When jazz guitar giant Al Di Meola swept through Florida for three shows in late March, there was only one other person he wanted on his stage: Gulfport’s Gumbi Ortiz.
Born Gamaliel Ortiz in the South Bronx, to a Puerto Rican father and Cuban mother, Gumbi (say it “Goom-bee”) has been Di Meola’s go-to percussionist and right-hand-man for more than 30 years, playing in just about all of his bands, and accompanying him on solo shows, in nearly every country on the planet (“I got five passports, man,” Ortiz enthuses). He’s on Di Meola’s recordings, as well as those by other artists.
Drummer and timbales plater Karl Perazzo calls Ortiz “The Bruce Lee of the Congas.”
The irrepressible master percussionist and his own band, New Groove City, play a free show Saturday on the Riverwalk Stage, at the David A. Straz Center in Tampa (advance tickets are required; click here).
The high-energy band plays only original music, explains Ortiz. “It tends to be more like Weather Report meets Afro-Cuban, as opposed to anything else. It’s very adventurous, you know?”
I understand you sat in with Eddie Palmieri and Tito Puente as a young man?
When I was a kid in the Bronx, I had a chance to play with all the greats and almost-greats. I was coming up in that world. But at about 16 or 17 years old, I decided to make a left turn. I heard Return to Forever [the pioneering jazz band with Al Di Meola on guitar and Chick Corea on keyboards] and it wasn’t ‘Oh, I kind of like this music,’ it changed my whole thing. These guys were playing some incredible music.
That’s fusion, of course. Different forms and styles fused together.
It’s very American, actually, because that’s what America is. We’re a hodgepodge of Mudville, everything is mixed, all these cultures colliding in America. It was doing that already in the ‘50s, with Latin music. Dizzy Gillespie, when he went to Cuba, changed American music forever. Introduced the eighth note via Cuba, via Africa. Prior that that, there was no eighth note in American music. And everybody started to play this whole other thing.
So what changed when you heard Return to Forever?
Well, I was already listening to a bunch of great groups, fusion-y, Latin jazzy things opened up harmonically. Cuban people, we invented rhythm in the western world. American music was very simplistic, rhythmically. But the harmonies in jazz were quite beautiful. And these guys were playing some other shit, you know what I mean? And it wasn’t just Return to Forever – there was a bunch of guys that were doing that. But my first introduction was Romantic Warrior. That kind of over-the-top lines and harmony and rhythm, that was like ‘What the hell are these people doing?’ I had no understanding of what was going on. It was just beautiful, you know?
So how’d you wind up living in Florida?
I came here with my first wife in 1979, 1980. I left for about a year – I didn’t like it. When I got here from the Bronx it was like ‘what the f—k is this?’ It was awful. There was nothing going on musically. And I was already moving up the ladder in New York. Not because I was thinking of music as a career – it was always just to play good music and be around good people.
But I started a small, little family. Here I was in Florida, you know? You make do. I played with some of the Latin bands and that sort of stuff. I hooked up with Fred Johnson, Ted Shumate and all those guys in town who were doing their thing, and I was fortunate enough to be a part of their success here in town back then.
What’s the story with you and Di Meola? Late ‘80s?
I left to go to Europe for the first time, and I saw him in a theater, playing in the South of France. It was the Midem Festival. And there was Al playing solo guitar, which was incredible. And he invited some local percussionist to play … I said “Shit! I could do that!’ I never met him or nothing like that. I was a fan, and it was a great show.
Then a year to the day, January 1987 or ‘88, he walks into a club – he was playing the next night in St. Pete – because somebody told him to come see me play. I didn’t know this, but everywhere he went, he would ask about a local percussionist that he could play with. And when he got into Tampa and St. Pete, it was me.
We got together next day and jammed, and we had a ball. We got together because he’s from the Tri-State Area, you know? And I’m from the Bronx – it’s our sense of humor, and our ‘who gives a f—k’ attitude. We were like brothers in the making.
So you did that show – what happened next?
I thought that was it. Two, three days later the phone rings, I pick it up, he says ‘Hey Goom!’ I’m like ‘Who the f—k is this?’ He goes ‘It’s me, Al.’ ‘Al who?’ He goes ‘Al Di Meola.’ ‘Oh shit! What’s up buddy? Did you leave something in the club?’ I’m thinking, why would he call me unless he left his glasses or something? He says ‘Man, I had a good time … there’s an opening. If you want to, join me – you’re in the band.’ He said his lawyer was going to call me. ‘See you in Instabul, Turkey,’ he said. I hung up, I looked at my wife and I said ‘I think I’m in the band. And I’m playing in Turkey.’ Sure enough, I get the other call and the 30-year rollercoaster ride started.
Who’s in your band New Groove City?
Butch Thomas is playing saxophone – he’s fantastic. He played with Sting for four or five years, and Lenny Kravitz, Jaco Pastorius, a bunch of great guys. He’s one of the best in town. From the Bronx I got Aaron Ferrer on piano – he kicks ass because he’s a great mixture of R&B and Caribbean music. And then I got Luis Alicea, my drummer, who I also brought play in some of Al’s last electric stuff. And Kenny Walker, who’s been the mainstay in the band, playing bass.
It started off as a band called the Latino Project, and in 2012 I changed the name. What I decided to do was incorporate more … I’ll use that word fusion again, the way I interpreted Cuban music. A ‘new world interpretation of Cuban music,’ with my drum, blah blah blah. The band was always an experiment of fusion music. We’re not a salsa band! You wouldn’t hire New Groove City for A Night of Latin Dancing and Strong Perfume. But if you wanted to be entertained with Caribbean-style music …