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Chembo Corniel: the bright light in Latin jazz: currently working with salsa great Larry Harlow and numerous other Latin and jazz groups around his hometown of New York City, Wilson "Chembo" Corniel has just released his second album with his band, Grupo Chawaro. For The Rest of Your Life is a high-quality production that is beaming his music to more listeners and helping him to carve an international fan base.

In today's music world, conga drummer and bandleader, Wilson "Chembo" Corniel is a bright light on the Latin jazz scene. His latest release, For the Rest of Your Life, is an artistic offering that truly emanates a Nuyorican groove. Guests like Grady Tate, Bobby Porcelli, Pedrito Martinez, among others, compliment the musical vision of Chembo and his group Chaworo.

Born in Manhattan on November 22, 1953, of Puerto Rican parentage, Chembo was raised in Red Hook, Brooklyn, where he was mentored by such greats as Tommy Lopez, Ray Romero, Louie Bauzo and Cachete Maldonado. He developed his percussive talents at the Harbor Conservatory for the Performing Arts, and conducted his advanced studies at Cuba's Escuela Nacional de Arte.

On Thursday, June 7, Chembo held a CD release party at Cafe de la Plaza in Santurce, Puerto Rico with his Chaworo band. The excellent cast consisted of Ricardo Pons (sax), Manolo Navarez (piano), Ricardo Rodriguez (bass) and others. I caught up with Chembo while he was still on the island, where he was working the media, providing interviews for television and radio stations, and for San Juan's newspapers.

JV: Wassup Chembol For the Rest of Your Life is a great album with your super NYC Grupo Chaworo. Jazzy and hip!

CC: I am trying to lean toward jazz, without losing a drop of the Latin stuff. I wanted to venture more into the jazz field with this album but keeping it in the same vein as my first record. The arrangements show that. We also playa lot of original music. How many times can you play the same standards? So I said, 'let's make some new standards.'

JV: No doubt. One of those pieces that sets a new tone is the opening track, Chaworo En La Calle.

CC: That piece was written by trumpeter John Walsh. He composes for me because he knows my style and knows what I like. When he wrote the arrangement, we didn't have a title for it. He specified which part was mine to add to, so I put in the rumba with the cajones. What he usually does is to give me the skeleton of the tune, and I add the rhythm and percussion breaks. On the coro, I used Pedrito Martinez, who improvised in said vocal chorus, Chaworo En La Calle. When he sang it, I said, 'That's it!' h made an impression on my mind and I said, 'That's the name of the tune!'

JV: Another tune that stands out is Ivan Renta's Nuyorican Groove.

CC: Ivan is my musical director and has been in the band since the beginning. In October, it will be six years since I've had the group. This album is my second production with Grupo Chaworo. My last album was a collaboration with Andrea Brachfeld, but not with my band. Ivan was the first guy that caught my eye when I was starting it. He's my right hand man! A cat that, despite his young age, is so sophisticated! He wrote the tune but I named it.

The tune is a tribute to the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. They have helped me to expand my career. I've been there now for 15 years on Thursday nights. First with Chris Washburne's band. I was offered a regular gig there recently, but turned it down. You get burnt out that way, so I suggested that we rotate the bands. Now we have Ray Vega, Willie Martinez and others getting a piece of it. Whatever the Nuyorican Poets Cafe needs, I am there for them because they are there for me.

JV: Emiliano Salvador's Puerto Padre is also a great piece of your CD and features Oriente Lopez on flute.

CC: I played with Emiliano Salvador in 1988 at the Montreal Jazz Festival (MJF). I was there with the band of Louie Ramirez. When we took a break, I went and hung out with him. If you've never been to the MJF, it has hundreds of stages and is always full of people. Domingo Quinones (who I had gotten into Ramirez's band after Ray de la Paz left) and I had a couple of drinks and then Emiliano had to perform. The place was so crowded the conga player got lost. So Emiliano said, 'Chembo, I can't wait for this guy to come up and play.' It was so packed, we did three numbers before his conga player got to the stage. It was a special moment that I've held in my heart for him. I can't remember the other songs we played but I did remember Puerto Padre. I didn't really know who he was until he passed away and I found out how much he had contributed as a composer and piano player. His brother was playing drums, and Roberto Carcasses was singing and playing flugelhorn.

JV: One of the beautiful aspects of your albums is that you pay due to those musicians you admire by inviting them on the date. On your debut, Portraits in Rhythm, you used the talents of Mario Rivera. On the new one, you have Bobby Porcelli and the jazz legend Grady Tate.

