Eight years ago Steve Kroon decided it was time to step out on his own. He cut back on his commitments to the musicians that had helped to advance his status as a go-to percussionist for anyone playing Latin jazz and R&B in New York City. He cut two solo albums that were greeted with critical acclaim and forsook the steady money he earned as a sideman for artists such as Luther Vandross and Ron Carter. It was a risk, but it was one he was willing to take.
After two years of playing as a unit, Kroon took the band into the studio for El Mas Alla (Beyond), a salute to the fallen percussionists that inspired Kroon in his youth. “It’s difficult to put out a record as a percussionist,” Kroon says from his Queens, New York workroom. “Radio is designed for guitar, sax, and piano players; they carry the melody and those instruments are more present in the mix. You have to listen for the drums or percussion on a record; they’re usually in the background, but [drummers] appreciate melody a lot more than people think. For this album, I started my own label [Kroon-A-Tune.] It’s a big step, but you can wait the rest of your life for a big label to put your record out. People are scared to take chances, especially on music that isn’t going to sell millions of copies, so I’ll take my own chances and I’ll be in control.”
As Kroon started working on the music for El Mas Alla, he realized that the generation of Cuban percussionists who created Latin jazz and salsa after they came to New York in the ’40s and ’50s was quickly disappearing. “So many of the greats have passed away in the last couple years – Patato [Valdez,] Ray Barretto, Mongo [Santamaria.] I was working on the tune ’Don Ramon,’ which is dedicated to Mongo, when the name for the album came to me. I didn’t know how to say ’beyond’ in Spanish, so I asked my father, who said the term was ’el mas alla.’ The literal translation means something like transcending to the other side, which was perfect. When my father passed away six months ago, the music became part of the healing process. Even though I was inspired by thoughts of mortality, the music is happy, not at all depressing. Sometimes there’s beauty even in the darkest moments. That’s how you transcend this life. You go into the darkness and turn it inside out with your creative impulses.”
Like his other albums, El Mas Alla is a blend of Kroon’s original music and cover songs that resonate with him. “I pick things to give the album an overall vibe. I work on the original tunes first, then find other songs that fit harmonically with the grooves I’m working on. I like a cohesive sound that people can listen to from beginning to end, with a sense of flow. If you’re writing a novel, you have to place it in time and space and add the adjectives you need to fill in the picture. I take the feeling of my songs and look for melodies by other writers that complement it. I like Stevie Wonder’s ’Superwoman’ because he almost writes in clave. He has a Latin sense of swing in a lot of his tunes. James Shipp, an arranger I work with, brought me a unique, fresh treatment of the Jaco Pastorius tune ’Used To Be A Cha Cha,’ and Freddie Cole sang ’I Wish You Love,’ a ballad I knew from my childhood. Symphony Sid used to play it on his radio show and Gloria Lynn had a big hit with it.