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Papo Vázquez, Latin jazz pioneer out of North Philly, still keeps his hometown close

“Once the Philadelphia cheesesteak gets you, it never lets you go,” says the jazz star. One standout track on his latest album is “Fairmount Park,” inspired by Will Smith.

Latin jazz pioneer Papo Vazquez
Latin jazz pioneer Papo VazquezRead moreCourtesy Papo Vazquez / Picaro Records

On the cover of his latest album, Chapter 10: Breaking Cover, Latin jazz pioneer Papo Vázquez has most of his face obscured by a face mask. But peering out over the skull-and-crossed-trombones logo of his long-running band, the Mighty Pirates Troubadours, the bandleader still manages to convey much of the music’s spirit through his eyes.

Fierce determination mixes with an impish joy, capturing the exuberant passions of the 10th album in his remarkable four-decade career.

Of course, nothing in the course of that career could make the conditions under which Breaking Cover was recorded feel normal. Vázquez and his bandmates had been scheduled to enter the studio in April, plans that were disrupted by the pandemic. As soon as initial lockdowns lifted, the North Philly native “broke cover” and reconvened his fellow Pirate Troubadours.

“You can play music by yourself, but the greatest music is done with other people,” Vázquez said recently over the phone from his home in Westchester County, New York. “When we all saw each other again at the first rehearsal, I knew there was something very special in the air. It was very spiritual.”

Philly roots, Philly grooves

Coming of age in North Philadelphia in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Vázquez discovered his spiritual link to music via Latin clubs that peppered the city at the time. “There was the Spanish American club and the Exodus. I remember doing dances downtown in one of the hotels,” he said.

“Most of these clubs would bring the famous bands from New York, and they would alternate with Philly bands,” Vázquez said. “So I got to see Willie Colón, Ray Barretto, Bobby Valentín, and Larry Harlow. Latin music was real popular, and that’s how I started my career as a musician.”

» READ MORE: The Philly venues where jazz greats found their sound | Philly History

Though he left Philadelphia for New York City in 1975, Vázquez has always maintained close ties to his native city. “Once the Philadelphia cheesesteak gets you, it never lets you go,” he says with a whiz wit-fueled laugh.

He has come back for performances and master classes at the Clef Club and visits with students at Esperanza Academy Charter High School. One of the standout tracks on Breaking Cover is an infectiously funky new tune called “Fairmount Park.”

>> Listen: The new song, “Fairmount Park

“That theme that came to me because a Will Smith song came on the radio and I really liked the groove,” he recalled. “I wanted to write something like that, but utilizing the rhythmical concept that we use with the Mighty Pirates. It sounds like you’re hanging out in the park and the guys are playing their drums. It’s a nice, happy kind of vibe.”

That feeling brought back memories of seeing the likes of Colón and Tito Puente at Robin Hood Dell as well as time spent in the park with Vázquez’s family. “My father, my grandfather, and my uncles all used to own bodegas. You’re speaking to the kid that used to fill the refrigerators and slice the cold cuts. But my father was also a left-handed softball pitcher, so on Sundays he would close the store to play in Fairmount Park. Those are great memories.”

Taking care of business

Despite the outlaw attitude suggested by the name of the band, Breaking Cover was recorded using the strictest of COVID-era precautions. Vázquez’s preferred studio, Kaleidoscope Sound in Union City, N.J., was already equipped with multiple isolation booths, providing separation between instruments necessary to achieve the clean, precise sound that the bandleader strives for. In addition, personnel was limited and everyone involved wore masks whenever possible.

“I’m extremely grateful for the courage of all the gentlemen to participate on this record,” Vázquez said. “We have to be very careful to keep ourselves safe from this invisible thing that is making people sick. We took no risks, but we took care of business.”

» READ MORE: Philly’s jazz musicians have a new leader looking out for them as COVID-19 rages

That invisible threat is embodied on “El Cuco/The Boogeyman,” a new piece that Vázquez composed during his enforced downtime. The ominous creep of the tune is built on a bomba rhythm from Puerto Rico, where Vázquez is rooted and has lived and played extensively. It’s one of multiple rhythms and styles that the septet blends together throughout the album.

>> Listen: El Cuco/The Boogeyman by Papo Vázquez and the Mighty Pirates Troubadours

“As pirates, we can navigate and go anywhere we want,” Vázquez explained. “We roam the high seas and play whatever music we want to play.” The name was originally a joking suggestion by a former bandmate when Vázquez complained about the limitations imposed by his first choice, Papo Vázquez Bomba Jazz.

“I said, ‘Pirate troubadour? What the hell is that? That is the coolest thing I’ve ever heard.’ We have fun with it, and I even have a definition for it now: A pirate troubadour is somebody who steals your musical allegiance.”