CC: Grady Tate used to come and see me at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and would always get up and sing a song with us. I never thought I was going to get him on the album. I started with Grady about two years ago. It was John DiMartino, who plays piano with him, who got me on a session with Grady. He needed some light percussion to give the piece he was doing some colors. We clicked from the beginning and he was kind to me. 'You're in the band now,' he told me, 'anything you need, let me know.' So I gave it a shot and told him that I was finishing up this recording and would love to have him on a tune. He said, 'when, where?' He kept pushing me, so I got the recording studio and the song that he sang is one of my favorites. You know that Tipica 73 recorded What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life? (with Rene Lopez singing it). Growing up, I really dug it. Grady has it in his repertoire, so when we first played, it brought back so many memories. It was done in one take, and with Bobby Porcelli soloing.

JV: What about Bobby?

CC: He's an unsung hero. We played together when I did a couple of tours with Tito Puente. I was aware of his work as one of the few guys who played with the Big 3--Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez and Machito. Every time he takes a solo, you feel it, especially on the ballads. We recorded his composition Rejuvenate, a song he first did in the 1970s when he was hitting it hard on the straight-ahead scene. He offered the song to me, so I reworked it by adding the Latin sections, so that we could go in and out of the swing with a bard Latin bop thing. I knew there were sections in the interlude and mambo, where I could really come in and jam without disturbing the integrity of the tune.

JV: Chembo, thanks for another great album. You are truly a keeper of the flame. Does Latin jazz have a significant fan base to support you artistically and financially?

CC: Latin jazz has always had a public since the 1940s with Chano and Dizzy. It has not fizzed out and I don't intend to let it fizz out. With people passing on, I have to try to be a keeper of the flame. I've taken a more independent approach and concentrated on my band to carry this torch. I feel that I now have the credentials to go solo. I don't expect to make any money off this album but as long as I break even, I'm happy. Whatever I make I just turn it around toward the next project. I'm already working on my next album and there are some surprises in store!

For the past couple of decades, Chembo Corniel has established himself as one of the top Latin percussionists in the tri-state area. Among his credits, he has performed and/or recorded with numerous major artists from all genres of music, as well as toured all the continents. His television credits include appearances on the "Bill Cosby Show" and a recurring recording gig on Nickelodeon's children show "Dora the Explorer," where his percussion skills bring to life the soundtrack of this popular bilingual children's daily program.

As an educator, he teaches percussion to students at the SUNY Purchase Conservatory of Music in New York, and heads numerous percussion clinics throughout the United States, which bring awareness of the rich Afro-Caribbean traditions and rhythms. In the year 2000, Chembo created an instructional DVD titled "An Introduction to Hand Percussion: Volume 1--Congas" (Warner Brothers).

In recent years, he has been concentrating on leading his own Latin jazz quintet "Chembo & Grupo Chaworo," which is currently enjoying the release of its latest production For the Rest of Your Life, under Corniel's own label, Chaworo Records.

Discography (as a leader)

For the Rest of Your Life (2007)

Portrait in Rhythms (2004)

Discography (with other artists)

Larry Harlow's Latin Legends of Fania (LIVE) (2006)

Andrea Brachfeld & Chembo Corniel/Beyond Standards (2006)

Mark Sherman/Family (2006)

Carlos Jimenez/El Flautista (2006)

Akiko Tusuruga/Sweet and Funky (2006)

Chris Washburne & SYOTOS/Land of Nod (2006)

Willie Martinez/La Familia (2005)

Hilton Ruiz/Steppin' With T.P. (2005)

Ray Vega/Squeeze Squeeze (2004)

Chris Washburne & SYOTOS/Paradise in Trouble (2003)

Steve Wilson/Soulful Songs (2003)

Larry Harlow's Latin Jazz-Live at Birdland (2002)

Chico Freeman/By the Way (2002)

Ray Vega/Pa'lante (2002)

Blood Sweat & Tears/Christmas Album (2002)

Chris Washburne & SYOTOS/The Other Side (2001)

David Gonzales & LLB/Sofrito (2000)

Bobby Sanabria Big Band/Live At Birdland (2000) Grammy Nominated

Chris Washburne/Nuyorican Nights (1999)

Ray Vega/Boperation (1999)

Larry Harlow-Latin Legends Band (1998)

The Bronx Horns/Silver in the Bronx (1998)

Greg Abate/Sweet Samba (1998)

Buddy Montgomery Trio/Here Again (1998)

Ray Vega/Ray Vega (1997)

Willie Colon/Honra y Cultura

Louie Ramirez/El Genio de la Salsa

Jose Bello/Jose Bello y Su Orquesta

Bobby Rodriguez y La Compania / Hay Que Cambiar La Rutina

La Sonora Poncena / Back to Work
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Author:Varela, Jesse
Publication:Latin Beat Magazine
Article Type:Entrevista
Date:Aug 1, 2007
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