March 2004
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SPOTLIGHT Awards Silver Winner Winter 2004

SalsaSPOT interview with 
Nick "The Brownman" Ali - Leader of MARRÓN MATIZADO
Winner of SalsaSPOT’s Favorite Toronto Salsa Band Poll
March, 2004
Interview conducted by Aitana
Red text = SalsaSPOT questions and comments

Who is Nick Ali? How did you come up with the name “Marrón Matizado”? 
My nickname since childhood has been “Brownman” (*Editor's note - a full explanation of the nickname appears on and can be read here), which is how I now appear on recordings: Nick "The Brownman" Ali. In 1995, when I started playing Latin music in the Toronto scene I met Eliana Cuevas, a noted Latin vocalist. She would later become my girlfriend and since everyone was already calling me "Brown" everywhere we went, she converted it to the Spanish "Marrón". Luisito Orbegoso, my very close friend and conga madman, would later pick it up and propagate it amongst the Latinos. 

In the summer of 2001, I started my first group as a leader – my Latin-jazz-funk project “Cruzao”, which amalgamates Latin rhythm, jazz harmony and funk groove in a chordless setting (which means no piano or guitar). (*Editor's Note – see the CRUZAO website for more info on the group’s achievements). That group had a steady gig at Caoba on College St. but we needed a name. The owner then, Radames Nieves (from MRP records & and one of the current DJs at Lula Lounge), said, "It's your group, ain't it? It's your tunes, ain't it? Well, it's a shade of you. It's a “Shade Of Brown". So that's what we called the band - "Shades of Brown", which I would change to “Cruzao” later and name the debut CD (*on Justin Time Records) "Shades of Brown" instead. "Shades" just felt more like an album name than a name for a Latin-jazz band. 

Later that year, when I thought it was time to expand my Latin horizons to salsa, this new group needed a name. Naming the salsa band after Cruzao's first CD seemed appropriate, so Eliana converted "Shades of Brown" to the Spanish "Marrón Matizado". So the salsa band is named after the title of Cruzao's debut CD. Whew! What a story – now I need some water!

Nick AliTell us about Marrón Matizado & the members.
Wow … Where to start … All of them are so invaluable: there’s Ricky Franco (Mexico), formerly of Dominicanada. Ricky's the ultra charming front man. Not only is he a consummate musician, but he's such a personable dude to boot. He's the perfect front man - he sings his ass off, and he understands the music. Often vocalists aren't musicians. Sometimes they're just singers, but Ricky plays bass for Química Perfecta and has skills on piano and percussion as well, and he has the ability to make a crowd love him. He's on his way to stardom, with humbleness intact. I think Toronto already knows the name Ricky Franco very well. 

Then there’s Alex Naar (Panama), also formerly of Dominicanada. Alex is the newest member of Marrón Matizado's vocal crew. He brings that “Ruben Blades” feel to the group with his Panamanian heart. He's the youngest member of the ensemble, and I've watched him grow over the years into his own voice. The thing about Alex I appreciate the most as a bandleader is his unwavering dedication to this unit. More than anyone else in the band (with the exception of my little brother) he gives 200% to Marrón Matizado and I always know I can count on him. Maybe because he's the youngest and has been in the scene for the shortest amount of time, but whatever the reason, I know I can always rely on him to deliver. Also, his vocal blend with his childhood friend Ricky Franco is amazing.

There’s Juan Carlos Cardenas (Venezuela) of Caché. Juan's got the lower voice: big, rich, and boomy: a fantastic match to Ricky's higher voice. Juan sings all the Cuban tunes for that reason. He has a really positive energy to his singing that just appeals to me. Having three such gifted vocalists fronting the group makes all the difference. Hey – Cache took the Gold on the SalsaSPOT poll (fronted by Juan Carlos), we – Marrón Matizado - took the Silver, and Ricky Franco took the Bronze. Marrón Matizado really is an all-star band! (laughing)

We have Paco Luviano (Mexico), of Cimarrón. Bass players are always on rotation in this band. There is a real shortage of skilled Latin bass players in Toronto so I use whoever's free. Technically, it's Paco Luviano's chair, but he's so busy being the baddest bass player around, that I've had to had a plethora of other boys come through, including Willy Jarvis of Banda Brava, Ruddy Bolaños of Orquesta Fantasia, and Jose Rodriguez of Proyecto Charanguero.

