Cuban-born bass sensation is at the top of his game. Here’s his first-hand account of how it all happened.
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
April 25, 2016
A native of Cuba, Carlitos Del Puerto was exposed to music from the very beginning, growing up as the son of legendary bassist and educator Carlos Del Puerto. The elder Mr. Del Puerto is a founding member of the hugely popular Cuban band Irakere, as well as distinguished professor and author of The True Cuban Bass.
Originally a cellist before switching to bass, young Carlitos was recognized as “Best New Jazz Artist” at the International Jazz Festival in Havana, Cuba, at the age of 17. After relocating to Los Angeles in 1996 to attend the University of Southern California School of Music on a scholarship, Carlitos quickly became entrenched in the Los Angeles music scene, where he began playing gigs and sessions at an increasingly rapid pace.
To date, Carlitos Del Puerto has performed and/or recorded with a veritable who’s who of music icons, including Chick Corea, Bob James, Stevie Wonder, Chris Botti, Billy Childs, Quincy Jones, Celia Cruz, Patti LaBelle, Roy Hargrove, Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Gloria Estefan, Danilo Perez, Paquito D’Rivera, Arturo Sandoval and countless others.
FBPO: You have a famous father, Carlos Del Puerto. Tell me about your recollections, your memories of those earliest days, growing up in Cuba.
CDP: It was amazing. My dad was part of the band Irakere, which was a really famous band in Cuba. But before that, he was part of a band in Cuba called Orquesta de Música Moderna, which had all the guys that later founded Irakere. That band was revolutionary in Cuba. It was like a big band and they were all playing American music when it wasn’t really allowed. It was in the ‘60s, you know, and at that time the relationships with the U.S. were kind of rough. But they were playing American-style kind of music.
A lot of people in that band later on left that band and made Irakere, which was huge in Cuba. Irakere was founded by three people: my father, a piano player called Chucho Valdés, and Oskar Valdés, who was the percussionist and, later on, the singer of the band. Those are the founding members of Irakere. They had a trio, then from that came Arturo Sandoval, Paquito D’Rivera and a bunch of amazing musicians from Cuba.
As I was growing up, I would see my dad hanging out with these guys and they would come over to the house and he would take me to the rehearsals and stuff, so I was always in touch with that kind of music very early on in my life. My dad and Paquito D’Rivera were best friends. Actually, Paquito’s son, Franco, grew up with me also. We’re the same age.
At the same time, my father was also teaching in the schools in Havana. In Cuba, they don’t teach popular music in the schools. What they teach is classical music, from the Russian school. Well, my father took it upon himself to introduce the electric bass to the school of music in Cuba because that instrument wasn’t allowed. My dad made a whole curriculum to include this instrument. I was around when he was doing all this writing, all these books. And he did it! You know, he made the modern school of bass playing in Cuba.
FBPO:This was in the ‘60s you say?
CDP: That was in the ‘70s at that point. In the ‘60s was Orquesta de Música Moderna. In the early ‘70s was when Irakere was founded. And then by the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, he was working on reforming the education system in Cuba for bass.
FBPO: Didn’t you start out on the cello?
CDP: Yeah, I started playing the cello when I was about 8 years old and I realized really quickly that that wasn’t an instrument for me [Laughs]. It was too serious, you know? I needed something where I could have more fun. I also wanted to make my dad proud, so I wanted to play the same instrument he was playing, which was very difficult at the beginning because, when I started my studies, he didn’t really want me to be a musician to start out with. The one that pushed me was my mother. My mom was the one that took me to the music schools to take classes to see if I could be a musician.
Anyway, so I became a musician and I started out on the cello and I was on the cello from 8 to about 14 years old, and at 14 I switched to upright bass. At the beginning, my dad and I, when he was trying to teach me something, we would get in these huge arguments [Laughs] in the house, you know, because he was telling me how to do everything correctly and I would come back, “I know, Dad, but maybe it’s like this,” and we would get into huge arguments. So he said, “Forget it, I’ll send you to one of my friends,” and he sent me to a guy called Manuel Valdés. This guy was the principal bassist for the symphony orchestra in Cuba. He taught me all the technique on the instrument. Of course my dad as well, but Manolo really opened up the instrument for me.
FBPO: Were you interested in classical music, or did you want to get into jazz or the Latin scene? How did you handle that transition?
