Salsa Goes to the Concert Hall
By Fernando Gonzalez
Miami. Pianist, songwriter, arranger and producer Larry Harlow not only helped define salsa and mastermind many of its hits; he also created some of the genre’s most ambitious pieces.
But in music, great artistic ambition carries a price.
Harlow’s La Raza Latina: A Salsa Suite, is a four-part piece for large ensemble, including singers, brass, percussion, and strings. It was recorded for Fania Records in 1977, but it hadn’t been played live until its premiere at Lincoln Center’s Out of Doors Festival in August 2010. Last week’s concert at the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami was only its second performance ever. The show ended in a party — but after a frustrating, and finally unsatisfying concert.
The first half featured the Mario Ortiz Jr. All-Star Orchestra, a solid, storied outfit, founded in 1963 by the late, notable Puerto Rican trumpeter and bandleader Mario Ortiz. His son, also a trumpeter, carries on the family tradition well. The orchestra, while betrayed by the acoustics of the hall, evoked the classic mambo sound of the great 1950s Latin orchestras convincingly, and then moved fluidly to Cubop and salsa and back.
The highlight of the first half, however, was a brief but animated feature by conguero Candido Camero. Best known as simply Candido, he was born in Cuba, and after years of visiting, he started his career in the United States with a six week engagement in Miami in 1952.
Candido then went on to a mindboggling career that includes stints with Dizzy Gillespie, Billy Taylor, Erroll Garner and Stan Kenton, and recordings with the royalty of jazz and Latin music including Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Coleman Hawkins and Tito Puente. Candido will be 90 on April — but chose to celebrate his birthday on Friday, playing the Happy Birthday song on his tuned congas to the delight of an adoring audience. And while he walked on stage gingerly, helped by an aide, once behind his three- conga set he seemed to get younger by the minute.
“When I walk, it’s as if I am 100 years old,” said the chatty Candido addressing the audience in Spanish. “It’s not the age. It’s the arthritis. But when I play, look out! (in English, then back to Spanish) Because I feel like I’m 20.” Backed by the orchestra, he played bits of “Manteca,” told stories (he recalled starting as a percussionist by playing two tin cans of condensed milk. “Look how far those to little tin cans have taken me.”) played a bit and shuffled off to a warm ovation.
The second half featured Harlow conducting a large ensemble comprised of Ortiz’s orchestra augmented by strings, brass, percussion (including conguero Richie Flores and drummer Bobby Sanabria), and a six-piece choir. The show also included vocalists Adonis Puentes, Emo Luciano, and Luisito Rosario, four dancers and, for good measure, a tap dancer.
By design, La Raza Latina is a complex hybrid – neither a simple, danceable, extended salsa tune nor strictly a suite in a classical sense. Appropriately, the make-up of the orchestra and the arranging (by Harlow, Marty Sheller and Luis “Perico” Ortiz) evokes, at different times, a cross of rumba group, charanga, salsa band, big band and symphonic orchestra.
In the best of circumstances, a live performance of this piece with such an orchestra would be a challenge. In this presentation, the combination of the treacherous acoustics of the Arsht Center and the poor attention to detail and dynamics in the performance, failed the ideas and textural variety in the piece.
Only the first piece of the suite, a sort of scene-setter, plays like a stand-alone salsa song and it worked fine. But the rest of La Raza Latina is designed as one continuous piece suggesting the evolution arc of the sounds and styles in Afro-Cuban music. It echoes its African roots, takes off from the rumba, featuring just voice and percussion, hints at the son and the danzón, and gains the shadings of the big band before concluding in the promises, now outdated, of its closing movement, “The Future.”
It’s a grand plan that calls for a careful sectional balance, detailed use of dynamics and a judicious management of the vocals and soloing.
In this version, as the performance unfolded uniformly loud and hyperactive, it brought diminishing returns and the excitement of that opening section turned into tedium. Compounding the problems, the vocalists seemed to approach the concert with their standard salsa showmanship, exhorting the audience to get up and dance, adding to the overexcitement.
With its changes in tempos, grooves and styles, La Raza Latina doesn’t lend itself to freewheeling dancing. After a couple of attempts, most decided to continue listening sitting down.
La Raza Latina once represented an artistic and commercial challenge in salsa. This time, it clearly was also a challenge for many in the audience. What is this? Is it dance music? Listening music? Maybe that’s what some of the jazz dancers felt when the music leaped forward and they had to come to terms with bebop.
Those waiting for a party to break out got their wish on the encore. With Harlow now at the electric piano, the band reprised Arsenio Rodriguez’s classic “La Cartera,” which in the 70s became a signature song for Harlow. There were long solos (violinist Alfredo de la Fe wandered off into the audience, which was now standing up and clapping along) and a loose party atmosphere.
That’s all well and good, but La Raza Latina is a piece that deserves a better reading. Let’s hope we don’t have wait another 35 years to get it.
Photos by Nathan Valentine/WorldRedEye.