Think of the Caribbean as a vast and far-flung laboratory, with thousands of researchers constantly investigating and refining a dazzling array of African diaspora rhythms. Ritmos Unidos is a rare ensemble that draws inspiration from various corners of the region, from sacred Santería rituals of Cuba to the celebratory carnival grooves of Trinidad and Tobago. Under the direction of renowned percussionist Michael Spiro the band makes a major leap with its second, self-named album, an ambitious project centering on two extended pieces that encompass several profound rhythmic currents. “Our intent isn’t to play one style,” says Spiro, a eight-time Grammy nominee with deep and abiding ties to Cuba. “Ritmos Unidos means we’re bringing many different rhythms together. It’s a little bit different from what other Latin bands are doing.”
After earning a Bachelor’s Degree with honors in Latin American Studies from the University of California, Spiro headed north to Seattle for graduate work in ethnomusicology. But after two years an offer by Gordon to teach him batá drums brought Spiro back to the Bay Area. By 1982 he was in the thick of the Bay Area’s thriving Latin music scene, playing in the seminal band Batachanga with percussionist John Santos and a teenage piano phenomenon named Rebeca Mauleón. The gig with Batachanga led to his apprenticeship with conga legend Francisco Aguabella, and in 1984 he made the first of more than two-dozen trips to Cuba.
Over the past three decades, Spiro has distinguished himself as a player, producer, educator, and bandleader. He’s played a central role on a series of seminal recordings, including BataKetu, Mark Levine and the Latin Tinge, Orquesta La Moderna Tradicion, Bata-Mbira, Grupo Ilu-Aña. As a session musician, he’s played on soundtracks for major feature films and documentaries, contributed arrangements to a Tony Award winning Broadway production (Blast!), and collaborated with a mind-boggling array of artists, including Clark Terry, McCoy Tyner, David Byrne, Cachao, Changuito, Frank Emilio Flynn, Ella Fitzgerald, David Garibaldi, Gilberto Gil, Giovanni Hidalgo, Toninho Horta, Bobby Hutcherson, Chico O’Farrill, Eddie Palmieri, and Charlie Watts.
While Spiro remains closely associated with the Bay Area Latin music scene, he’s also been based in Bloomington since taking on a tenured position at Indiana University Jacobs School of Music in 2011. Looking for opportunities to play with like minded musicians, he gathered together an impressive cast of fellow faculty, alumni and grad students connected to IU, and ended up forming Ritmos Unidos with Jeremy Allen, Jamaal Baptiste, Joe Gavin, Pat Harbison, Nate Johnson, Mike Mixtacki and Joel Tucker.
Michael Mixtacki, who teaches percussion at Northern Illinois University and leads the school’s Latin Jazz and Afro-Cuban Folkloric Ensembles, is the drummer, percussionist, lead singer, and arranger for Ritmos Unidos. He co-produced the band’s acclaimed debut album, and has recorded with Grammy-nominated trombonist/arranger Wayne Wallace. An expert accompanist, bassist Jeremy Allen has performed with Fred Hersch, David Liebman, Randy Brecker, Tim Hagans, Eric Alexander, and Jerry Bergonzi. As a recording artist, he’s collaborated with Bob Brookmeyer and Kenny Wheeler, the Luke Gillespie Trio, the Ayn Inserto Jazz Orchestra, and Sara Caswell. A recently tenured professor in the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, Allen is also founder of Watercourse Records, a label created to release projects in which he’s involved.
Born and raised on the island of Aruba, pianist Jamaal Baptiste is a standout undergraduate in the jazz studies program at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music who has studied with Luke Gillespie and David Baker. Comfortable performing in a wide range of musical settings, Baptiste is versed in jazz, blues, R&B, gospel, Brazilian, and Caribbean music. The author of many articles on jazz and trumpet as well as several books, such as Technical Studies for the Modern Trumpet and Twenty Authentic Bebop Solos (Aebersold), Patrick Harbison has recorded prolifically, including albums with the PsychoAcoustic Orchestra, the Blue Wisp Big Band, and David Baker’s 21st Century Bebop Band.
Guitarist Joel Tucker studied at Indiana University and performed with the Latin Jazz Collective under the direction of Spiro. Based in Indianapolis, he’s a busy freelance guitarist and private instructor. Percussionist and steel pan player Joe Galvin provides Ritmos Unidos with a tremendous amount of textural detail, while also contributing on bata, chekere, guiro, lead and background vocals, cavaquinho and violin. Music director for the IU Contemporary Dance Department, Galvin is currently pursuing a doctoral degree focusing on steelpan and Afro-Cuban music at Jacobs School of Music. And saxophonist Nate Johnson is a versatile player with extensive experience in blues, R&B, jazz, rock country and western and diverse Latin American and Caribbean styles. With so many traditions at their fingertips, the Ritmos Unidos crew knows that it’s the depth of their rhythmic inquiry and not merely the breadth of their approach that makes the music so enticing. Ritmos Unidos is an impressive accomplishment that promises great things to come.