Steve Kroon: Laughing In The Face Of Uncertainty

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.”

New Music

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.

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“Everything was done live in the studio at Kaleidoscope Sound in New Jersey. We laid it down in two days. That’s why it’s tighter than my other albums. We’ve been a working band for two years and we road tested the tunes the old-fashioned way, playing them every night so you know where the arrangement is going, how many solos you’re doing, and how long they’re going to be. Then we just laid it down.”

Bryan Carrott’s vibes and the flute of Craig Rivers give the music on El Mas Alla a bright, free sound, while Kroon and drummers Diego Lopez and Vince Cherico keep things earthbound with their interlocking rhythms. “Diego started working with the band a year ago and he has a great feel,” Kroon says. “Vince is on all my CDs and has a good sense of what I do. I just suggest the beat we’re going to play – cha cha, rumba, a Brazilian type of thing – and they give me what I want. They’re good groove players and understand rhythm and foundation, so the beat never sounds cluttered.”

Kroon is known as a generous bandleader, and the charts contributed by arrangers Oscar Hernandez, Igor Atalita, James Shipp, John DiMartino, and Kroon himself leave plenty of space for group interplay. “I like arrangements that will give the CD an overall style,” Kroon says. “Not under-produced or overproduced, so people will know what to expect when they hear it live. It’s all organic and I keep it as spare as possible. Years ago all the bands had their own style. Even if they didn’t announce the artist on the radio you knew it was Tito Puente, or Mongo, or The Beatles. They used different sounds and flavors on different tunes, but they had an overall feel. That’s what I’m searching for.

“That’s why I produced it myself, with help from Oscar and Igor. We have a good working relationship and I trust them to make everything go smooth and sound better. The melody is 60 percent of the performance; 40 percent is the freedom to go off into different directions. You need to balance the melodic line, which tells the story of the song, with the solo sections that allow everyone to shift into another groove. You have to follow your creative impulse, without going too far from what you’re doing, but if you have a great band, you might as well let them play. The only pressure we feel now that [the album] is done is hoping the universe will accept it.”

Kroon keeps a small tape recorder by his bed to capture late night inspirations, and has a good idea of what he wants in an arrangement from the beginning. He gets together frequently with Hernandez and Atalita to make sure the charts remain inventive. “I don’t want my compositions to repeat themselves, but all the same, you can’t get away from your own style. Expressing the melodies to Oscar and Igor helps us transcend our individual limitations.”

Tools

Kroon is known for his extensive knowledge of percussion instruments, but says he prefers to keep his setup simple. “I use Latin Percussion drums – one bass [tumba], one conga, and one quinto – although I prefer one bass and two congas. When you adjust congas and tune them, you get a bigger sound. I use the Giovanni model and prefer natural skins as opposed to plastic heads. I like to sit down. You can dig in a little more when you sit down. My setup changes slightly according to the situation. The jazz gigs may just want percussion. On R&B gigs I use two congas because the rhythms are simpler. On Latin and Brazilian dates you use the three drums and different sound effects. It’s always good to know what kind of sound people want, so you have the right tools and you don’t overplay.”

Planting Seeds

Kroon was one of the lucky ones. He grew up in a family that loved music and supported his desire to be a musician. He credits his eclectic musical taste to the neighborhoods he lived in as a boy: Spanish Harlem and St. Albans in Queens. “My dad was a die-hard Latin music fan,” he recalls. “He and my mom came to New York [from Puerto Rico] when he was 17. The apartment in Harlem was full of the sounds of Machito, Mongo, Tito Rodriquez, and Tito Puente. He had a record collection that was out of this world. When he passed he left me all his LPs and 78s, all the sounds we heard in the house growing up. [My parents] did like some Americans too, like Tony Bennett and Nat King Cole. When Cole cut Cole Español he said, ’Now ain’t that beautiful.’ He loved that record.”

Kroon’s immediate influence was his brother Bobby. “I had four brothers and my older brother Bobby, who passed away 18 years ago, inspired me to become a percussionist. He was my hero, the person who gave me my confidence and identity. We shared a love of music and he saw I had talent at an early stage. We started a doo-wop group in Spanish Harlem, singing a cappella. I was 12 years old and sang lead, and the whole neighborhood was behind me. When Bobby was 15 my father took him to see Tito Puente and the next week he had to buy him a set of timbales. He showed me how to play because he got hooked. By the time I was 15 we’d moved to Queens and had our own Latin jazz band in the basement of our house. That move put us into a different world. Harlem in the ’50s was on fire in every aspect: musically, spiritually, and socially. When my father moved us to Queens in ’56, my brothers and me were highly depressed. But then we found out all these great musicians were living [in St. Albans]. Eddie ’Lockjaw’ Davis was on the next street over. Henry Glover was around the corner and he was producing and recording R&B, rock, and jazz groups. He was a great songwriter and let me sit in on rehearsals with The Cleftones and Joey Dee And The Starliters. Lester Young, Prez, was four blocks away. Count Basie lived there too. I hung with their kids – my brother and me washed their cars and cut their grass. We had respect for them as elders and looked up to them.

