff that winds nimbly through the chord changes. After a return to the main melody, bongocero Esteban Arrufatt takes a quick improvisatory flourish, leading into an attention grabbing statement from Fast on timbales, who displays a knowledge of authentic phrasing and technique. The wind players ride through a melody full of short edgy phrases on “Ring Side” that comes alive through sharp chordal stabs from the rhythm section. A bluesy pick-up from Gonzalez leads into a soulful improvisation, followed by a series of interconnected ideas from trombonist James Burton. Zaccai Curtis slides through a quick improvisation with a modern edge, leading into an interesting moña and a blazing solo from Skaff. These pieces strongly display Fast’s composition skills, that show defined personality while paying respects to Afro-Cuban and bop traditions.

Clever Arrangements of Classic Jazz Tunes
Fast includes arrangements of classic jazz tunes into his repertoire, presenting them with clever arrangements. The rhythm section establishes an assertive 6/8 rhythm with a bluesy swing on Lee Morgan’s “Boy What A Night,” framing the melody with a soulful edge. The rhythm section builds into a scorching heat behind Gonzalez as the trumpet player bounces his improvisation around the rhythmic basis. Davis follows with an impassioned fire, inspiring response from the rhythm section, while Zaccai Curtis tears through a blues fueled statement. The wind players provide gentle rhythmic hits over a bolero on Bill Evans’ “Detour Ahead” while Fast reflectively interprets the melody on vibes. Davis dances through a tender improvisation full of vitality that touches on both the sentimental and lively aspects of the song. The glistening sound of Fast’s vibes sparkle through a brief, but beautifully crafted statement, gracefully leading back into the main melody. These pieces connect Fast and his group with jazz history and finds them working creatively to place that history into an Afro-Cuban context.

Original Compositions From Fast’s Collaborators
Two of Fast’s collaborators contribute original compositions to the group, adding some variety and flair to the set. Zaccai Curtis lays down a catchy montuno with a bluesy dissonance behind a relaxed floating melody from the wind players on Davis’ “Blue Domain.” Herbert tears into his improvisation with an energetic zeal, followed by a thoughtfully soulful statement from Zaccai Curtis, and an engagingly understated solo from Gonzalez. Skaff jumps into a tasteful solo filled with bluesy licks, until Davis builds some momentum with an energetic solo, and Luques Curtis displays a strong percussive approach to melodic development. Legendary Latin Jazz musician Bill Fitch establishes a somberly serious tone on piano on his composition “Cuban Lament,” placing a classically elegant melody over a slow Afro rhythm. Fitch plays upon the melody with bluesy embellishments, playing with an insightfully understated touch that complements the entire setting. Fitch echoes the percussion with a vamp that serves as a foundation for a beautifully structured improvisation from Luques Curtis, leading back into an expressive return to the melody. The addition of more compositional voices add some variety to group’s repertoire, while reinforcing the overall sound of the ensemble.

A Distinct Artistic Identity Built Upon Historical Precedent
Fast and Conga-Bop present a lively set of straight-ahead Latin Jazz on Straight Shot , creating an appealing musical mixture that glistens with jazz class and Afro-Cuban flair. Fast emerges as a compelling band leader throughout the album, delivering memorable compositions, authentic performances, and a defined concept. As a writer, Fast comes from the hard bop school of bluesy melodies, rich chord structures, and marked rhythm section accompaniment. He cleverly combines this ideal with Afro-Cuban rhythms, placing everything clearly around the clave, creating a stylistic coherence that strengthens the music. Fast sits behind the drum kit with a keen eye on supporting the music, always keeping things aligned rhythmically, but never overstepping his role. This type of band leading sets the stage for some dedicated performances from his musicians, who feel the freedom to express themselves within the defined setting. Zaccai Curtis contributes some outstanding solos that leap out of the recording, overflowing with artistic identity. Skaff adds a skilled bop edge to the music with attention grabbing solos, and Luques Curtis consistently provides unwavering support throughout the album. The presence of Bill Fitch links the group to the greater Latin Jazz legacy, bringing his taste and experience into the mix. Fast and Conga-Bop take the best pieces of a straight-ahead Latin Jazz approach and blend them into an enjoyable musical collection on Straight Shot , leaving us with a clear picture of a group with a distinct artistic identity built upon a strong knowledge of historical precedent.
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The Latin Jazz Corner
Latin Jazz Conversations: Ed Fast (Part 1)
May 26, 2010