There’s Ruben Vasquez (Cuba), also of Cimarrón. I met Ruben years ago while playing with Cimarrón. His montunos are unbeatable! His sense of harmony is more advanced than a lot of the other Latin piano players, which comes in handy when the arrangements are particularly intricate. He is also a very close friend, a man I respect greatly, and plays as one unit with Paco, making the two of them part of the driving engine that is Marrón Matizado's rhythm section. 

Chendy Leon & Luisito Orbegoso, of Cuba and Peru, respectively. I mention these two together because their role in both my personal life and my musical one is so vital. Both of them also play in Cruzao. They are absolute masters of their instruments (Chendy on drums, Lou on congas). Both of them are like brothers to me, I really mean that. Chendy and Lou have places in my heart right next to my real brother, Marcus, but then again, all the guys in Marrón Matizado do, in their own way. Chendy and Luisito drive the band. I mean it's like riding a tamed tornado. The energy those two have staggers me sometimes, but it's always about taste and artistry and not about volume. They both have "un corazon muy grande" (lots of heart). There's a lot of love and respect in this group, for each other, and for the music. 

Marcus Ali, of Banda Bella – is my little brother. Anyone who has a brother knows there's a special bond that exists, an almost psychic thing. You combine that with a similar musical upbringing and you have a horn section that reads minds. I blend better with no one. I sound better with no one. I consider him a co-leader in this group, and his knowledge of both jazz and Latin music has proved invaluable time and time again. This band would not exist without his help. Keeping ten guys in line and writing all the arrangements is quite a task. Marc has aided in both those activities on more than one occasion. In fact, the two DLG tunes we play were arranged by him. He is also one of the finest alto saxophonists I know, and I would say that even if he weren't my brother.

Do you play any other instruments besides the trumpet and flugelhorn? 
I play piano, but not well enough to gig on; I use it as a compositional tool. Most composers do. I do play drums in a half-baked sort of way, and I play percussion in my Latin-jazz group Cruzao, but I'm always veeeerry conscious of my own limitations as a drummer, especially with forces of nature like Chendy Leon (drums) and Luisito Orbegoso (congas) in my group. Trumpet's enough to keep me busy for a lifetime. 

Salseros love the unique style of Marrón Matizado. What is your secret?
(He shrugs) I don’t know - I feel incredibly lucky that salseros like Marrón Matizado. I hope it's because the band is comprised of the top Latin musicians in the country, and each of them, no matter how high up the ladder they might be, when they come to play for Marrón Matizado, they work as a team. It's a real joy to stand up there and look around and see how much synergy the group has. I personally love seeing a band that grooves as one, and I hope that's what people are seeing and liking when they see Marrón Matizado, and that there's such love and respect for each other on stage. It's just a big love affair up there sometimes, and I think an audience likes to see and hear that.

Is there a difference between jazz and salsa these days? Isn't salsa an evolution of jazz?
Well, I wouldn't say that. I would say that jazz has influenced modern progressive salsa and that's what Marrón Matizado is trying to be a part of - the modern progressive salsa movement. The same way Miles Davis always moved forward artistically no matter what era he was in, I want Marrón Matizado to always be looking and moving forward musically. 

Ideologically, I don't agree with making a musical career out of playing music that's long dead. This band is not a museum or designed for the art's preservation. I want Marrón Matizado to be part of Latin music's evolution, to be influenced by the music around us, and let it influence how we interpret and perform standards, as well as how we conceive originals.

In the jazz world, I feel the same way, and I hope it's what makes Marrón Matizado a unique salsa band. The group is influenced by jazz, R&B, hip-hop, and even drum'n'bass and jungle. I'm writing new tunes right now that have that influence... a 2004 sound, not a 1964 sound.

