The Legendary Estrada Brothers
TWO FOR THE ROAD
Throughout our lives we meet, encounter or are introduced to thousands of people under a variety of situations and circumstances. Most of the time when our paths cross with someone it doesn't mean or amount to anything. It was just something that was supposed to happen for whatever reason. Every now and then we meet a person through work, school, church, family or social oriented activities, who eventually becomes a part of our lives either as a co-worker, colleague or casual acquaintance. Sometimes these relationships blossom into friendships. True friendship, in my opinion, takes time. It usually doesn't happen over night. However, once in a great while you come upon an exception to this rule. You will meet someone for the first time that is so very special that you realize it instantly. They just exude a warmth, honesty and humanity that make them immediately likeable. They are your kind of person and someone that you hope you can become and remain friends with forever. You know that the quality of your life will be all the better due to the fact that they are a part of it. Even if it is in a very small way and regardless if they feel the same about you. To me, Ruben Estrada is such a person.
I met Ruben and his wonderful family fifteen years ago in 1990 when his Estrada Brothers band along with brother Henry and son Ruben Jr. better known as "Cougar" were playing a concert at a local park in their hometown of Camarillo. My good friend and long time Camarillo resident Madlyn Miller knew of my love for the music of Cal Tjader and invited me to join her. She herself had never actually been to an Estrada Brothers performance but had either read or heard through the grapevine that they specialized in Tjader's music. That was all I needed to hear. Listening to Ruben play the first few notes on his vibraphone I knew that I was witnessing something magical. The spirit of Cal Tjader lived on through Ruben. It was uncanny.
I was fortunate enough to see Tjader perform six times during the last sixteen months of his life and actually got to speak with him and get his autograph on his grammy award-winning album "La Onda Va Bien" just six weeks before he died. He seemed like an unpretentious, easy-going and completely approachable gentleman who genuinely appreciated, respected and was grateful for his loyal legion of fans. The same can be said about Ruben Estrada.
During the break between sets at Ruben's gig, I introduced myself and told him how impressed I was with his playing and how it evoked so many fond memories of Tjader. Even though he had just provided an hour of music for my ears I think what I told him was in a way, music to his ears. We bonded immediately. He introduced me to his beautiful wife Delia, son Cougar, brother Henry and his wife Lydia and all of the other Estradas who seemed to comprise the majority of the audience. They all accepted and embraced me and invited Madlyn and myself to come over to their house after the concert for beer and carne asada without hesitation or reservation. I have never experienced this kind of hospitality and generosity from strangers either before or since. They made us feel so welcome and comfortable in their home that it was almost as if we were familia. After this initial meeting I was totally hooked. I went to see the band play as often as I could. To me, they were and are still the greatest latin-jazz band in the world.
Ruben Estrada was born March 18, 1938 in Ventura county. He is the youngest of seven brothers and also has two sisters, Sally being the eldest and Esther who is the youngest of the clan. He comes from a musical family. His father, Louis D. Estrada was a violinist who had a ten a piece orchestra in the 1930's. Ruben started playing professionally as a drummer at the age of ten joining his old brother Angel's band. Unfortunately, due to the child labor laws at the time, somebody ratted Ruben out to the local authorities and he was put on the sidelines for several years. He continued his education and when he reached high school the musical director of Oxnard Union High School taught Ruben how to play the trumpet. He later took up the congas, bongos and all other percussion instruments. The piano was of course, the first instrument of both brothers. Once he turned eighteen Ruben joined his brothers as a regular and permanent member of the Angel Estrada band. This was in 1956. The following year Ruben married his high school sweetheart Delia and started a family. It was a union that would last for forty- three years until Delia's untimely passing in 2000 after a long and courageous battle with cancer. Throughout it all she demonstrated tremendous faith, optimism and bravery that was truly commendable and awe-inspiring.
Angel Estrada not only was the leader of the band but also owned and operated four salons in which all four of the brothers cut hair at. It was also he who decided that the group needed a vibraphone. In the late 50's and early 60's it seemed as if all latin groups were utilizing the instruments so Angel felt that his group needed one as well to remain current and competitive. He and the brothers all pitched in to purchase one. Angel played the piano in the band and when he switched to vibes Ruben would play piano behind him. Angel simply had no affinity for the instrument and lost interest in it almost immediately. This left Ruben who took to the vibes like a duck takes to water.
It was also around this time that Ruben became totally enamored with Cal Tjader. He was also a big fan of Tito Puente as well as local latin vibists Tony Martinez, Manny Lopez and Bobby Montez. However, Tjader was and always will be Ruben's main man. Ruben purchased every Tjader album he could get his hands on and attended every personal appearance Tjader made locally whenever he could.
The Angel Estrada band worked steadily and was in great demand in the Oxnard-Ventura-Santa Barbara area throughout the 1960's. They played music for all occasions; weddings, receptions, anniversaries, birthdays, etc. In the early 70's Angel and his wife went into real estate so he left the band. The remaining siblings, Bob, Henry and Ruben now became known as the Estrada Brothers band. The group continued to flourish into the 1980's until Bob left to pursue his own career, thus leaving Henry and Ruben to carry on the tradition of the Estrada Brothers. They did so throughout the 1990's. Henry only plays with the band once in a while now when he feels like it or on special occasions, usually when the gig is close to home. He is every bit the class act and outstanding musician that his brother Ruben is.
