Alex Acuña | Gifts | Available September 23 via Le Coq Records
Former Weather Report Drummer Alex Acuña to Release Gifts, His First Album as a Leader in 17 Years.
Gifts Reunites Acuña with Members of The Unknowns, Runs a Stylistic Gamut from Funk to Fusion, Soul-Jazz, Ambient, Latin and Brazilian Flavored Jazz
Available September 23 on Le Coq Records
The incredible journey of Alex Acuña has seen the renowned drummer-percussionist travel from his small rural hometown in Peru to being a first-call session drummer in the country’s capital city, Lima, then touring the United States with mambo king Pérez Prado, gigging in Las Vegas with Elvis Presley and ultimately touring internationally with Weather Report, the premiere fusion band of the mid-1970s. An in-demand Los Angeles session musician for decades, he has appeared on nearly 900 studio records and movie soundtracks while also releasing half a dozen albums under his own name.
His latest as a leader, the dynamic Gifts, reunites him with his musical cohorts from The Unknowns — Venezuelan keyboardist Otmaro Ruiz, Peruvian guitarist Ramón Stagnaro and New York City-born, Puerto-Rican-bred bassist John Peña — that band that Acuña’s led on 1990’s Thinking of You and 2005’s No Accent.
Joined by Peruvian tenor sax powerhouse Lorenzo Ferrero, this gifted and versatile crew runs the stylistic gamut from funk to fusion, soul-jazz, ambient, Latin and Brazilian flavored jazz on Gifts. “These guys can play more than one style,” Acuña said. “And I like to play with musicians that I don’t have to tell them what to play. It’s fun to play with them. They understand my musical lingo.”
From the buoyant groove number “In Town” to the Weather Report-ish “Postlude,” the exhilarating Latin flavored “Chuncho,” the Brazilian flavored top “Melancia” and the tender ballads “Amandote” and “Divina,” Acuña and his copesetic crew strike an uncanny accord. They conjure up an esoteric vibe on the atmospheric “Regalo,” then throw down with exuberance on the Afro-Cuban groover “Aletin Aletun.” They also turn in a faithful reading of Joe Zawinul’s soul-jazz anthem “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” (a tune written during his tenure with Cannonball Adderley’s quintet) and deliver an entrancing 12/8 take on Herbie Hancock’s “One Finger Snap” (from his classic 1964 Blue Note album Empyrean Isles).
While Acuña’s penchant for playing melodically on the kit permeates each of the 10 stellar tracks on Gifts, it is hardly a drummer’s showcase in a traditional sense. Many drummers can tend to assertively showcase their rhythmic mastery, but Acuña says, “that’s not what my music is about. The music is my star. And that’s why I put so many different sounding tunes on this album, because it all reflects how I feel about music.”
Regarding the album title, Acuña said: “I call it Gifts because, first of all, God gave me the gift of music. And then each tune was a gift from some composer friend of mine.” To be blessed with such immense talent was truly a gift. And now Acuña is passing on that gift to his many listeners with this heartfelt offering.
About Alex Acuña
From the tiny village of Pativilca, Peru (population 800 when he was born on Dec. 12, 1944), Alejandro Neciosup Acuña came up in a musical family of 11 children (six boys and five girls) and from the age of 10 began performing in local bands such as La Orquesta de los Hermanos. He moved to Lima as a teenager and by age 18 was recruited by the Cuban bandleader and mambo king Pérez Prado, who was still riding the mambo craze in the States on the strength of his hits “Mambo No. 5” and his seductive cha-cha-cha cover of the French tune “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White,” which peaked at #1 in 1955 and remained a staple of American radioplay through the 1950s.
“He came to Peru on a tour of South America and he saw me in a show that I was playing on TV,” Acuña recalled. “I was working on two TV programs and was also the house drummer for every recording on the Odeon label, which was like RCA/Victor of Peru. So Pérez Prado saw me play on tv and immediately he said, ‘I want to bring you to United States with me.’ All of my favorite drummers at the time were out of the United States — Buddy Ruch, Gene Krupa, Papa Jo Jones, Rufus Jones, so naturally I was excited to go. So he brought me to the United States on April 3, 1964.”
Acuña embarked on a 10-month tour of the States with Prado’s band, including five days in New York City, a swing through Los Angeles, and three weeks in Las Vegas. He made three records with Prado in 1964 — two in South America and one in Los Angeles. At the end of that tour in December of 1964, Prado returned to his home in Mexico and Acuña returned to Peru to visit his mother.
The following year, he moved to Puerto Rico, where he remained for nine years before returning to the States in 1974 to work in Las Vegas as house percussionist at the International Hotel. During his stint in Vegas, Acuña backed a bevy of stars on the bandstand, including Diana Ross and Elvis Presley. It was fellow drummer-percussionist Don Alias, in Vegas working with singer Lou Rawls, who caught Acuña with Olivia Newton-John on his night off and later recruited him to some jam sessions in New York with bassist Gene Perla, pianist Richie Beirach and saxophonist David Liebman, all of whom ended up recommending Acuña to Weather Report’s co-leader Joe Zawinul as a replacement for percussionist Alyrio Lima.
“I was in Puerto Rico in 1970 when I heard the first record by Weather Report with Alphonse Mouzon and Miroslav Vitous,” Acuña recalled. “And I said, ‘That’s the band I want to play with!’ To me, they had the full essence of what music is all about and what it’s supposed to be all about. So it was a thrill to finally be playing with my dream band.”
Acuña began playing alongside drummer Chester Thompson and bassist Alphonso Johnson on the fall leg of the Weather Report’s 1975 tour. He then recorded Black Market, alternating percussion chores with Don Alias, and ended up bonding with electric bass guitar phenom Jaco Pastorius, who came on board as a replacement for Johnson near the end of that recording. And it was at Jaco’s insistence that Acuña later switched from percussion to drums for their 1976 tour and the subsequent recording of Weather Report’s best-selling Heavy Weather.
“We played a lot of great stuff on that album, a lot of well-defined styles,” Acuña said. “We’re playing rock, ballads, Latin, even a semi-classical piece. That’s why it became one of the greatest albums ever.” Acuña would go on to play on Wayne Shorter’s 1985 album Atlantis and on two Zawinul albums, 1988 The Immigrants and 2006’s Brown Street.
Acuña’s 2000 percussion album Acuarela de Tambores was nominated for a Grammy Award while his 2002 album Los Hijos del Sol: To My Country and Bongo de Van Gogh by Tolu, which Acuña co-lead with Justo Almario, were nominated for Latin Grammys.
Alex Acuña • Gifts
Le Coq Records • Release Date: September 23, 2022
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