Tell about your musical influences. 
Well, in a nutshell, I'm a jazz musician. Specifically, an "improvisor" with a deep love and respect for Latin music and culture. So I'll answer this question in two parts - jazz and Latin. I gotta tell you, though, Aitana, I feel weird being interviewed as a Latin artist. I'm very much a student of the art, and as much as the Latin community has seemed to embrace me, I think I'll always feel like a student, and I don't think that's a bad thing. Hopefully, it means I will continue to learn and grow as an "honorary Latino". 

As for your question: I started listening to music with a more critical ear in the late 70s. My earliest influences as a kid were mainly jazz artists of the 60s, particularly those on the Bluenote and Columbia labels, like Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderly, John Coltrane, Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, Clifford Brown, Bill Evans, Tom Harrell, Art Farmer, and Dizzy Gillespie. And, of course, the big bands of that time played a huge role in my appreciation of the trumpet: Duke Ellington's orchestra, Count Basie's big band, Stan Kenton’s big band, and Buddy Rich. There was a fair amount of those horn driven R&B bands in my ears too: Blood, Sweat & Tears, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Tower Of Power. The horn sections in those bands were fantastic and always caught my young ear. The two trumpet players who really changed the way I played were Randy Brecker and Freddie Hubbard. Freddie for his incredible time sense, his line construction as a soloist, and his huge, fat sound. Randy because I really feel he's one of the great modernists of our time. He has no desire to look over his shoulder musically. He's always pushing forward as an artist and is comfortable in a multitude of musical settings. I studied with him while in New York and that's something I think he really instilled in me - the desire not to sit complacently, a desire to say something new on my horn. Hopefully I am.

As a Latin musician, from a salsa standpoint, Ruben Blades is where it all began for me. I was 16 when I first heard him, I didn't have a clue what this brother was saying, but knew the music was deep. Later on, as my Spanish got better and as people translated lyrics for me, I saw the poetry in his lyrics. I would walk around my high school with headphones on, listening to "La Canción Del Final Del Mundo". The spirit of salsa is a tapestry of lyrics and musicianship. Later on, I'd discover Victor Paz, Willie Colon, Ray Barreto, Puerto Rican Power, Hector Lavoe, Gilberto Santa Rosa, El Gran Combo, Irakere, Guayacan, NG La Banda, Los Van Van, Isaac Delgado, Celia Cruz, and Guaco. I've had a passion for Latin music all my life. It makes me very happy to have this group and to be playing such rich and wondrous music. 

So where is Marrón Matizado heading? What do you see in the cards?
That's a pretty “pop star” question to ask a jazz musician! My dreams don't centre around fame and fortune, my dreams centre around musical satisfaction. So for me, as long as Marrón Matizado is fulfilling my musical hunger to explore and extrapolate on the rich historical tradition of salsa, and hopefully be part of the mechanisms that aid its growth, then I'm doing exactly what I should be doing. Hopefully accompanying that would be CD releases and tours and all that other stuff that has nothing to with art, but with business, but I acknowledge that it’s vital to an artist's ability to remain afloat. But honestly, as long as Marrón Matizado's still pushing the envelope of salsa in 30 years and the people are still diggin' it, then that's my definition of having "made it". Longevity means more to me than instant stardom.

How do you go about choosing the songs for your live performances?
That's personal choice, pretty much. I choose salsa that moves me. Salsa that touches me on some level, either from a lyrical standpoint (Ruben Blades is the man for that), or a musical standpoint (Cuban and Puerto Rican grooves knock me out). And then I get the guys to breathe their own voices and musical experiences into the framework of the cover tune and hopefully we don't sound just like the original band, but like Marrón Matizado interpreting a classic in a modern manner. That's my hope as a leader, anyway. Once the tunes are picked, the large task of orchestrating for the group begins, and my little brother Marcus, alto player for Marrón Matizado, is always an invaluable help with that. Lately, I've been composing for the band, so everyone can look forward to some original Marrón Matizado material in upcoming weeks! (*Editor's Note – Brownman was the 2002 Canadian National Jazz Composer of the Year). There's a brand new one in the set called "Color De Unidad" that Alex Naar and I wrote together. Listen for it next time you're at Lula Lounge! 

