Then came the big break. In 1989 Jusino was lured away from pianist Robert Navarro’s band Grupo Fascinacion to play with the emerging salsa singing sensation Jose “El Canario” Alberto. But on his way out the door, Jusino suggested that Navarro check out his little brother as a replacement conguero, since Velez already knew all the tunes. “Pete Nader was the musical director and he was skeptical because of my age,” Velez remembers. “But he finally said, ’Why not?’ Larry Harlow let Pete join his band when he was a teenager, so he put me into the group.
“That was at the tail end of the salsa boom of the ’80s. There were lots of gigs and lots of after-hours clubs. Grupo Fascinacion got my name out there and I started freelancing with other bands. I left to play with Pete ’El Conde’ Rodriguez, one of the top Fania singers, part of the Fania All Stars. I knew his music from my parents’ record collections. I was 16 when I joined his band. I’d already dropped out and got my GED.” Velez couldn’t drive, so his father took him to gigs and rehearsals. “My parents were supportive. They saw it was going well and didn’t ask me to get a job to fall back on. My dad insisted I get my diploma, but after that, I could do what I wanted to do.”
Playing with Pete Rodriguez gave Velez a high profile, which led to more freelance gigs. At 17 he got a call from pianist Eddie Palmieri. “Pete heard Eddie was looking for a conga player for a Chicago gig; he told him about me. My folks played [Palmieri’s 1962 debut album] La Perfecta in the house, so I was happy. At the same time I’m going, ’Oh oh.’ I was subbing for Richie Flores and Palmieri was strict. It was also my first trip out of the city. I did the gig and Palmieri told me I did a fantastic job. He gave me a hug and kiss and kept calling me. Eventually I became his conga player.
Content with his high-profile gig, Velez remained in Palmieri’s band until 1993, when he got a call from Marc Anthony. “His debut had just come out on RMM. His singing style was unique and he had the long-hair thing going. He wanted to put together a young band and I was in it. I only stayed for four months, but I made my first recording with him on the song ’Parece Mentira’ for the movie Carlito’s Way.”
Velez left to join Willie Colón and his Illegal Alien band. “I wanted to travel and have his name in my résumé.” Velez stayed with Colón for two years, while continuing to freelance. He played a few pick-up shows with Rubén Blades and Seis De Solar and recorded with jazz percussionist and composer Kip Hanrahan on the Thousand Nights And A Night CD. In 1995 Velez left Colón to work with Isidro Infante, who became the A&R director for RMM records.
“When I heard Isidro was looking for musicians I knew it was going to be an interesting gig. He’d done arrangements for Héctor Lavoe and Willie and he’d just got a gold record for his first album as a leader [Ganas Que Tengo De Ti]. He had Johnny Almendra on timbales and his bongo player, Ray Colon, knew me from when I was 17. Ray recommended me for the job. The three of us had great chemistry, and that’s when my studio career took off.
“I was used to playing live, so I had to practice playing with a click track, but I did my homework and when Isidro became A&R director for RMM, we did a lot of recording for him. Ray, me, and Colon became a dangerous trio, with Chino Nuñez switching off on timbales for some sessions. We became the RNN percussion clique and played a lot of sessions for them. I was also in the RMM Band for live gigs and backed up all their artists. I was part of the Tropical Tribute To The Beatles show and played with Puente, Celia Cruz, and Oscar D’León.”
In 1994, at the age of 23, Velez had an opportunity to test his growing studio expertise. Infante produced and arranged Jose “El Canario” Alberto’s groundbreaking album Tribute To Machito. “A lot of people tell me that record put my name on the map. It was a great album, and really made me think about the way music and rhythm interact. These days you have the full track to play along with. Back then all I had was the bass, piano, and click track. I’d hear the cues Isidro put on there, but I didn’t know what the arrangement was, or what the brass was playing, so I had to play what I felt and invent the part as I went along. It just poured out of me.
“After that session, I got two calls – one to rejoin Marc Anthony’s band and one from Dark Latin Groove, a new group that was blending salsa, reggae, reggaeton, and hip-hop. I hadn’t played with Marc for four years, but he said he wanted me back in the band. He was working with Paul Simon on The Capeman, so he wasn’t playing too much. That let me play with DLG too. It was a fun gig. The grooves were all funky and mixed up, so I got to stretch. We toured Europe, Japan, South and Central America.
“Then the pop scene had its big Latin bang,” Velez laughs. “Marc had a big hit with ’I Need To Know’ [from his first English-language album, Marc Anthony] and Ricky Martin had ’La Vida Loca.’ In Marc’s band, we experienced something new when we toured. We became pop stars as well as salsa stars. [Marc Anthony’s band] played the Grammys, we did an HBO special – the first HBO show with a salsa artist. It was taped at Madison Square Garden. It was the last time Tito Puente played Madison Square Garden before he died. He was standing right next to me when we did ’Nadie Como Ella.’ That Latin pop boom broke down some of the barriers that were closed to us. The band played on VH1, at the Latin Grammys, Good Morning America, Jay Leno, and the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. The group is like a family, everybody gets along and whatever Marc wants us to play, we can play – salsa, rock, or jazz.”