Ed FastLocal music scenes across the United States are home to musicians that have found national recognition, but in most cases, the heart and soul of that music scene can be found elsewhere. While major names bring attention to a local music scene and often help sell concert tickets or recordings, their contributions to the actual artistic development of the scene can be inconsistent. These musicians are focusing their creative endeavors upon producing a product that reaches listeners outside their local scene, largely through travel, concerts abroad, and streams of recorded works. While they may perform in their local scene, their presence just isn’t consistent enough to make a genuine grassroots impact. The daily act of creating music within a community shapes the aesthetics of that music scene, and it requires a group of artists that spend the majority of their time in the trenches of that region. The musicians that perform in the nightclubs, work in the symphonies, teach in the schools, and play on the streets create the area’s musical character. They feel the pulse of the community, and they find ways to translate that into their artistic output. They reflect upon the needs of their community, discover the best ways to deliver a musical solution, and then do the long hard work to make it a reality. These are the musicians provide an area’s artistic heartbeat, and they should be celebrated with enthusiastic appreciation.

Drummer Ed Fast has helped shape the heart and soul of the music scene around Hartford, Connecticut for many years, sharing his love for Latin Jazz and more. A Connecticut native, Fast found a love for music at an early age, both at home and in school. He eventually connected with drums and percussion, a path that led him into collegiate music studies at The Hartt School Of Music. During his time in college, Fast studied with master percussionist Alexander Lepak, who encouraged him to dive into percussion instruments across the musical world. Fast took this lesson to heart, spending time mastering symphonic percussion, mallets, drum kit, and more. A marimba gig brought Latin music to Fast’s attention, and he soon discovered the Latin Jazz mastery of Cal Tjader. Recordings from the legendary musician enthralled Fast, who soon became hooked on the combination of Afro-Cuban rhythms and jazz. His interest in Tjader inspired Fast to search for percussionist Bill Fitch, who became an important musical mentor. Fitch connected Fast to the music’s history and provided essential insights into the world of Afro-Cuban percussion. As Fast moved from the role of student to professional, he balanced his work between Latin Jazz, Broadway musicals, and symphony performances. All pieces of Hartford’s musical world benefited from Fast’s impeccable musicality, with his love for Latin Jazz at the center of his musical output.

Fast built a wealth of musical knowledge and experience during his formative years that he eventually applied with his group Conga Bop on the album Straight Shot. His musicality goes beyond the confines of genre or tradition, bringing broad skills that will benefit any musical situation. In the first piece of our interview with Fast, we look at his development as a musician, his discovery of Latin Jazz, and his relationship with important conguero Bill Fitch.

Ed FastLATIN JAZZ CORNER: How did you get started in music - was it something that you started in your childhood or did it come later?

ED FAST: When I was a kid we had a piano in the house. My mom played piano and I taught myself to play a bit. We had some teach yourself books lying around the house so I picked up the piano a little bit. Then I switched over to drums in elementary school. I studied drums all through elementary and high school and then ended up going to The Hartt School Of Music.

LJC: What type of music was around you when you were growing up? Were you into jazz at that age?

EF: There wasn’t much jazz going on. My mom used to play a lot of the old standards - Jerome Kern, Oscar and Hammerstein stuff. Then some other popular stuff of the day, Burt Bacharach and that type of thing. But there was no real focus on jazz in the house. I got into that a little bit later when I got into college.

LJC: I read that in your early studies one of your teachers told you to master all different percussion instruments, which gave you a broad perspective. Who gave you that and how did it shape your relationship with the instruments?

Ed FastEF: When I went college, I went to The Hartt School Of Music; the reason that I went there was to study with Alexander Lepak. He’s the one that made sure that you studied all the percussion instruments, for a couple of reasons. You really learn a lot about music from bottom to top. Just studying timpani you learn bass clef and understand how the bass functions. The same with the marimba, it’s kind of like studying piano; you get your harmony and melody and rhythm all in one instrument. So he was a big proponent of that. He also made it clear that you’d have a lot more luck trying to find work if you didn’t have to say, “No, I can’t do this show because I don’t know how to play the xylophone or I don’t know how to play timpani.” So it served two purposes - you became a very well rounded, well-educated musician, plus it made you much more marketable when it came to work. I found that to be very true.

LJC: When were you at Hartt?

EF: I was there twice. From ‘83 to ‘87, I got my undergraduate degree. Then they put me on a full scholarship to come back and get my graduate degree. So I got to study for a couple of more years with Lepak. He was just a remarkable musician and teacher, so I couldn’t pass that up.