“So I was playing timbales in our basement jazz band and getting into R&B. I used to listen to the Symphony Sid Show on WJZ and he’d play everything: Frank Sinatra, Ella, Duke, Tito Puente, Lionel Hampton, Sammy Davis Jr., and Frankie Lymon. It was a broad musical scope and that variety made my generation open to all kinds of sounds. Then my father took me to a Symphony Sid show at the Apollo. I was about 15 or 16. Mongo Santamaria was there. My dad said he was taking me to see the greatest conguero in the word. After that show I had to get a pair of congas. I played for a while and my brother told me I had a knack for it; that I was going to be a conga player. I told him I still loved the timbales, but he was right. I stayed with the congas. I never had any desire to play piano or guitar after the rhythms got into me.

“When I discovered Brazilian music in the ’70s, I really went for the sound effects they made. I started making my own shakers and bells and really delved into the Brazilian sound. They have hundreds of percussion instruments because they live near the jungle, so they emulate the sounds of the forest: running water, rain, the sounds of trees shaking in the wind – it’s all in the music. I realized being a percussionist is like being a chef. Someone may give you the recipe, but you add the salt and pepper and the spices.”

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The bar scene in New York City in the ’70s was huge, and Kroon found plenty of work as a conguero and percussionist playing in Latin, jazz, and R&B bands. “You could work from Thursday to Sunday in the hood,” he recalls. “You didn’t have to travel. I’d play for whoever would call me and it went on for years. I made a living at it pretty much from high school on. I worked in the Post Office for five years during the days too, until age 25. Then I decided to quit and do the music thing full time.”

Always looking for ways to improve his chops, Kroon studied Afro Cuban percussion with Tommy López Sr., who “opened my eyes to playing correct. He was a master who played with Eddie Palmieri in Conjunto La Perfecta. He cured me of a lot of bad habits. Then, in the early ’70s, I studied with Dom Um Romão from Brazil 66. He later played with Weather Report on Mysterious Traveler. We played together and he taught me the Brazilian patterns for bells and other percussion instruments. I played in his band Hotmosphere with Steve Thornton for a couple of years, just before I got my big break with Luther [Vandross].”

The Big Break

Kroon met Vandross through his friend Errol “Crusher” Bennett, who was the original conguero with the Salsoul Orchestra. “Crusher was a hot studio percussionist,” Kroon explains. “He did a record with Luther. When Luther asked him to go on the road, he said he liked doing studio stuff. He told Luther to call me. I got that gig and it changed my life. It was good financially and Luther was a class-A act all the way. Then, five years later, in 1986, Crusher was playing a studio session with [jazz bass player] Ron Carter, who offered him a spot in the band for a world tour, but again he didn’t want to travel, so he got me that gig. I stayed in both bands for about 20 years and made a lot of R&B and jazz connections on the road and in the studio with them. I got very knowledgeable about both types of music.”

At the same time he was playing with Carter and Vandross, Kroon was doing sessions with a cross section of musicians. He played on albums with Diana Krall, Roberta Flack, Billy Ocean, Gloria Lynne, Mavis Staples, The Temptations, The Family Stand, Kenny Rankin, Bette Midler, Johnny Gil, Freddy Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Teddy Pendergrass, D Train, Kenny G, Spiro Gyra, Paul Butterfield, and Kid Creole & The Coconuts, to name check just a few. As Kroon says, “The juices were flowing and my name was getting around. People ask how you know if you’ve made it, but you don’t have to ask yourself that question. When it’s all around you, you know you’re there.”

A Normal Life

“I’ve always been cool with where I am at any given point,” Kroon concludes. “I’m married, I get up in the morning like everyone else and go take a walk in the sun. A musician’s life doesn’t have to take you to all the excessive places people expect you to go. I never got strung out or went overboard, but I had my share of good times. You know, we all start off at the same place and we all end up at the same place, but I’m more excited now than I’ve ever been.”

Kroon’s Percussion Rig

DRUMS LP
1 15" x 6.5" Tito Puente Timbale
2 14" x 6.5" Tito Puente Timbale
3 11.75 x 30" Giovanni Galaxy Series Conga
4 11" x 30" Giovanni Galaxy Series Quinto
5 12.5" x 30" Giovanni Galaxy Series Tumbadora
6 7.25" Giovanni Series Bongo
7 8.625" Giovanni Series Bongo

PERCUSSION LP
A Cowbell
B Cowbell
C Cajon
D Shakers
E Double African Shaker
F Large Caxixi
G Studio Series Bar Chimes
H Cyclops Tambourine
I Small Cluster Chimes
J 5" Triangle
K Cabasa
L Shekere
M Guiro
N Cricket
O Traditional Rain Stick
P Dry Agogo Set

Steven Kroon also uses LP hardware, heads, and timbale sticks, and Samson microphones.