A master of the congas, Ray Barretto (b. 1929) had a particularly wide-ranging and episodic career. As a bandleader, he headed groups that performed Afro-Cuban jazz and others that specialized in salsa. As a sideman in the 1950s, Barretto was one of the first to show that the congas could be a viable part of jazz combos that played bebop rather than Latin music.
Born in New York, Barretto first played congas while in the Army and stationed in Germany, inspired by Chano Pozo’s recordings with Dizzy Gillespie. Barretto learned swing rhythms before immersing himself in Latin music and, after returning to New York in 1949, he worked with Charlie Parker for two weeks. His associations with Eddie Bonnemere’s Latin Jazz Combo, Pete Terrace, Jose Curbelo, Tito Puente (as Mongo Santamaria’s replacement with (1957-1961), and Herbie Mann were significant. He also appeared on jazz records by the likes of Red Garland, Gene Ammons, Dizzy Gillespie, Lou Donaldson, Cannonball Adderley, Sonny Stitt, Oliver Nelson, Wes Montgomery, and Stanley Turrentine.
Barretto led his first two albums during 1961-62—Puchanga with Barretto and Latino (which have been reissued by Fantasy as the essential Carnaval)—and soon became a bandleader. He had a pop hit with "El Watusi,” led some rhythm ’n’ blues-oriented Latin bands, and recorded salsa extensively for the Fania label for a dozen years starting in 1967. By the time Barretto cut three rewarding sets for Concord Picante during 1991-1994 (Handprints, Ancestral Messages, Taboo), he had returned to Afro-Cuban jazz, a direction that he continued, leading his exciting group New World Spirit, until his February 2006 passing.