Bobby Porcelli has paid his dues. Described by his sometime bandleader, the drummer T.S. Monk, as “the most underrated alto player of all time” and a “veritable encyclopedia of jazz discography, especially the bebop era,” Porcelli has worked with everyone from Celia Cruz to Joe Henderson. Most notably, he played for three decades with Tito Puente, and spent shorter stints with Tito Rodríguez and Machito, collectively known as the Big Three.
His fellow musicians and fans look to Bobby as a kind of living legend, and are awed by his talent and versatility. Yet he is his own harshest critic. Lately, he has noticed that people are posting nice comments on his Facebook page (which he rarely checks), and that when he’s at a gig, even in such faraway places as Venezuela and Taipei, people are approaching the bandstand and asking to have their pictures taken with him.
A longtime member of Local 802, Bobby joined the union when he was a student at Columbia. During a recent hour-long interview at a noisy Starbucks around the corner from his apartment in Morningside Heights, he tells me that “all of a sudden people are realizing, ‘Maybe we ought to give him some tributes right now, just for persevering all of these years.’ It’s really nice, it makes me feel good, that I’ve accomplished something.”
Bobby adds, “I still haven’t done all of the things that I set out to do by this time, but when the people come over to me, it makes me think that maybe I’ve accomplished more than I realized.”
When Bobby started playing alto – he also plays bari and flute – his first influence was Dave Brubeck’s saxophonist Paul Desmond. “I played like that for about two or three weeks,” he remembers, “and then I got ahold of some records by Sonny Stitt and Charlie Parker, and I changed immediately. I remember at this jam session, when I was just a kid in high school, I’d go to this place up in the north Bronx every Tuesday or Wednesday night, and this guy came over and told me, ‘You know, in one week, you moved from the West Coast to the East Coast.’ I had changed my style so suddenly, so quickly.”
Bobby was still too young to go to bars, so he never got to see Charlie Parker in person. However, captivated by Bird’s music, he bought every one of his records and spent many hours putting Bird’s solos on “The Song Is You,” “Ko-Ko” and “Lover” down on paper.
“I had a reel-to-reel tape recorder and I would record the solos and play them back at a slower speed,” he says. “As soon as the records came out, I would replay them and copy them down. I never learned tunes from fake books. I always learned them by ear.”
Shortly after high school, Bobby became friendly with the legendary salsa trombonist Barry Rogers. “He took me around and introduced me to so many things, taking me to jam sessions, and he’s the one who introduced me to Latin music,” Bobby remembers.
Barry got Bobby into the band led by tenor saxophonist Hugo Dickens. The band played authentic jazz, Latin and R&B. Also in the band were a young Pete LaRoca and Larry Gales. They played in large halls with bad amplification and, as a result, developed big sounds in order to compensate.
Bobby’s Latin career began to take off. One of his first jobs was in the band of conga player Sabu Martinez, where he got to know the timbale player Mike Collazo. One day, he ran into Collazo on the corner of Broadway and 53rd Street, outside the Palladium. Collazo told him that Tito Rodriguez was auditioning for an alto player. Bobby happened to have his sax with him, went directly to the audition, and got the job.
Meanwhile, Barry Rogers also introduced Bobby to the music of John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk who, on July 4, 1957, began a six-month gig at New York’s Five Spot Café. The two would go to see the band once or twice a week, every week. Coltrane had an enormous impact on Bobby’s career, especially in terms of how he approached the music.
“He was very inspiring,” he says. “Music was like a religion to him. He didn’t hang out at the bar during the breaks; he would either go out and take a walk, or be in the back practicing or trying reeds. And he was so serious about it, and quiet, and soft-spoken. The way he played did influence me for a while. I was trying to play a lot of fast runs and all of that. Even though that all disappeared from my playing – that part of the Coltrane influence – I think what stayed was to be very serious about the music. I was already serious about it, but that really inspired me tremendously.
“Coltrane’s playing was so astounding,” Bobby adds, “because at the time, it was completely different but still beautiful. It wasn’t just different for the sake of being different. It was just so beautiful, just the sound of the instrument, that it’s hard to describe. When Charlie Parker first came along, it must have been the same kind of thing, how different it was compared to how everybody else was playing at the time.”
Monk’s music also exerted a big influence on Bobby. “Monk opens you up, in many ways, if you approach his music properly. It’s not just playing a song with chords, like other people’s compositions.” Early on, Bobby was also impressed with Bud Powell – whom he calls “one of the two or three greatest geniuses in jazz history” – and influenced by alto players like Benny Carter, Ernie Henry, Sonny Red, and Gigi Gryce. He also listened to Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky, and Profokiev, and he’s a big fan of Brahms’ four symphonies.
Although he studied flute for six months with the Met Opera principal flutist Harold Bennett, when it comes to jazz, Bobby is completely self-taught. “I learned a lot just by listening to guys play, listening to records, and sitting at the piano,” he says. “I’ve always had a good ear. I never had that much difficulty transcribing solos. I have a very good sense of pitch. I was always very good at that, just hearing something and writing it down.”