LJC: When did you get into jazz in that course of things?

EF: Lepak was a great big band drummer and composer. He composed great big band charts. When I got there to the school, I had already been playing drum set, but mainly more rock type stuff. I did a little bit of jazz band things in high school; I went to Old Lyme High, a very small school - there wasn’t a whole lot of jazz going on there. Lepak was a big jazz musician, composer, big band writer and drummer . . . a great jazz drummer. Right from the get go, we worked a lot on that. Not only on drum set, but also on mallets. We got into all the chord voicings on the vibraphone. I’m very, very thankful that we got into that. Once I started writing music, I felt like I had something to back it up with - that harmonic knowledge and chordal knowledge from studying jazz with Lepak on mallets and drums.

LJC: How did you make the leap into Latin rhythms, checking out Afro-Cuban and Brazilian rhythms - was Lepak into that as well?

Cal TjaderEF: That wasn’t a specialty of his, but he was knowledgeable in that area. Actually what happened was, when I was still in college, I got hired by some guys to play marimba doing Mexican folk music. From there, it was a small leap to checking out the vibraphone and in particular, Cal Tjader. The thing about Cal Tjader was he had the real guys on there, Mongo Santamaria, Willie Bobo, and of course later on, Poncho Sanchez. But everything was clean and not overdone - you could hear how all the parts were supposed to fit together. Once I heard Cal Tjader, that kind of captured my imagination and I kind of ran with it from there. I have to say that Cal Tjader was probably my biggest influence early on when I got into Latin Jazz.

LJC: Was someone in the area who was a mentor and helped you learn about the Latin side of the music?

EF: When I got into Cal Tjader, there was one record in particular that really drew me in, and that was Sona Libre. That album in particular had a tune on there called “Insight,” that was written by the conga player on the album, Bill Fitch. That tune really knocked me out. I took that tune “Insight,” that was written by Bill, and I transcribed all the parts - piano, bass, timbales, congas, vibraphone - I transcribed everything. I learned so much from that tune. It really impressed me that this conga player, Bill Fitch, took an amazing solo over one of the hippest montunos that I’ve ever heard in Latin Jazz. That’s the only album that I ever saw him on. It turns out that after trying to track him down for literally years and years and years, he lived in New Haven, Connecticut. That was right down the street from me . . . well, forty minutes away. So I got to hook up with him quite a bit. This guy was an amazing guy. He kind of dropped out of the music scene. He came up with Chick Corea in Boston and went to Berklee. A buddy of mine just worked for Chick out in Colorado, and Chick said that Bill Fitch hipped him to the real deal when it came to Latin Jazz piano playing. He came up with Chick Corea, Gary Burton, Don Alias, Tony Williams, and more. I used to go down every week to play with him. I took his advice on who to listen to and what was important playing wise. This guy was an amazing guy.

LJC: I’d love to hear more about him, he sounds like a pretty important player.

Cal TjaderEF: This guy is amazing. Have you heard about that movie, The Soloist , about the violinist who was in L.A.? He went to Juilliard; they made a whole movie about him . . . well, Bill Fitch has got a story like that, but times ten. He went to Berklee, and he was one of the first conga players at Berklee. Gary Burton, and all these guys know Bill. I saw Don Alias just like a month before he passed away; he said, “Man, you think you know who the greatest conga player is? It’s not many of the guys out there, it’s Bill Fitch, the greatest conga player ever!”

People don’t know about him because he dropped out of the scene so early. Once he left Berklee, he went to New York. Cal Tjader was in New York and someone came running over to Bill’s apartment. He was living with Chick Corea at the time; they were roommates. Someone said, “Hey, Bill, Cal’s looking for a new conga player, you’ve got to come down and sit in with him.” So Bill sat in with him and got hired on the spot. Cal flew him out to California and he made that record with him, Sona Libre . He did a couple of other things. From what I hear, Bill wrote so many amazing charts, but where those charts are . . . who knows? Apparently all the conga drummers used to come out and watch Bill play because he was really something special.

LJC: That would be interesting to track down some of that music.

EF: Bill told me that they made a videotape out on Hermosa Beach; I think it was for Fantasy Records. I was trying to get in touch with anybody that might have a copy of that. I have no idea what tunes they videotaped, but it would be great to Bill when he was twenty-one years old, doing his thing with Cal.