Ruben is now the sole heir (survivor might be a better word) to the Estrada Brothers legacy. Even son Cougar, who is now the regular drummer with the world renowned latin-rock band Los Lobos is only available to play with his dad when his busy schedule permits it, which isn't often. If it weren't for Ruben, the Estrada Brothers band would simply no longer exist. It would be like the Modern Jazz Quartet without Milt Jackson.
The Estrada Brothers band (or as it now should be called the Ruben Estrada Band) is still one of the most exciting latin- jazz bands around. Anywhere Ruben plays feels like a party whether he is playing at a party or not. This is not to suggest that Ruben or the many variations of his band are not serious musicians. Ruben's many groups have opened for such jazz legends and icons as Dave Brubeck and Stan Getz. He has also opened for Tito Puente, known as "El Rey" the king of latin- jazz who has been called the Duke Ellington of latin-jazz. These are very impressive credentials to say the least.
There are at least half a dozen other bands up and down the California coast that are fronted by vibists who play latin-jazz in the Cal Tjader tradition. I know all of them personally and am a friend, fan and supporter each. However, Ruben is the chairman of the board. This is not just my opinion. Ten years ago in 1995 conguero, band leader and former Tjader sideman Poncho Sanchez chose Ruben to play the vibes on his recording "Soul Sauce : Memories of Cal Tjader" which to me is a masterpiece that I feel should have won the grammy that year. It is among the best of Sanchez's many discs and this is due in large part to Ruben's participation and contribution to the project. Poncho Sanchez has the popularity, power, prestige and influence to have acquired the services of any number of big-name vibraphone superstars. The fact that he chose Ruben speaks volumes. Sanchez knew from the get-go that Ruben was the perfect candidate for the job. He was the only one who could fill Tjader's shoes convincingly. It would not have been the same or as good without him.
Of the three or four commercially released Estrada Brothers recordings only two are still available, "About Time" and "Get Out of My Way". This one, "Two For The Road", is without a doubt Ruben's best. It is my personal favorite and I guarantee will be everybody's once they hear it.
Ruben is a true artist who is sensitive yet not temperamental. He loves the creative process of the music itself but has no fondness whatsoever for the business end of it. That part he would gladly do without if he could. Unfortunately, that is simply not an option. He has to be a businessman at times whether he wants to be or not. He is at his best and most comfortable when he is behind his instrument in front of a large and enthusiastic audience. When he feels the warmth and affection from an attentive and appreciative crowd, he can truly be inspired to greatness. What he improvises with his mallets on his vibraphone comes directly from his heart and mind. It speaks louder and clearer than anything he or any one of us could ever say with words. It is his way of reciprocating the love and loyalty his following has given him by gathering to hear him in the first place.
Ruben Estrada loves life, family, people and music. He is happiest whenever all four of these essential elements are combined which is whenever his band plays.
"Two For The Road" is dedicated to the memory of Ruben's very dear friend Bob Alcocer. Bob, like so many of us became a fan of Ruben the moment he heard him play and a friend immediately thereafter upon first meeting him. He was about to finance and produce a project featuring Ruben when he died of cancer in 1999. Bob's widow Marie is the executive producer of "Two For The Road". Ruben's son Cougar is producer.
"Two For The Road" is comprised of six cover tunes and six Ruben Estrada originals. Ruben has a knack for choosing compositions that have not been done to death or suffer from over-exposure. Among the familiar tunes on this outing are Dave Brubeck's "In Your Own Sweet Way", Johnny Mandel's "Emily" and the lesser known Henry Mancini number "Two For The Road" which serves as the title track. All are performed beautifully.
The disc opens with Ruben's interpretation of "Tanya" which first appeared on Cal Tjader's "Soul Sauce" album forty years ago. Later that same year (1965) percussionist, vocalist and former Tjader sideman Willie Bobo recorded probably his most famous album "Spanish Grease". Ruben's rendition of this number I feel is superior to the original. It is a party tune that may someday rank right up there with such favorites as "Tequila" and "La Bamba".
My absolute favorite tune of all- time is Ray Bryant's "Cuban Fantasy". This along with Bryant's "Cubano Chant" both written more than fifty years ago epitomize and perhaps actually define what latin or afro-cuban jazz is all about. "Cuban Fantasy" was one of Cal Tjader's great flag-wavers and he recorded it several times over the years just as Ruben has. This latest version I feel is the definitive one. After hearing it I am sure you will agree.
The Ruben Estrada originals are perfectly matched with the standards he has chosen for the program. Four of his six compositions were inspired by and are dedicated to four very special individuals. "Viva Niles" is a rollicking romp honoring the memory of the late disc jockey Chuck Niles and "Bossadelia" is Cougar's heartfelt tribute to his mother Delia . "Ojos Latinos" is for Ruben's sister Esther Estrada and "Marie's Song" is Ruben's special way of expressing his gratitude and appreciation to Marie Alcocer for her unwavering encouragement and support over the years. These last two pretty tunes have been made all the more beautiful by the addition of a four piece string section which includes two violins, a viola and a cello. It is the first time Ruben has ever recorded with strings and the results are absolutely gorgeous. The remaining originals are entitled "Encanto" and "Bailadora".
"Two For The Road" is the ultimate Ruben Estrada disc that should be considered an essential staple of any latin-jazz aficianado's comprehensive musical library. The name Ruben Estrada may never be as internationally known as that of latin-jazz legends and superstars such as Tjader, Puente, Bobo and Santamaria but that might change if everyone had an opportunity to hear this latest endeavor. Whether this actually happens or not doesn't really matter. To those of us who have known and loved Ruben and his music for so many years, he has been a superstar all along. Viva Estrada.