One of Arturo Romay’s favorite musicians — probably the Number One guy in his guitar pantheon — is Pat Metheny.
In 2001, when the superstar jazz guitarist played the McCarter Theater, Romay was there. “He’s my hero,” says Romay, a Latin jazz guitarist from Princeton.
When the show was over, Romay went to the stage, where he was told that Metheny was scheduled to leave immediately and would not be available to talk with fans. Romay, however, is not the type of man who gives up easily. And he wanted to meet Pat Metheny. So he went to where he thought Metheny’s bus was, outside the theater, and waited.
For three hours. “Everyone was gone. It was just me and 10 more people” still waiting, he says.
Finally, Metheny and others in his group approached the bus. “He said, ‘If you guys were waiting here for three hours, you must really love my music,” Romay says. “So he signed everything for everyone, and I was the last one. I told him I was from Venezuela, and that he was my favorite guitar player ever. I showed him my CD, and he went to the bus and he saw I had a tear in my eye. So he told me he would listen to one song.”
“He told me, ‘You play with heart and a lot of passion. Just keep doing what you are doing,’ That was it.”
Romay plays every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at Sotto 128 on Nassau Street. At Sotto, two Fridays per month, between 9 p.m. and midnight, Romay brings in a band and has his trademark Latin Night. His next Latin night is Friday, December 21. On Tuesdays he is at Leonardo’s in Hamilton, playing solo guitar. On Wednesdays, he appears at Tre Piani in Forrestal Village.
Over the years, Romay has played electric guitar, acoustic guitar, and the Venezuelan cuatro with high-caliber Latin musicians such as Tito Puente, La India, Veronica Castro, A.B. Quintanilla, Giovanni Hidalgo and many others. He is now selling his latest CD, Alma Latina, which came out this summer, at his appearances and online at arturoromay.com and cdbaby.com.
Alma Latina, produced by Luisito Quintero, a percussionist and arranger who has worked with Marc Anthony and Gloria and Emilio Estefan, among others, contains contributions from many other working international Latin musicians, such as harpist Edmar Castaneda, bassist Mario Rodriguez, and Romay’s frequent collaborator, percussionist Nerio Matheus.
At first listen, the record sounds like American smooth jazz with lots of Latin influences, but it also seems much stronger than the instrumental R&B usually heard in that genre. Most of this is due to Romay’s guitar and his compositional ability, both of which stand out for their complexity and passion.
Romay has combined many influences into his disc, but not many Latin jazzers incorporate the folkloric Venezuelan rhythms and song forms known as gaita and joropo into their music. “My music is all about feeling, heart, living this moment. In my music I convey my thanks for being alive, for the gifts that God has given me, for the ability to live in this moment. We are not promised tomorrow. We live in the here and now.”
Romay, 43, is the youngest of 11 children, four boys and seven girls. He is a native of Maracaibo, Venezuela, which has historically been one of the cities most associated with the Venezuelan oil industry. But Romay’s family was not involved in the oil business. His father worked in the family’s hardware store, and his mother was a stay-at-home mom.
Venezuela is now known for its nationwide, government sponsored program that trains any Venezuelan child to play an instrument and prepares them, if they so desire, for careers as classical musicians. At least one up-and-coming star conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, and several world-class pianists, guitarists, and other instrumentalists have come from that program. But Romay, even though his uncle was a pianist and trombonist who played with a local orchestra, was never part of that program; his evolution as a musician began in a much more prosaic manner.
Romay says he listened to many different musicians as a kid in Maracaibo, including Venezuelan salsa star Oscar D’Leon, the bands Dimension Latina and Guaco, and Spanish flamenco-pop guitarist Paco de Lucia, as well as American jazz stars George Benson, Pat Martino, and Wes Montgomery.
“I remember when I was a child, I always listened to whatever, and started to do this,” Romay says, speaking in Spanish as he demonstrates by tapping out rhythms on the table. “I always had music in my heart. I started to play Spanish guitar when I was 15 years old, and then electric guitar when I was 18, when I saw Carlos Santana perform.”
Romay never took a lesson. He just listened and played, he says. “I would hear a phrase — da, dada, dada — and I’d turn off the record and play it. I didn’t know anything about theory, or how to write. I just played from the heart. It was a gift from God.”
He came to the United States in 1990 with a goal of attending Berklee College of Music in Boston. But the Venezuelan economy tanked, his family’s money supply was limited, and Romay had to find other ways of occupying his time. He moved around the United States and worked as a cook and cleaner in restaurants and also as a construction worker in Massachusetts, Florida, California, and finally New Jersey. “But music is the only thing I ever wanted to do,” he says.
Since 1999, he has been playing in Princeton, New York, Philadelphia, and everywhere in between for many Latin recordings as a sideman and studio musician, as well as recording his own CDs. In addition to Alma Latina, he has recorded Jumping with Joy (2004), Inside of My Heart (2001), and Supernatural (1999).
“God has something big in mind for me. I can feel it,” Romay says. “I am going to play music until He no longer lets me do it.”
Arturo Romay, Thursdays through Saturdays, December 6 to 9 p.m., Sotto 128 Restaurant and Lounge, 128 Nassau Street, Princeton, Latin jazz guitar. www.arturoromay.com or 609-921-7555. Next Latin night at Sotto: Friday, December 21, 9 p.m. to midnight.
Also, Tuesdays, 6 to 9 p.m., Leonardo’s, 645 marketplace Boulevard, Hamilton, 609-585-8202; and Wednesdays, 6 to 9 p.m. Tre Piani Ristorante, Forrestal Village, Plainsboro. 609-452-1515.