Larry Harlow’s “A Salsa Suite” success

“La Raza Latina,” composer-pianist Larry Harlow’s hour-plus Latin big band extravaganza, drew thousands to Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors’ penultimate concert last week, proving that driving, multi-layered live music has staying power decades after its creation. “A Salsa Suite” featured vocalists Ruben Blades and Adonis Puentes, choreographed couples and a 40 piece band with strings and extraordinary soloists on trumpets, congas, flute, saxes and violins. Harlow conducted the music he’d recorded in 1978 but never performed before.  Salsa — combining Afro-Cuban rhythms and singing styles with big band jazz pyrotechnics — lives! But you knew that, right . . . ?lharlow.jpeg

The suite’s theme was self-celebratory, and the crowd which had waited hours, stretching as far as eye could see up Amsterdam Avenue for Damrosch Park to open, was eager to dig it. From VIP seating the audience seemed overwhelmingly 50ish and older, but flocks of younger listeners in back, without view of the stage, danced up a storm and were reluctant to leave at the end of the concert’s three-hours.

The music, its creators and its audience exemplified New York City’s crossover/mix & match/curiosity-beyond-borders culture. Harlow, a 71-year-old Brooklyn native self-described as “El Judio Maravilloso,” was raised and educated musically, studied in Cuba before the revolution, helped establish Fania Records in the mid 1960s, became a Santeria priest (evidently no conflict with his Judaism) and produced hundreds of ambitious performing and recording projects, including the salsa opera Hommy, based on The Who’s Tommy. He’s always gone for epic structures, bold musical gestures, dramatic male singers and fundamental beats. He claims to be the first to have introduced Yoruba ritual bata drums to secular settings. Here’s a video of Harlow, conguero Patato Valdez and timbalero Nicky Marrero, plus Sanabria — but no bata drums:

 “La Raza Latina” exhibited most of Harlow’s trademark moves. He conducted the more than hour-long composition without pause, following a full and explosive set by drummer Bobby Sanabria’s big band, which served as a base for Harlow’s extended instrumentation. Hot trumpet, trombone and sax solos, percussion-only breakdowns, chorus-trading between Mr. Cool Blades (clad all in black though it was a warm night) and younger, more rhapsodic Puentes, flute by Frank Fontaine speeding over it all and a climactic can-you-top-this? episode by violinists Lewis Kahn, Alfredo de la Fé and (I think) Gabriel Fonseca were received with grins, shout-outs, clavé clap-alongs and dancing in the aisles. 
No admission charge and a lengthy advance article in the New York Times certainly contributed to the overflow attendance, but what made this show memorable besides its musical virtues was the unabashed pleasure take from it by a multitude that might have seemed superficially diverse but was united in appreciation of sonorous abundance. Classically-oriented orchestras serve up comparably dense and complicated scores, guitar-rockers can dial up higher volumes, jazzers can go farther out and swing — but the salsa big band stands unique among ensembles for generating palpable physical excitement from high level musical skills.
I don’t speak Spanish, can never decode the singers’ lines and have always been assured salsa lyrics are trifles, trumped by the romance of how the language sounds. This seems true of salsa’s instrumental arrangements, too, whether by Harlow or Eddie Palmieri (still my  personal favorite) who are among the last active practitioners of the form (Johnny Pacheco is mostly retired). But you don’t have to be of Hispanic descent to feel the pulse and be swayed. Just show up. And if the occasion is free, in Manhattan in August, get to the site of the show well ahead of time.

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  1. says

    For Booking of Larry Harlow Jazz or his Latin Legends of Fania or his Thunder Drums or his educational show “Sofrito” please contact the Booking Agent – Chino Rodriguez at 305 432-9246 or email – or
    Also Larry Harlow and Pete Escovedo or Tito Puente Jr. in Salsa meets Jazz, along with ala cart Singers availible contact Agent for pricing.
    Booking Agent – Chino Rodriguez at 305 432-9246 or email – or
    HM: I won’t post such info here frequently . . . but this time. . . .

  2. says

    I an not particularly fond of this kind of music,but I admit that Larry Harlow has a beautiful talent.I attended his show with my girlfriend I really enjoy it, it was fantastic,words are not enough to describe it.