Innovative Latin percussionist Ralph Irizarry dies at 67

Ralph Irizarry, a master of the timpani who performed in groups led by conga player Ray Barretto and singer Rubén Blades before forming his own famous groups, died on September 5 in a Brooklyn hospital. He was 67 years old.

Her daughter, Marisa Irizarry, said the cause was multiple organ failure caused by a bacterial infection in her lungs which led to septic shock.

Mr. Irizarry’s virtuoso playing of the timpani has placed it in the tradition of masters like Tito Puente, said Bobby Sanabria, a percussionist and educator who has sometimes performed with Mr. Irizarry.

“Ralph took the instrument and extended its possibilities to the nth degree,” augmenting it with cowbells and other percussion instruments, Sanabria said in a telephone interview. But he refused to use a bass drum or add a drummer to his group who played a standard trap game.

“If you closed your eyes, you’d say, ‘Who the hell is playing the drums? , Said Mr. Sanabria. “Then you see this creepy guy with his two hands, his timpani, a snare and cymbals. “

In a tribute on his website, Mr. Blades described an essential part of Mr. Irizarry’s game.

“Irizarry’s percussive lesson is clear,” he wrote. “It’s not all pyrotechnics, you don’t always have to fill in the silences. Mr. Irizarry’s timpani “conversed”, he added, “sometimes in a low voice, with a sense of syncope, of time and rhythm that always flow, never repeated”.

Throughout his career – and especially after forming the Ralph Irizarry & Timbalaye septet in the late 1990s – Mr. Irizarry was lucid about the music he wanted to play.

“I knew that the Latin jazz I wanted to do would be about Latin rhythms organized under the jazz structure,” he said in a 2015 interview with the Latin Jazz Network, a website dedicated to the advancement of the music.

Reviewing a performance by Timbalaye at the Scullers Jazz Club in Boston, Bob Blumenthal of the Boston Globe wrote that Mr. Irizarry and conga player Robert Quintero “attacked the music with incredible speed and power, often starting at a fierce dynamic level and building itself from there. . He added, “At the same time, their precision in negotiating the breaks and changes that spice up the band’s arrangements was flawless.”

Ralph Irizarry was born July 18, 1954 in East Harlem to Puerto Rican parents. Her father, Francisco, owned convenience stores and her mother, Gloria (Sanabria) Irizarry, was a housewife. The family moved to the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn when Ralph was 2 years old.

When Ralph was 8, he recalls, his father was given a set of timpani to settle a $ 25 debt with a drug dealer.

“They had real skins, probably calfskins,” Mr. Irizarry told the Latin Jazz Network. He and his two brothers made sticks with hangers and destroyed the skins in one day. But several years later, after his family moved to South Ozone Park in Queens, a neighbor who had congas and who assumed Ralph knew how to play asked him to jam.

He picked up the destroyed tumblers, put plastic skins in them and played with the neighbor.

“I remember hitting the timpani once and it was like love at first sight,” he said. “I felt something that I had never felt before. All my skin felt it. I trembled.

“Two days later,” he added, recalling a trip to Manhattan, “I went to the Manny music store on 48th Street and bought some brand new timpani, sticks, everything. . “

When he was 17 and gaining confidence in himself as a timpanist, he moved with his family to Puerto Rico, where he hoped to find musical work. He had it, but he also felt prejudices against him as a New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent.

Mr. Irizarry returned to New York in 1974 and after a few years was hired by Mr. Barretto, the dynamic conga player and popular conductor. In 1983, Mr. Irizarry became a founding member of Mr. Blades’ group, Seis del Solar, which recorded albums, toured and performed at Madison Square Garden and Carnegie Hall.

“With four percussionists, two keyboardists and a bassist,” wrote Jon Pareles in a New York Times review of the band’s 1985 performance at Carnegie Hall, “Seis del Solar can sound like a stripped-down salsa band, a band of jazz-rock, or both. “

When Mr. Blades decided to go solo in the mid-1990s, he encouraged the band to continue playing as an instrumental group and to keep their name. They did so for a brief period, recording two albums until Mr. Irizarry decided to form his own band, Timbalaye.

In 2004, Mr. Irizarry formed a second ensemble, Son Cafe, an eight-piece salsa orchestra.

He recorded with both groups. He also reunited with Seis del Solar for a tour that culminated with “Todos Vuelven Live”, which won the Latin Grammy for Best Salsa Album in 2011.

Mr. Irizarry remained busy with his two groups for several years after that. But in 2015, he was diagnosed with inclusion myositis, a rare degenerative disease that causes muscle weakness. This forced him to stop playing in 2018.

“He pushed it all the way,” his daughter said in a text message. “It was a very hard blow for him, but he never showed so much grief – he just knew that at some point his hands and legs would get weaker and weaker.”

In addition to Mrs. Irizarry, he is survived by his wife, Elizabeth (Jackson) Irizarry; his sons, Ralph Jr., and Marlon; his sister, Dolores Irizarry; his brothers, William and John; and five grandchildren.

Mr. Irizarry was determined about the timpani from the start. As a teenager, he practiced in the basement of the family home, playing with the latest records he had bought. One day, he recalls, he was practicing and didn’t hear his father come in.

“For some reason I turned around, and my dad was at the bottom of the basement steps, and he had a tear sticking out of his eye,” he told Truth Revolution Records in an video interview in 2015, when the label released a Timbalaye album. “He had never heard me play.

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Corina C. Butler

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