CDP: Classical is the default mode for the schools in Cuba. That’s what they teach, classical music, technique and the solfège and that kind of stuff. They never really taught us modern harmony or popular music, but I wanted to learn the popular music because of my father, because I wanted to imitate that. I really wanted to be like my dad. So I started practicing on my own, like taking solos out and just learning piano and learning chords and things like that. Basically, all the guys from my generation – not only on my instrument, but on piano and drums and stuff – everybody was learning that way, taking things from records and things like that.
FBPO: When you say “popular music,” what are you referring to?
CDP:Jazz. Jazz music is popular music in Cuba. Not here in the U.S., but in Cuba, jazz was considered popular music.
FBPO: Who were some of your other influences on the bass once you really got into it?
CDP: At the very beginning, the guy that was super popular at that time, when I started, was Chick Corea. It was Chick’s band, so at that time it was (John) Patitucci playing bass. Patitucci was the one who was my hero. I tried to imitate a lot of the stuff he was doing at that time. And then I got into Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen.
FBPO: My favorite upright player!
CDP:Yeah! I learned a lot from those records, from Chops and from Eternal Traveler. I took a little bit of that technique from the right hand and I use it. So Pedersen and, of course, my father, Eddie Gomez, Stanley (Clarke) as well.
When I got here (Los Angeles) in 1996, I had the technique, I could play fast and in tune, but my language was limited. To me, to play jazz with conviction and for real, you’ve got to live it. It’s like playing Cuban music. You gotta be there. You gotta live in Cuba to really play Cuban music well.
FBPO: What brought you to the states?
CDP: I came to California because I got a scholarship. I sent some videos to John Clayton of my playing with Chucho Valdés and with Gonzalo Rubalcaba. And John Clayton and Shelly Berg gave me a scholarship to the USC School of Music.
FBPO: Was it difficult to come over to the U.S. from Cuba?
CDP: At that time, it was kind of difficult, but they had a person to help with the paperwork and with the help of Shelly, it worked out.
FBPO: Some of those guys you mentioned, like Stanley and Patitucci, are doublers, but it still sounds like you were primarily an upright player.
CDP: I was at that time.
FBPO: I still think of you as primarily an upright player today, though I know you play electric also. When did you start playing electric?
CDP: I was playing electric all along. But the thing is I was more inclined to play upright in jazz. To me, walking on the electric bass never really sounded appealing to me, though there are some cats that do it incredibly (well), like Anthony Jackson, but to me, it never sounded good in my ear. So I was always trying to do it on the upright. A lot of people always knew me for my upright playing anyway.
When I first got here, I had all the technique and everything, but I was missing some things. And those things I learned as soon as I started going out and seeing bass players here in the city and the way they were approaching bass lines and sound. All that was way different than what I was doing in Cuba. And then I started learning about guys that really changed my playing, like Ray Brown, Ron Carter, Oscar Pettiford, George Duvivier, Sam Jones, Rufus Reid. Nobody talked about those guys.
FBPO: Were you able to hear those guys on records when you were in Cuba?
CDP: That’s all you did. You just didn’t know the names. I heard a bunch of Miles in Cuba, but I didn’t know who the bass player was. And then I learned it was Ron. Or Paul Chambers. But I really got into those cats when I got here, see, because when I started playing around town, it was kind of obvious that my beat wasn’t strong. Comparing myself to the stuff I saw in town, I said, “Man, I’m not really cutting it,” so I started learning all over again, like starting again from the old guys, from Ray, from Ron, from Sam, from all those guys. And there was another bass player also and I got my hands on a book of transcriptions. His name was Steve Gilmore.
FBPO: Oh yeah!
CDP: You know that guy?
FBPO: Yeah, he played with Phil Woods.
CDP: Phil Woods. There was a book by Jamey Aebersold that had Steve Gilmore’s lines. Man, that book did marvelous things for me! That guy’s a hero! That guy plays the hell out of the bass. His bass lines are like fugues, man. The way he constructs his lines is amazing.
Then, at the same time I was here, I needed to work, you know, and L.A. at that time wasn’t a town that was that jazz friendly anyways. It wasn’t as vivid as the scene in New York. But that was good for me ‘cause that opened me to other styles that I learned: funk, the Motown stuff, Mexican music, Jewish music, all kinds of stuff that I had to learn to be able to work.
FBPO: Did that open it up for a whole new group of bass heroes and influences?
CDP: Exactly! That’s exactly the point. They opened me to James Jamerson, Chuck Rainey, Jerry Jemmott, Carol Kaye. And Jaco Pastorius of course. Who didn’t listen to Pastorius? I love Jaco so much and I respect him so much, but I never tried to sound like him, you know what I mean? ‘Cause there were so many people trying to do that. Early on I said, “I might not sound as good, but it’ll be my sound. Whatever I have, it’ll be mine.” And I always pursued that. That’s why on electric bass, my biggest influences were Anthony Jackson and James Jamerson. Those are the guys that I really wanted to sound like.
