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An Interview with Luis Aquino: Puerto Rican Trumpeter Extraordinaire

"Luis Aquino is probably the best example of how to play Latin music! Over a thousand recordings, he is heard around the world. We are thrilled he has chosen to perform on both our trumpet and mouthpieces. He is one of a few people who is both a great trumpet player and a nice cat!"

-Terry Warburton, Warburton Music Products

(Note: some links only available in Spanish)

Trumpeter Luis Aquino hails from the island of Puerto Rico. From a young age, he was drawn to the music of his native country and quickly rose in the ranks of a long line of prodigal trumpeters of that region, becoming one of the most recorded Latino trumpet artists in history. You can hear Luis performing with the likes of Celia Cruz, Chayanne, Alejandro Sanz, Gilberto Santa Rosa, Elvis Crespo, Gloria Estefan, Grupomania, Victor Manuelle, Marc Anthony and even Disney, just to name a few. His list of recordings, over one thousand, is very impressive, but his bravura and sizzling sound, crisp articulation, and beautiful sense of phrasing have become his calling card as a trumpeter and musician. Chances are, if you have ever listen to tropical Latin music on the radio or in a restaurant, you have witnessed the talent of Maestro Luis Aquino.

Luis was a trumpeter player I longed to meet ever since moving to (and discovering Latin music for the first time in my life) Latin America in the early 90’s. It was the sizzle in his sound that drew me in, but it was his incredible phrasing – so effortless – that kept me coming back for more; he possesses that quintessential style of Latin trumpet playing. So, when I had an opportunity to go to the island to give a series of masterclasses, I insisted on meeting the Maestro himself. Upon meeting him the first time, Luis was very unassuming, humble and gracious. A true gentelman, he stayed for my entre masterclass, hearing me play various pieces/excerpts along the way, even though he was a busy guy. I had the opportunity to speak with him at length afterwards and then hear him play that evening at a gig he had at one of the area hotels, playing salsa. What a treat and a lesson all at the same time! I’ve been a big fan of his ever since and recently sat down with him (long distance) for a brief and insightful interview…. Thank you, Luis! Gracias, compa!

Where did you grow-up and how did that influence your choice in playing the trumpet? Are you from a musical family?

I grew up in the town of Rio Grande, Puerto Rico and hearing the Marching Band in the Carnival there was what influenced me to decide I wanted to play the trumpet. When I heard the trumpets and their dominance in the Band, I was hooked. But, I started with another instrument, which I think is called the Alto Horn. In Spanish it’s called an Onóveno. I played that for a few months and then I played French Horn for about two months, until my father told me that since we lived in Puerto Rico, the trumpet was a more popular instrument with better job opportunities. Boy, was he right!

My father plays a little acoustic guitar and loves to sing. He's never been a professional musician. As I understand it, my late grandfather from my mother's side used to play the Saxophone as a hobby when he was young too.

Where there other players that influenced you while growing-up?

Sure. A lot of awesome players in Puerto Rico: Juancito Torres, Emilio Reales, Miguel Peña, Manolin Allers, Eddie Feyjóo, Wilson Brignoni and many others. As far as players that the Americans would know, they are: Doc Severinsen, Chuck Findley, Jerry Hey, Malcom McNab, Gary Grant, Lew Soloff, Jon Faddis, Chuck Mangione, Clifford Brown and many more. And of course, Maynard Ferguson!

You attended the University of Miami School of Music. Could you tell us about your time in Miami and what you did in the Miami music scene?

I chose University of Miami because I heard a recording of the Concert Jazz Band and I wanted to play there. Also, I wanted to study with Gilbert Johnson, even though I wasn't an Applied Music student. The icing on the cake that I wanted was the opportunity to play better musical jobs in a city in which I didn't need to speak much English. Miami was perfect for that. I ended up being right. Miami gave me a lot of great contacts, in and out of the University. I ended up being one of the first called studio musicians there and many jobs that I later did, came from one or more contacts I met there.

Gil was a sweetheart to me. Even though I was a jazz major, he treated me with utmost respect and taught me a lot about phrasing, making music for real, singing with the trumpet, respecting the music and the great importance of the trumpet in a band or orchestra setting. He even hired me to play an Easter job next to him! That was one of the most beautiful musical experiences in my life. He truly was an artist [of] the trumpet. Amazing musician. I miss him.

What jobs resulted for going to school there?

I can say that a lot of recordings I’ve been part of in the Latin Pop genre have occurred because I went to the University of Miami (UM) and the connections I made there. Also, I happen to be playing with Franco de Vita (Latin Pop singer/songwriter) because of Domingo Pagliuca (of the Boston Brass), whom I met at the UM. Domingo recommended me for Franco’s band.

You toured with such artists as Yanni, David Bisbal, Ricky Martin, Alejandro Sanz, and Gilberto Santa Rosa. What was it like touring with these groups and what challenges did you have staying in shape?

