Gil Bernal only had a vague idea of who the Buena Vista Social Club was when he got a phone call a few years back from Ry Cooder.
"I'd known Ry for about five years," says the veteran tenor saxophonist. "He'd heard me play on some pop recordings--especially something I did with Duane Eddy--and we did a few things together, a John Lee Hooker album, for one thing."
This time, however, Cooder had a somewhat larger plan in mind.
"He was calling from Havana," Bernal recalls, "and he said, 'Listen, do you think you can get down here?' Well, I'd never been to Havana, so it sounded like a great idea to me. But this was on a Friday, and Ry said, 'I need to have you here by Monday."'
Somewhat taken aback, Bernal asked Cooder what the gig was all about. Told that it was to add some tenor saxophone touches to a recording by Ibrahim Ferrer, Bernal said, "Sure, why not?"
Enhancing pop recordings by performers ranging from the Drifters to Spike Jones had long been an important aspect of his varied career. It's a special skill, calling for the ability to work in a limited space, play something interesting, support the vocal and adapt to the style of an individual artist. And he obviously does it well.
Before Bernal had the chance to get cranked up about the possibility of visiting the Caribbean, however, Cooder asked a critical question.
"He wanted to know if I had a passport," Bernal says, "And I didn't. Of course I immediately made some phone calls, but I couldn't make anything happen for a few weeks, and Ry needed me in a few days. So he finally said, 'OK, look, never mind, we'll overdub it.' Which is what we did. And I think it came out OK. Funny thing was, that was how he first heard me--in a solo I'd overdubbed for a Duane Eddy single.
"Ry knew exactly what he wanted. He'd say, 'I want you to play the melody here, add some harmony to your own part there, don't go too far outside here'--and it worked out. It was very satisfying to me because I felt I was playing well and giving him what he needed as well."
Interestingly, although his connection with Ferrer and the Buena Vista players was virtual rather than real, there are some similarities among the musicians. Like the Buena Vista artists, Bernal has had a journeyman career, moving across genres, in his case from jazz to pop to blues, functioning easily in each category. At various times, he has done stand-up impressions, briefly had a contract with RCA as a singer, wore funny suits and did comedy with Spike Jones, played with the effervescent Lionel Hampton big band, and has been a regular in Los Angeles jazz clubs for decades.
Bernal, 69, is a Los Angeles native. Born in Watts to a Mexican mother and a Sicilian father, he went to Jordan High School and hung out with the likes of Buddy Collette, the Woodman brothers, Charles Mingus and Big Jay McNeely.
His own new recording, "Sensual and Latin," is a relatively rare example of stepping into the spotlight. Although Bernal insists that the choice of tunes was not directly affected by his Buena Vista Social Club experience, the planning for the CD progressed from the original idea of a collection of standards to a group of Latin songs from Mexico, Brazil, Spain and Argentina. Many of the numbers recall music favored by his mother as he was growing up.
"I guess I really am like those Buena Vista guys in a way," Bernal says. "I've been around a long time, and I've always enjoyed what I've done. And it's worked for me in the sense that I've made a living--not much else--but I've been able to raise a family and so forth. I've always thought that as long as I do it in good taste, as long as I swing, as long as I play the right chords, and I'm doing it from the heart, that's all that really matters."
Gil Bernal's album, "Sensual and Latin," on Jimi Lane Records, is currently available only by mail order from P.O. Box 5295, Santa Monica, CA 90409.
On Record: Winter & Winter, the imaginatively eccentric German record company, is releasing a series of excellent CDs from the '80s originally issued on the JMT label. The catalog, which has been inactive since 1995, is a rich source of material covering some of the innovative, and largely overlooked, work that was being produced at the time in New York.
The first set of albums is typically diverse:
* Cassandra Wilson, "Point of View." Recorded in 1985, when she was part of Steve Coleman's M-Base collective, this is pre-diva Wilson, unguarded, open to new ideas.
* Steve Coleman and Five Elements, "On the Edge of Tomorrow." It's hard to believe that alto saxophonist Coleman was stretching the envelope to this extent in 1986. And it's even harder to understand why a group such as this--with, among others, Graham Haynes on trumpet, Wilson on vocals and Geri Allen on synthesizer--didn't hit with the same sort of high-visibility reception accorded to far lesser talents in the avant-garde '60s.
* Jay Clayton and Jerry Granelli, "Sound Songs." The only album not recorded in New York, this collaboration of the adventurous vocals of Clayton and the percussion of Granelli was produced in 1985 in Seattle, where Clayton has long been based (although she is planning a return to New York City). Her utterly fearless capacity to explore the outer limits of vocal improvisation are on full display, marvelously abetted by Granelli's empathetic drumming.
* Jane Ira Bloom and Fred Hersch, "As One." Saxophonist Bloom and pianist Hersch were frequent musical associates when this was recorded in 1984 (but released later). The resulting musical empathy invests the six tunes--mostly originals by the pair, with the exception of Wayne Shorter's "Miyako" and Alec Wilder's "Winter of My Discontent"--with symbiotic togetherness. Reminiscent at times of the virtuosic linkages in Shorter's duets with Joe Zawinul and, more recently, with Herbie Hancock, the Bloom-Hersch tracks are enhanced by a quality of warmth and tenderness intrinsically reflective of these two emotionally expressive artists.
* Herb Robertson, "Transparency." Trumpeter and fluegelhornist Robertson is probably the least known artist in this group, even though he continues to be a regular in the New York avant-garde scene. In this set, recorded in 1985, he initially defined his crossover interests with a group that included alto saxophonist Tim Berne, guitarist Bill Frisell, bassist Lindsey Horner and drummer Joey Baron.
* Steve Coleman Group, "Motherland Pulse." This is JMT's first issue and Coleman's debut album, recorded in 1985. With Allen, Wilson, Haynes, Lonnie Plaxico and others in the company, the recording essentially established--acoustically, rather than electronically--the M-Base (Micro-Basic Array of Structured Extemporization) group's emergence as an important new, risk-taking jazz generation.