There are many women who visit this site, and I'm sure they wonder if you're single. Please tell us what are your best and worst qualities? Would you consider yourself “marriage material”?
(He laughs)  Oh my god, Aitana. Yep - single. Best qualities - dedicated, passionate, forthright artist who believes he was put on this earth to play the trumpet and be part of a tapestry of musicality that embraces this planet. Worst qualities - same as best. Actually, there is a girl that I've been spending a disproportionate amount of time with lately ... uh ... but that's all I'm gonna say.

Marriage material? Geez. No way. I think I would be the worst. I'm a workaholic and my schedule is insane. And I like to practise a lot. The way an improvising artist can adequately express himself is through a set of skills that takes decades to develop and decades of dedication to maintain. Sure - if you don't mind trumpet playing at 3 am, or rehearsals in your house, or your man always being on tour or performing at clubs – then, yeah, I'd be a helluva husband. (laughing) 
Um ... have I mentioned that I have a 9" tongue? (grinning)

For the past decade you've been celebrating your 25th birthday. Any comments?
(laughing) No comment! (coughing) I'm turning 25 again on December 2nd, so you shut up, Aitana! Evil woman.

Are there any thorns on the path to stardom?
Awful question. Stardom? Who wants that? I want musical satisfaction, and beyond that, a satisfying life. Some of the most satisfied, content men on earth are Buddist monks who take pleasure in growing trees and daily walks. Now, I'm not saying I'm about to shave my head, wear a robe, and chop wood all my life, but it just goes to show that living a life of personal satisfaction means more than fame or stardom. And for me that satisfaction is tied into being about to express myself through my horn for the duration of my time on this planet. As long as I get to do that and survive while doing it, then I've achieved stardom.

Britney or Christina?
Um, Christina. I think Britney's a product and not an artist. Christina can actually sing. And I think she's dirtier. Oh yeah. She's dirtier. (grinning)

Do you ever consider falling back on your degree in Physics?
Oh lord, how'd you find that out? You SalsaSPOT people are really devilspawn. Well, of course not. Would I have answered all these questions from a very distinctive artistic vantage point if I had any plans on returning to that world? (laughing) I have a background in science and the discipline of that life has helped me focus and organize my life in a way that's been useful to me as both bandleader and trumpet player. But do I ever see myself in that world again? Hell no.

What do you hope to accomplish in the long run?
Musically? I hope to continue to be part of the machinery that moves salsa forward. Lifewise? I don’t know. Long life, good health, and strong relationships would be a cornerstone of that existence I would think. And tequila. You can't live well without tequila ... just ask Ricky!

Any finals thoughts...
A huge thank you to the hundreds of people who took the time to vote for Marrón Matizado on I hope we can continue to bring you edgy, aggressive, progressive, no-holds-barred salsa with attitude over the years. My deepest thanks for your support. Without that, all this would just be a bunch of sounds floating around in my head and a bunch of black dots on staff paper in my basement. It's so gratifying to know that doing what I feel I must do has led to some people's enjoyment. Thank you for that, Toronto! Thank you for enjoying what I do.

Thanks, Brownman, for taking the time to do this. Congratulations on winning the Silver (2nd) place in SalsaSPOT’s Favourite Toronto Salsa Band poll! We wish you all the best!
Thank you SalsaSPOT!!! It's a good thing you do!


Marrón Matizado appears at Lula Lounge the first Saturday of every month. Brownman's Website,, showcases all the groups he leads and musically directs, from jazz-hiphop crew Gruvasylum to Latin-jazz award-winners CRUZAO. The number of projects he's involved in as both trumpet player and musical director are staggering and we at would like to encourage readers to check out and support more of this Canadian Latin-jazz icon's projects and visions. Brownman is considered one of the most in-demand jazz and Latin trumpet players in the country, and has performed at every major jazz festival in Canada. He has also toured Europe, South American and the United States, and has represented Canada at the Havana Jazz Festival in 2002 and again in Europe. He has appeared on just over 100 CDs to date and has also performed on several motion picture and television soundtracks. His recent movie credits also now include a cameo appearance in the Jennifer Lopez movie "Angel Eyes". Appearing on the cover of Toronto's NOW magazine last summer made this young trumpet player a hot item in our city. Watch for him!

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