FBPO: So how did you become established in the L.A. music scene?
CDP: Well, when I came out of Cuba, I was a little bit known because of my father, of course . But secondly I was known because I recorded one record specifically that was very successful here in the U.S. for a band called Cubanismo. I did the first two records of that band and they were very successful here in the U.S. And I was playing with a lot of the most famous musicians in Cuba, so in the Latin scene here in the U.S., they knew already who I was.
So when I got here, the work that I could get right away was playing in salsa bands and things like that, which was weird because, in Cuba, I wasn’t playing salsa or Cuban music, I was playing jazz. And to tell you the truth, that’s when I really discovered how powerful that music was and how much I had to learn from it too. It was so close to me when I was living in Cuba that I didn’t pay attention to it. What I was trying to learn was American music. So I had to learn. I had to buy a baby bass and go through the whole thing. And actually that really helped because I started working with a lot of really popular Latin bands and singers, like Celia Cruz. Every time Celia would come here, I was playing with Celia. Gilberto Santa Rosa and a bunch of salsa gigs. Then after that I started playing with some Mexican artists and I got into that scene too. You know, just paying dues.
FBPO: What’s keeping you busy these days, Carlitos?
CDP: It’s a long list. For example, I just worked on Christina Aguilera’s latest record; I just worked on Jennifer Lopez’s latest record. I’ve been on the road with Chick Corea for three and-a-half years now. I’ve been on the road also with Bob James and his quartet and Steve Gadd is playing drums in it. I do a lot, thank God. I’m also working with Keiko Matsui, producing her album.
And before that, I was playing with Steve Lukather. I did a short stint with Bruce Springsteen. And before that I did Chris Botti for two years and we did a few gigs with Sting. Patti LaBelle. It’s a lot of people.
FBPO: How much upright versus electric are you playing?
CDP: It’s pretty much 50-50, man.
FBPO: Tell me about your equipment.
CDP: Gallien-Krueger all the way. Fodera guitars all the way.
FBPO: What do you like about Gallien-Krueger?
CDP: What I like about Gallien-Krueger is the simplicity of it. It’s a very simple amp. It’s got a color that everybody loves. I’ve tried many, many different amps and I just can’t get the same coloration, the same punch, the same beauty of the sound. And 80% of the time the amp is flat.
FBPO: You use the Gallien-Kruger for both upright and electric?
CDP: All the time, yes. Mostly what I use is the 1001 RB head, the 550 Fusion, the one that has tubes in it, and 12s.
FBPO: And the basses?
CDP: I’ve been with Fodera for about two years now. Those instruments are amazing!
FBPO: Four-string? Five-string?
CDP: Five. I use five. I also have a lot of companies that have been very good to me, including: Pirastro Double bass strings, Lehle Switchers, Reunion Blues cases, Lemur Music travel bass, Zoom cameras and recording devices, Radial Engineering Direct boxes, TC Electronic, Trex, Dunlop MXR, MarkBass, Electro Harmonics, Adesigns Recording DI and preamps and NylanderLA clothing.
FBPO: What about the future?
CDP: I’m starting to work on a new record. I’m writing the songs and I’m really excited about it because it’s going to be my first record, with my own music. Chick Corea is going to play on it. Vinnie Colaiuta is going to be playing drums on some of the songs. And I’m going to get pretty much everyone that works with me. I’m trying to get Billy Childs.
But the main focus is going to be my trio, Ivan Gonzalez on piano and Jimmy Branly on drums, and the guests will be on top of that. I think I’m going to try to go to Cuba and record some really authentic Cuban stuff, like the rhumba stuff with the bass.
FBPO: What do you think about what’s been happening between the U.S. and Cuba over the last year or so?
CDP: That is wonderful, man. I mean that is great news. I think it should have happened a long time ago. The problem has never been between the Americans and the Cubans; it’s only been around the government, you know what I mean? Unfortunately, it’s not the government that goes through the hard times; it’s the people. Now that they’re getting together, it’s great ‘cause it’s going to help a lot of people. It will also expose Americans to all the beautiful things that Cuba has to offer.
FBPO: What would you be if you weren’t a bass player?
CDP: Man, I was a hell of a baseball player! I played my ass off, man! If I knew that I could make so much money playing baseball … [Laughs]