Bill is on another album with this organ player named Charles Kynard and that album was Bill Fitch, Armando Peraza, and one other percussionist. On the cover it says “The Greatest Latin Percussion Section Ever Assembled.” It was Armando Peraza on bongo and Bill Fitch on congas. All these guys were very close.

LJC: Is Bill still with us?

EF: He is; that guy’s got nine lives. I went away on a tour to Japan and he was in the hospital. I was thinking that I would never see him again. I was going away for two months, and he was skinny as pole, didn’t have the strength to move his legs or anything. I came back from Japan, he had put on fifty pounds and he was wheeling someone down the hallway in a wheelchair. Eight years later, and he’s still with us.
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The Latin Jazz Corner
Latin Jazz Conversations: Ed Fast (Part 2)
May 27, 2010

Ed FastAfter establishing himself as a diverse musician with a broad set of tools to contribute to the Connecticut music scene, drummer Ed Fast found several outlets to share his experience. His love to Latin Jazz got more intense, driving him to study recordings from masters like Cal Tjader and Hilton Ruiz. Looking to explore these interests more fully, Fast assembled a number of musicians from the area into a new group, Conga-Bop. The group gained momentum on the local scene, inspiring Fast to record a collection of original pieces and creative arrangements. After finishing the main tracks for the album, Fast received a multitude of calls for Broadway musical work, taking him around the world for a number of years. When he finally had a break in his schedule, Fast completed work on the album, releasing Straight Shot in 2007. He continued balancing his schedule between Latin Jazz, Broadway shows, and symphonic work, and along the way found time to work with young musicians. Two young musicians worked closely with Fast and made a particularly strong impact upon the Latin Jazz community – Zaccai and Luques Curtis. Fast spent some influential years with the Curtis Brothers before they broke into New York’s Latin Jazz scene, helping them build their knowledge of the style. Fast worked as musical director for a youth group that included the Curtis Brothers, which performed across the Hartford scene and even made its way to gigs in Cuba. Now a mentor on the Connecticut music scene with a broad knowledge base, Fast not only made his own creative contributions to the music, but also kept it moving into the future.

Through his work with Conga-Bop and beyond, Fast certainly made a splash upon the Connecticut music scene, with a greater impact that spread into the larger Latin Jazz world. In the first piece of our interview with Fast, we looked at his early musical development, his introduction to Latin Jazz, and his relationship with legendary conguero Bill Fitch. In the conclusion of our conversation, we dig into the Latin Jazz scene in and around Hartford, the recording of Straight Shot , and Fast’s influence upon the Curtis Brothers.

Ed FastLJC: Is there a Latin Jazz scene around the Hartford area?

EF: There had been for a while, but it kind of varies in strength. There seems to be a little bit of a resurgence now. We’ve had some remarkable players come through the area that are doing a lot in the Latin Jazz scene now. The Curtis Brothers were both on the scene. Luques is playing bass with Eddie Palmieri now. When they were in town, they were doing a lot of Latin Jazz. When they were little kids, they were playing all over the place. When they got older, they started playing with my group a little bit, and then they formed their own group, Insight. They did a lot until they took off for New York. In fact, Zaccai is coming back to Hartford to do a solo concert this summer. Those guys have definitely kept the Latin Jazz scene afloat. Then there’s been a few other groups here and there. I’ve had my group playing on and off for years, but I wind up going off on these musical tours from time to time which put me out of the picture. I wound up doing 42nd Street in Moscow for months. I went all over Asia with The Sound Of Music. I did a stint on Broadway for a year with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. That kind of makes my Latin Jazz projects stop and start.

LJC: Why don’t you tell me a little bit about how Conga-Bop came together?

EF: I was working with another Latin Jazz group out of college. I had really been getting into Cal Tjader and I also started transcribing a lot of tunes by other folks, like Hilton Ruiz. I love a lot of his compositions. He had a tune called “Home Cookin’;” I transcribed that tune and for a while that was the name of our band, Home Cookin’. I kind of put together the band so that I could do the music that I really wanted to perform, like all the Tjader stuff and the Hilton Ruiz stuff. Then I started transcribing a lot of Fort Apache music as well. So that’s why I put the band together, to play those tunes from people that I really enjoyed. Tito Puente too - I play a little vibes as well. The group was an outlet for me to do the charts that I really wanted to do and didn’t get a chance to do in other people’s bands.

LJC: I love your vibes playing on “Detour Ahead” from the Straight Shot album. Is your vibes playing a big part of the group?