In the 1970s, trumpeter and arranger Don Sickler published two songbooks of transcriptions of the solos of Coltrane and Joe Henderson. Bobby helped quite a bit with those transcriptions. On the other hand, Bobby isn’t a big fan of the Charlie Parker “Omnibook,” the classic book of Bird transcriptions. In some cases, he says, “Bird had pushed down his finger a split second too late and what you’re hearing is the harmonic. It’s not the note that was intended. For instance, when Bird plays a middle D and the octave key doesn’t close on time, it comes out sounding like an A. They would write that note on the transcription, but it’s not the note Bird intended. When you know the saxophone, you know what Bird was playing. Also, the Omnibook doesn’t use key signatures: it writes everything in C, using accidentals, which makes it much more difficult in sight reading.”
Looking back on his work with the Latin greats, Bobby reminisces, “Tito Puente was very serious in the beginning and sometimes he had a temper. Later on, he was just a good friend and a great guy. In his last 10 years, he became a very outgoing person. You didn’t have to worry about the audience; he took care of that! He was a great showman. People loved him everywhere, all over the world.”
The other Tito with whom Bobby played – Tito Rodriguez – was “famous among the Latin people, and they loved him,” says Bobby. “First of all, he was a singer, and singers are always more famous than instrumentalists. Plus he had a great band. In the 50s and 60s, his and Puente’s bands were really on an equal level. Rodriguez was a little more tightly wound guy. You couldn’t really get palsy-walsy like you could with Puente. And, yes, it’s true that they did have a rivalry. But after Rodríguez died, Puente paid tribute to him for years and said nice things about him.”
One of the greatest Latin concerts (and CDs) of all time took place at the Village Gate in 1967. The list of musicians reads like a Who’s Who of Latin jazz: Rogers, Palmieri, Porcelli and Puente, joined by “Chocolate” Armenteros, Candido, Johnny Pacheco, Ray Barretto and José Feliciano. “I remember that I was feeling really good that night,” Bobby remembers. “I had a good reed, which makes all the difference. Unfortunately, these days a good reed is hard to find,” he adds with a laugh.
Today, Bobby’s style continues to blend bebop and Latin elements. Every Sunday night he performs at Birdland in Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra. If you’re lucky, you’ll hear his interpretation of “La Puerta,” a beautiful Mexican ballad.
Bobby isn’t into what is known in the trade as “getting house.” He explains, “I know musicians who can get the audience to yell and scream after their solos. Sometimes I might play something that I think is pretty good, and get a moderate reaction; and then one of these players will do that kind of stuff and get a tremendous reaction. It doesn’t bother me that much, but I know some players that it really does bother.”
There’s no dance floor at Birdland, but Bobby keeps that tradition alive, too, when he plays at other venues with the Mambo Legends Orchestra, composed of some of the finest Latin jazz players, including former members of Puente’s band. “When there’s room,” he says, “people will always get up and dance.”
He also works in Celia Coleman’s “strictly jazz” big band at places such as the Garage Restaurant and Bar. Since the 1990s, he has been a member of T.S. Monk’s small group.
Bobby is a featured soloist on Ray Vega’s “Pa’lante” and The New Stories’ “Hope is in the Air,” featuring the music of Elmo Hope, one of Monk’s and Powell’s contemporaries. He also appears on his old friend Marty Sheller’s “Why Deny,” and over the past decade he has recorded with Cuban pianist Bebo Valdés and Dominican singer Yolanda Adams, to name a few.
Bobby made two LPs as leader in the 1980s, both with Italian rhythm sections. These two albums – “Bursting” and “Rising” – are both long out of print.
The story goes that Dizzy Gillespie was once fronting an Afro-Cuban band featuring no fewer than a dozen percussionists. After starting up high, when he was in the middle of one of his patented descending melodic lines, Diz stopped all of a sudden and wanted to know, “Where the f—- is one?” In other words, even the man who popularized Latin jazz was having a tough time finding the downbeat. (In his autobiography, Dizzy joked that you’d need a psychiatrist to explain the Latin polyrhythms!)
I asked Bobby about whether he has ever had the same experience, trying to follow the beat – or, rather, beats. “Sometimes,” he says, “when they play these percussion get-togethers, I can’t hear the bass well, and I’ll have the same problem: ‘Where is the one?’ Because it’s so complex. So I understand what Dizzy was saying. I haven’t figured out a way to always be sure that I know where one is. Maybe all Dizzy could hear was his own sound in his ears. When you play a horn, sometimes you don’t hear what’s going on around you. It’s not like a jazz rhythm section where you can kind of pick it up. Nowadays, even bass players start going all over the place. And I have trouble with some of these very contemporary Latin rhythm sections. Maybe that’s what Dizzy was talking about. Unless he was just joking.”
Peter Zimmerman’s “The Music Masters: Setting the Record Straight” is due out this fall. For information, write to PodunkPete@gmail.com. His book “Tennessee Music: Its People and Places” was published by Miller Freeman in 1998. Zimmerman previously interviewed Clark Terry for Allegro, which appeared in our January 2014 issue.