Ralph Irizarry, innovative Latin percussionist, dies at 67

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Ralph Irizarry, innovative Latin percussionist, dies at 67
An undated photo provided by Alan Nahigian shows the percussionist Ralph Irizarry. Ralph Irizarry, a master of the timbales who played in groups led by the conga player Ray Barretto and the singer Rubén Blades before forming his own well-regarded bands, died on Sept. 5, 2021, in a hospital in Brooklyn. He was 67. His daughter, Marisa Irizarry, said the cause was multiple organ failure caused by a bacterial infection in his lungs that led to septic shock. Alan Nahigian via The New York Times.

by Richard Sandomir

NEW YORK, NY.- Ralph Irizarry, a master of the timbales who played in groups led by conga player Ray Barretto and singer Rubén Blades before forming his own well-regarded bands, died Sept. 5 in a hospital in the New York City borough of Brooklyn. He was 67.

His daughter, Marisa Irizarry, said the cause was multiple organ failure caused by a bacterial infection in his lungs that led to septic shock.

Ralph Irizarry’s virtuosic timbale playing placed him in the tradition of masters such as Tito Puente, said Bobby Sanabria, a percussionist and educator who occasionally performed with Irizarry.

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

“If you closed your eyes, you’d say, ‘Who the hell is playing the drums?’” Sanabria said. “Then you see this freaking guy with his two hands, his timbales, a snare drum and cymbals.”

In a tribute on his website, Blades described a critical element of Irizarry’s playing.

“Irizarry’s percussive lesson is clear,” he wrote. “Not everything is pyrotechnics — we must not always fill the silences.” Irizarry’s timbales “conversed,” Blades added, “sometimes in whispers, with a sense of syncopation, of time and rhythm always flowing, never repeated.”

Throughout Irizarry's career — and especially after he formed the septet Ralph Irizarry & Timbalaye in the late 1990s — he was clearheaded about the music he wanted to play.

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

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

Ralph Irizarry was born July 18, 1954, in East Harlem to parents from Puerto Rico. His father, Francisco, owned convenience stores, and his mother, Gloria (Sanabria) Irizarry, was a homemaker. The family moved to the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn when Ralph was 2.

When Irizarry was 8, he recalled, his father received a set of timbales to settle a $25 debt with a drug dealer.

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

He retrieved the wrecked timbales, put plastic skins on them and played with the neighbor.

“I remember I hit the timbale one time, and it was like love at first sight,” he said. “I felt something I have never felt before. All my skin felt it. I shook.

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

When he was 17 and gaining confidence as a timbalero, he moved with his family to Puerto Rico, where he hoped to get musical work. He did get some, but he also felt prejudice against him as a New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent.

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

“With four percussionists, two keyboardists and a bassist,” Jon Pareles wrote 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 group, a jazz-rock band, or both.”

When Blades decided to go solo in the mid-1990s, he encouraged the band to continue to perform as an instrumental group and retain its name. They did that for a brief time, recording two albums until Irizarry decided to form his own group, Timbalaye.

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

He recorded with both bands. 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.

Irizarry stayed busy with both his bands for several years after that. But in 2015 he received a diagnosis of inclusion body myositis, a rare degenerative condition that causes muscle weakness. It forced him to stop performing in 2018.

“He pushed to the very end,” his daughter said in a phone text. “It was a very big blow for him, but he never showed that much sorrow — he just knew at some point his hands and legs would keep getting weaker and weaker.”

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

Irizarry was single-minded about the timbales from the start. As a teenager he would practice in the basement of his family’s house, playing along with the latest records he had bought. One day, he recalled, he was practicing and didn’t hear his father walk in.

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

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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