EF: Generally I have to say no. Right now we’ve been playing with two horns. We’re in a small area with a small budget, so I don’t have a chance to bring the vibes in much. When we do bigger festivals I do. Last summer we did an outdoor jazz festival in Hartford - for those big events I like to bring out the vibes and feature them on a tune or two. Last year we did Tito Puente’s version of “Jitterbug Waltz;” I did that on vibes. It’s the only waltz you’ll hear in 4/4 time!

Straight ShotLJC: I read on that you recorded the album earlier but Straight Shot didn’t come out until 2007. What was that process like?

EF: We had enough material together to do the album including some original things that I wanted to record too. So we recorded it all in a weekend down in Stamford, Connecticut. It’s a self-produced album and money winds up playing a part in everything. We got the recording done and some of the mixing, but then I wound up going on tour to Asia with Sound Of Music. Right after that I went straight to Broadway to do Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Between those two things, it kind of took me away from the project. It also gave me a chance to make some money, and then go back, get it mixed, printed, and produced. That was the delay between recording and production.

LJC: I love your writing on the album. You mentioned Fort Apache, and that group really pops out as an influence - how do you approach writing in this context?

EF: It’s such a crazy thing - it happens all different ways . . . for me anyways. The very first tune on the album, “Encarnacion,” the way that happened - we were invited to play a concert at the University of Hartford and they were going to record it and produce a CD. So you had to have original material . . . I had to write an original piece! I sat down at the piano, came up with a bass line, then the melody, and harmonized it. I could feel it was going to be some kind of rumba tempo underneath that. Then I just have to live with it for a while. One thing will lead to another until eventually I find that, yes, that’s exactly where it should be. I try not to force things. If it takes days, it takes days. If it takes weeks, it takes weeks. Eventually, it feels like the thing will write itself if I give it enough time. One thing will lead to a logical next step.

LJC: I imagine that since the album is a few years old, you probably have more material that you’re working with . . .

Ed FastEF: Yep! I’m dying to do another one. I’ve got a bunch more original things. Also, I commissioned some friends to write some really nice arrangements on jazz standards with vocals. I just think that will improve upon the appeal, to feature a vocalist on a few tunes - jazz standards that people know. And then sprinkled in with that, my crazy original stuff. I’ve got some original pieces that I’m really excited about having people hear. We’ve been playing them live and they’ve been very well received. But again, the whole thing is how to finance it - that’s the trick!

LJC: I know that you do a lot of symphony work and Broadway shows, do you do any straight-ahead jazz in the area?

EF: From time to time I do some straight ahead, but not a whole lot. I love doing the theater stuff; I get to use everything I learned - playing on xylophone, timpani, timbales, congas, bongo . . . it’s a ball. You get to play with a fairly large group and actors on stage - then there’s lights and the whole big production. I love doing that. Then when I get home, I get symphony work and my Latin Jazz group. There’s other fine, fine drummers in the area that do nothing but bebop. So they’ll generally get those calls before I do.

LJC: One of the things that I think really distinguishes a group is how fluent they are on the whole jazz side of the equation. Your band is very jazz oriented, so who are the jazz guys that influenced your concept?

Lee Morgan - SidewinderEF: I’m so glad to hear you say that, because I do feel like we’re not coming from a salsa bag. It’s very much jazz infused. In Hartford, we’ve had Jackie Mclean, who just passed away last year. He was at The Hartt School; he had the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz. There’s just a lot of jazz in the area, probably due to him; he’s brought a lot of great artists in. We do that Lee Morgan tune on Straight Shot , “Boy, What A Night” - that’s from The Sidewinder album. Everyone knows The Sidewinder , but that whole album is great, it’s got so many great tunes. There’s “Totem Pole,” “Boy, What A Night,” “Hocus Pocus” . . . There’s a lot of great tunes on there. “Boy, What A Night” just happened to fit really great on that 6/8 groove. All that old Blue Note stuff - Billy Higgins, Lee Morgan, Art Blakey of course, Thelonious Monk - I listen to all those guys and really enjoy that music. And then it becomes a matter of you love all that music but you want to write something that reflects you and what you hear. But all those folks are part of the influence. I’m so glad that it comes through in the writing too. It’s Fort Apache too, I feel like they’re coming out of that bag. They’ve done salsa type gigs, but boy, those guys can play jazz . . . Steve Berrios swings!

LJC: I recently did an interview with Andy about Grupo Folklorico, what a great guy . . .

