Ronnie Cuber’s name has drifted in and out of prominence over the past three decades, but the distinctive sound of his baritone sax has never been out of earshot. From his early, high-profile role in guitarist George Benson’s quartet in the mid-1960s, through gigs with King Curtis, Aretha Franklin, and Eddie Palmieri at the dawn of the ‘70s, Cuber first fashioned a solo recording career with a pair of sterling straightahead albums for Xanadu in 1976 and ‘77. Since then, his own recordings—for such labels as Dire, King, Electric Bird, SteepleChase, and ProJazz—have been less readily accessible than the work he has done with other musicians, including Steve Gadd, Mike Mainieri, Frank Sinatra, Lee Konitz, the J. Geils Band, Paul Simon, Donald Fagen, Dr. John, Eric Clapton, Billy Joel, Curtis Mayfeld, and the Saturday Night Live Band.
All of that adds up to the proverbial Talent Deserving Wider Recognition, a Down Beat award that the reed virtuoso won early in his career; the release of his Milestone debut, The Scene Is Clean, should refocus that recognition on this hard-working, relentlessly creative musician.
Cuber’s musical odyssey began in Brooklyn, where he was born on Christmas Day, 1941, into a large family in which virtually everyone was a musician. His uncle played drums and violin, his mother played piano, and his father played accordion at Polish weddings. At the age of seven, Ronnie was learning clarinet, leading to training at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music. He switched to tenor saxophone in high school and took up baritone almost by accident in 1959, when he auditioned for the Newport Youth Band. The orchestra needed a baritone player and director Marshall Brown felt Cuber could handle the job, so he bought the young musician his first bari and settled him into a band that also featured Eddie Gomez, Nat Pavone, and Larry Rosen (later the "R” in GRP).
"I didn’t begin with a strong identification with the instrument,” Cuber recalls, "but it wasn’t like I had a powerful association with the tenor at that time, either. When I did get the offer to play baritone, I had been hanging out with kids who were all into the hard-bop, Blue Note kind of sound—Hank Mobley, Sonny Rollins, early John Coltrane, Pepper Adams with Donald Byrd—so I kind of modeled myself after Pepper. It was a couple of years later on down the line that I realized that I had my own thing going, that I was developing my own voice.”
Cuber’s baritone gifts were immediately in demand. In the early ‘60s, he hit the road with the big bands of Lionel Hampton and Maynard Ferguson. He was jamming frequently with such players as Dannie Richmond, Henry Grimes, Chick Corea, and Walter Davis, Jr., when the invitation came to play with George Benson, who had just brought his organ trio from Pennsylvania to New York. "There were a lot of organ groups with tenor, guitar, and drums,” Cuber remembers, "but it was different to have a baritone in the front line. I was getting more solo space and much more freedom than I’d had playing in the big bands and I kind of stood out.”
After two years with Benson, Cuber forged a pair of affiliations with lasting impacts on his career. His association with soul tenor giant King Curtis not only put him on stage with the contemporary giants of R&B, but led to consistent studio recording work, a bread-and-butter facet of Cuber’s career ever since. And his close relationship with Latin music legend Eddie Palmieri imparted an indelible influence on Cuber’s music, an influence that can be heard throughout The Scene Is Clean—in the crackling Latin percussion of Manolo Badrena and Milton Cardona, and on the authoritative version of Palmieri’s famous composition "Adoración.”
Throughout this eclectic history, Cuber was always honing a style that has given him a unique, identifiable sound on his main horn, including an unusual facility in the upper "altissimo” register. "A lot of my blowing actually comes less out of Pepper Adams and other bari players and more out of a mixture of Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane,” be explains. "Some of it even goes back to Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis.” Because of Cuber’s virtually nonstop work with other people (add Bobby Paunetto, Mickey Tucker, Sam Noto, Rein de Graaff, and innumerable commercial sessions to the credits mentioned above), his sound has only occasionally exploded onto his own recordings. "Back in the ‘70s and early ‘80s,” he says, "disco was at its height and I was in the studio six or seven hours a day, and a minimum of three times a week. Disco drying up kind of forced me into doing more of my own thing, including getting a group together to play the Newport Kool Festival in 1980, and touring Europe, Japan, and Hong Kong.”
Although he still answers the calls for his highly sought-after studio skills, Cuber relishes the idea of making his presence felt again as a recording and performing artist in his own right. He conceived of The Scene Is Clean as "a combination of everything that I like to do,” from the return to the organ combo sound (with Joey DeFrancesco appearing on "Flamingo” and the Richard Tee tribute "Tee’s Bag”) through the updated hard-bop jazz bossa of "The Scene Is Clean” ("I did a lot of research to find a tune that had not been overdone from that era and I happened to hear it on an old Max Roach–Clifford Brown album”), to the impassioned "Song for Pharoah” and the bountiful servings of Afro-Cuban rhythms and colors, as on Eddie Palmieri’s "Adoración”: "It has a very beautiful melody that I always thought would be great to play on my horn as an instrumental,” Cuber says. "It turned out to be a great tune for the album.”
And The Scene Is Clean will undoubtedly turn out to be another big boost for Cuber’s identification as a major figure in modern jazz. "If I had gone straight ahead and done my own thing and turned down all the studio work that came my way,” he acknowledges, "I probably would have been much further along the way as a leader. So I’ve kind of picked up where I left off, and it feels great.”