Being on Tour in the Latin market represents some of the same challenges that any tour would bring. Such as sometimes going from the venue to pack your bags at the hotel and right then, leave to the airport to go to the next city, fly one or two planes, get to the next hotel or straight to sound check, another show, etc. But as far as staying in shape, in my case, when I'm doing 5 shows a week, I don't practice. The Show is enough. I just warm down occasionally and do a short warm up right before sound check.

How long was your warmup? What kinds of things do you play in your warmup?

I warm up based on the current condition of my chops, because I don’t believe in routines. Depending on the day, I use the Bill Adam’s lead pipe exercise playing the first space F (I went to Indiana to take a two-hour lesson from him when I was living in Miami. Someone told me Bill was Jerry Hey’s teacher and I HAD to take a lesson from Bill). I also do some soft long tones, arpeggios (ascending and descending) and then, after a couple of minutes, I start playing things more similar to the phrases I have to play on the show I’m doing. If my chops are swollen, I take aspirin and warm up for a longer time, always “listening” to what my chops need. Sometimes, I just do a little mouthpiece buzzing (about 30 seconds) and then play.

Do you still tour or is most of your time in a recording studio?

I do studio and live work. Either locally in Puerto Rico or on tour. I have my own studio setup for recording trumpets and love to be a recording engineer of sorts. The business has suffered many changes, even in the Latin market, so with new times, we need new skills.

What have a few of those changes been?

The economy has changed, supposedly. I say supposedly, because the people that I know that had a lot of money still have it! That said, there’s indeed less work in my market. Guys are sometimes in a competition of “who charges less” and I don’t play that game. I come from a time that someone calls me because they wanted me and my skills, not because they wanted “a trumpet”. So, I focus on maintaining the quality of my playing, a good attitude on the job and keeping my friends close – the players that play other instruments, who are the ones that usually recommend me for jobs. Very seldom do I get a recommendation from another trumpet player. Weird, no?

Where do you do most of your recording? What equipment do you use to record?

Now, I do most of my recordings at my studio in my house. I use a program called Samplitude and an interface from a British brand called Prism. One of t, best AD/DA (digital/analog, analog/digital) converters today. I have a few mics: a Royer 121 (Ribbon) mic, an AKG 414 and a couple more that I use depending on the requirements of the song. I have a few trumpets, but am in the process of starting to use Warburton trumpets exclusively. The mouthpiece I use is custom made by the Warburton Company, the LAquino model with a Q backbore.

Do you have a special setup at home? Like sound dampeners, a specific type of hardwood floor, etc?

Yes! The room is THE most important ingredient for trumpet recording. I have treated my room to keep outside noises from entering and to keep my trumpet from bothering the neighbors. It is a little hard to achieve, but I love my recording room and the way the trumpets sound on the mixes.

I have to ask the geek question: what size is your mouthpiece (equivalent)?

My Warburton LAquino model is close to a Bach 10E, but more comfortable. I also have an M model that is a little deeper, for when I need a darker sound.

What about the trumpet?

I was using a Fides trumpet (my own model: “LA”) and that trumpet is a medium bore (.453). The Warburton trumpet that I use now is a large bore, .464, model 334. This is happening right at the time of this interview. Like announcers would say: “Check our website for additional and current information”, [laughs].

What do you feel are the most important musical moments in your life?

There have been quite a few, but I would list them as:

1) The first studio recording I did. I was 12 or 13 years old and the whole band recorded together. No fracks allowed! I remember the tension...

2) When I went to the first rehearsal with the Willie Rosario's band. The best Salsa band I've ever played in my life. I was 16

3) The first concert I did with Juan Luis Guerra and the 440 band in 1992

4) Seeing Gilbert Johnson playing a note in front of me. That was HEAVEN!

5) Hearing Maynard for the first time

6) Hearing Jerry Hey, Chuck Findley, Gary Grant as a section for the first time

7) Every concert with Yanni

8) When I got to play "Fanfare for the common man" with the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra as a sub for the Principal Trumpet player. That was awesome!

9) Many more moments. I am blessed with a musical life that’s been lots of fun.

You are known for playing and recording Latin musical styles such as Merengue and Salsa, having recorded and performed with the who’s who in the Latin music community. How did you make those connections?

Those connections happened because I was at the right place at the right time, and did a great job all the time. No shortcuts there. No ass kissing. Show up when the opportunity arises, be professional, and do the very best job you can. When I was a teenager, older players recommended me because I had the right attitude, which is: Shut up and play, follow your Lead player, read the part correctly and be ready all the time to play anything respecting the style of the music.

What types of exercises you play to prepare yourself for what you do?

When I practice, I do stuff that resembles what I'm required to do at the job. I don't bother with routines any more. I find that they are too time consuming and keep my mind too rigid. No one calls me to play four hour routines, they call me to play music. And it is music what I try to practice.

