Hector Aviles, Latin Music Café

The Spanish Harlem Orchestra is celebrating 15 years of helping revive “Salsa Dura” with their new album “Anniversary”.

Fifteen Years Ago…

…the Spanish Harlem Orchestra (SHO) started as a concept for a recording project that was commissioned to Oscar Hernandez. Oscar sharpened the concept, got the musicians, and made some of the arrangements for the project.

The album was recorded and then shelved for 1 ½ years, which means the whole thing started around 2001.

In the video below, Oscar Hernandez, the Director of the Spanish Harlem Orchestra, explains in this interview with Latino Music Café, the story of how SHO started, and the concept he instilled in the band.

Spanish Harlem Orchestra “Anniversary”

“Anniversary” is the 6th album in the 15-year history of the Spanish Harlem Orchestra. The album continues with the Spanish Harlem Orchestra tradition of uncompromised musical quality, aggressive Salsa arrangements, a good mix of rhythms, and top tier musicians.

“Anniversary” includes a generous 13 songs, most of them of the heavy “Salsa dura” which has characterized the SHO sound. However, the “Hispanica del Barrio” mixes it up in tempo. Among the songs, the album has a “Cha-cha”, a “Bolero”, and a “Latin Jazz” piece.On the previous 5 albums released by SHO using this same formula, the results include 4 nominations for a Grammy and actually winning 2 little golden phonographs.

It’s worth to note that this is the first recording where the Spanish Harlem Orchestra does not include veteran singer Ray de la Paz in the lineup. In the 2nd video below, Oscar talks about “Anniversary”, why the change from Ray de la Paz to Jeremy Bosch, and how he compares SHO to some of the main Salsa bands today.

Songs in “Anniversary”

Of the 13 songs in the album, 8 were arranged by Oscar Hernandez, two by the late Barretto alumni Gil Lopez, and two by trumpeter Angel Fernandez. Gonzalo Grau did the arrangement on the old Cheo Feliciano / Joe Cuba song “Guaracha y Bembe”.

The first single of “Anniversary” is a cover of the 1963 classic from Mexican “Ranchera” legend Jose Alfredo Jimenez “La Media Vuelta”. Oscar Hernandez demonstrates his great touch in the arrangement by taking this soft song and converting it into a swinging Salsa without losing its original essence.

You can judge this single for yourself, as I share below the video version of “La Media Vuelta”. It features all three singers of the Spanish Harlem Orchestra.

Oscar also makes a great genre conversion in the Ruben Blades song “Y Deja”, which was included in the Willie Colon / Ruben Blades album “Canciones del Solar de los Aburridos” (1981).

From what I have written so far, you may be getting the impression that “Anniversary” is made up of covers. But that would be wrong!

Seven of the 13 songs are originals from the Spanish Harlem Orchestra personnel.

The first song in the album is “Esa Nena” written by singer Marco Bermudez with conga player George Delgado. Carlos Cascante wrote two songs, and Oscar penned three, including “Somos Uno”. This later one is the album’s Latin Jazz piece, featuring veteran and legendary jazz trumpeter Randy Brecker as guest.

My Take on “Anniversary”

The Spanish Harlem Orchestra has established themselves as the flag bearers of the New York sound of “Salsa dura”. Bands like El Gran Combo and the Sonora Ponceña are still around, as well as several of the singers of the golden age of Salsa like Oscar D’León, Andy Montañez, and even Ruben Blades.

The Spanish Harlem Orchestra has a great record of Grammy nominations and awards. “Anniversary” should provide SHO with another Grammy nomination.

However, the SHO is the band that best represents that New York sound. The band features aggressive arrangements as well as several mambos and chorus versions during a song, Furthermore, they provide a good mix of rhythms. In addition to all this, it includes a good dose of solos from their musicians, and a sharp “tumbao”.

“Anniversary” has all of these. Newcomer Jeremy Bosch is good, keeping up with the expectations setup by Oscar in the video above. Jeremy’s voice reminds me at times of old-school Salsa “sonero” Tito Allen, who was one of my favorites. In addition, Jeremy also plays the flute.

All three singers have good voices and make good “soneos” in their songs.

All in all, I like “Anniversary” for its sound, versatility in the song selection, and the mix of rhythms. Most noteworthy is the band’s great performance and musicality. The singers do a great job in each song of this album. Finally, the arrangements are sure to delight those of us that reminisce on the Salsa sound of the 70’s and 80’s.

As a close to this blog, here is a teaser video of “Anniversary”. Enjoy!

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