Andy GonzalezEF: I’ve just got to tell you, we love Andy. One time I had a gig with the adults in Hartford and we could not find a bass player anywhere. To make a long story short, I tracked down Andy’s number and called him up in New York. He came up and did the gig with us. It was so funny – I’m transcribing all these Cal Tjader tunes, like “Alonso,” that nobody that I talk to has ever heard of these tunes. I was talking on the phone to Andy and he was asking, “What kind of stuff do you do?” I said, “Well, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of this tune, but Alonso?” He said, “I’ve been playing that since I was twelve years old!” So anyways, I got him a ride up from New York and he played the gig with us. It was just amazing.

I was working with Luques and Zaccai and their older brother Damien; they were little kids. They had a Latin band together, and I used to bring them all the charts that I would do with my group. I got them started on “Home Cookin’,” “Guataca,” and these Hilton Ruiz charts. They had a little band together. The great part about it though, was that they played at intermission and Andy got to meet them. From that day on, Andy took a real sincere, heartfelt interest in the kids, particularly Luques. He gave him a three-quarter bass to play; he’s just been a super guy for the kids and for all of us. He’s a very knowledgeable, beautiful guy.

LJC: How much interplay is there between the Hartford scene and New York or Boston?

EF: I don’t feel like there’s a lot of interplay, except for the fact that now Luques and Zaccai come up occasionally. There’s been a lot of jazz guys that have been going to school at The Jackie Mclean Institute. They’ll have a thing going in Hartford, but they’ll wind up leaving and going to New York. There’s a little bit of a connection that way, but generally, they tend to be separate scenes. I’ve got some great music students that are going to Philadelphia to play and I’ve got of course a lot of friends in New York that are playing. I want to get my band playing in those different cities more - up in Boston as well. So I would like to start that connection if I can have my band Conga-Bop play Boston, New York, Hartford, Philadelphia, and try to link that up a little bit.

LJC: I read that you took a group of young musicians to Cuba at one point – what happened there?

Curtis BrothersEF: The group that went to Cuba was Luques and Zaccai Curtis and their brother Damien Curtis. They have just exceptional parents; their parents have been very supportive of the whole music thing. I had met them at The Artist Collective, a school for young kids that Jackie Mclean also started. I met them there and then found out a while later that they were putting together a little Latin Jazz group of kids; there were up to twelve kids. So, I started working with them; bringing the charts over. We rehearsed and they started doing gigs in Hartford. They opened up for me or they played in between sets for me. They got so good so quickly; they’re so talented. They were also so dedicated. They wound up opening up for Tito Puente when he came to Hartford. Then they got invited to open up for Libre down at S.O.B.’s. People kept seeing them and hearing them. Next thing you know, Chucho Valdes invited them to perform down in Cuba. When that happened, I was their music director. Ted Curtis, their father, went through all the arrangements to make the trip possible. But Chucho Valdes, who directs that festival down in Havana, invited the kids to come down there and play. It was an absolutely incredible experience that I was very, very privileged to be a part of.

LJC: Was there a lot of interaction between the Cuban musicians and the kids?

EF: The kids did quite a bit of playing with different folks. It was just great to see that interaction. The musicians over there are something else. We got a bit of an understanding into how that happens. It’s a Communist country, so if you’re a musician over there, you’re paid by the government – that’s your full-time job. We went to see a young group. They have three levels of artists – A, B, and C; C being the lowest level. If you get a big enough following, you’re promoted to B and that gets you a pay raise. Then finally up to A and you make more money. We saw a C level group and they all lived in a gymnasium. They had bunk beds all around the gymnasium; that’s where they lived and slept. Their instruments were in the middle of the gymnasium; everything was all set-up. They said that they wake up, they practice from nine until lunchtime and then after lunch until dinner – as a band. Then after dinner, they all practice individually until midnight. Then they go to bed and they do the same thing the next day. If I can get one rehearsal for my band before a gig, I’m thrilled – you know? These guys literally eat and sleep this music, as a band. The kids got a lot of interplay with them; it was a great trip.

LJC: You mentioned that you want to put together a new album, what are the future plans for Conga-Bop?

EF: We have quite a few dates coming up this summer at different festivals, so I’m looking forward to that. I do have enough material now for a CD, so I’m actively working on trying to figure out how to get that done. In one way, I’d love to self-produce it again. In another way, it would definitely help to have a label that has some kind of distribution and marketing power behind it, so I’m going to look into that. I would really like to try and get something done before the summer is out – at least get a recording and then maybe by fall get it produced.