If I have to play Latin music, the Arban’s is of no help. Although it could be debated to death that a good Classical formation is of much help and it would be true, it is also true that when playing any style, you NEED to practice the types of phrases and develop the musical intention you will play on your job.

For most people, prolonged playing in the upper register is a challenge. How do you approach the upper range when it comes to endurance?

That is a challenge for me too. I have used a little Caruso at times and also took a few lessons with the late Laurie Frink in New York, but the best approach I have encountered has been Bobby Shew’s approach (for more information on Bobby Sew, please visit his website: Bobby saved my career. [Basically] there are only 4 things to think about:

  1. Feeling of the lips

  2. Abdominal support of air

  3. Aperture control

  4. Selection of correct mouthpiece

Playing lead in a Salsa or Merengue Band, especially recording, can be very physically demanding. Do you use any special equipment to help you do your job?

Most certainly! No 1 1/4 C's allowed [laughs]... A medium to small sized mouthpiece and a smaller bored trumpet helps. But I feel that the exact definitions in terms of size, depth, and diameter, should be up to each player. We're all different and have different needs. But, the equipment has to help. For me, it’s Sssssizle with the best sound quality you can get while sizzling. Is a trade off, you can't have your cake and eat it too. That being said, I love my current equipment, which I mentioned earlier.

Could you give us a short list of the quintessential Puerto Rican Salsa recordings that us trumpeters should be aware of?

I am more than happy to. Here is a short list that will give you an idea of the way we play Salsa in Puerto Rico, which is different than the styles in New York or Colombia:

Marc Anthony Contra la Corriente

Marc Anthony Valio la Pena

Marc Anthony Vivir mi Vida

Willie Rosario 30 Aniversario

Frankie Ruiz Mi Libertad

La Rodven Machine Caliente

And as far as Merengue, (please, don’t get put off by the wide vibrato [laughs]. It’s part of that style. But it is CHALLENGING! Here’s a few:

Elvis Crepo Suavamente

Tonny Tun Tun Caminando

Grupo Zache Y yo sigo aqui

Tell us of the trumpet scene in Puerto Rico.

There are many young & talented players doing some great things. But, there is less work and fewer opportunities to play Big Band music, for example. There are fewer workshops, but the Conservatory has a Jazz program that is quickly growing and full of potential. And off course, there are lots of great & established players on the Island.

Do you consider yourself a mentor for trumpeters in Puerto Rico? Tell us what you are doing there to advance trumpet performance or Latino music.

Yes, I definitely consider myself a mentor to the trumpet players in Puerto Rico. I feel a lot of responsibility to advance correct trumpet playing and ethical business attitudes in Puerto Rico and all over Latin America. My webpage and Facebook Fan Page attest to that. It's a rough planet out there musically and business wise, and we need sane and logical voices. Especially for the Latinos and their realities while living in Central, South America, the Caribbean or the United States and trying to have a career in the music business. I hate politics, but seriously, I publish videos and write a lot about the way I see things - mainly in Spanish, because the Latino players can really use the information. A lot of work still needs to be done, but I hope my contributions will help.

Who were your trumpet mentors? What did they teach you?

Every trumpet teacher I had when I was starting was a mentor. Emilio Reales taught me the basics like attacks, air and flexibility. Julio Martinez helped me with my knowledge of endurance. Miguel Peña taught me to how to play in-tune, to adjust pitch with my slides, false fingerings and how to hear others while playing and adjust accordingly. When I was starting out in the business, four guys helped me a lot to get known: Ernesto "Tito" Rivera, Juancito Torres, Marcos Mallory and a guy I only know by the nickname of "Tito Trompeta". Thanks to all of them, I have had a good career in the music business.

Where do you see the future of the music industry going?

I don't. Let me explain. The Music industry is getting worse and worse. Whoever denies it is only an Educator who doesn't play in the real world or is someone that lives in an Ivory Tower. That said, the changes that have been occurring in the business have to be seen as opportunities for every musician to redefine their musical careers. I see technology as an ally. We, as players of acoustic instruments, should talk more about this very aspect of the game. There are many doors opening, but they are not traditional and we need to take advantage of them.


This concludes our interview with Puerto Rican trumpeter, Luis Aquino. Luis, thank you for your time and energies. It’s always a pleasure! Un abrazo!

For further information on Luis Aquino, please visit his personal website. For further information on Luis’ mouthpieces (and soon to be the Luis Aquino trumpet), please visit here.

Examples on Youtube of Luis playing Salsa and Merengue:

Contra la Corriente (with Marc Anthony)

Valio la Pena (with Marc Anthony)

I Just Called to Say I Love You (w ith La Rodven Machine)

Y Yo Sigo Aqui (with Grupo Zache)

Caminando (with Tonny Tun Tun)

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