Preview: Spanish Harlem Orchestra takes Latin jazz to its roots

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Oscar Hernandez makes no apologies for remaining "old-school."

The pianist and leader of the Spanish Harlem Orchestra, which comes to the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild on Friday, has two Grammy Awards and two other nominations to the band's credit. So you might say that he must be doing something right.

Mr. Hernandez describes the group -- which also features three vocalists, a five-piece horn section, a bassist and three percussionists -- as New York City-oriented salsa, "a raw, organic sound based on the way it was done in the '50s and '60s" before it became, in his view, more commercialized. "We hold that tradition close to our hearts. We're proud of the legacy of that which we're protecting."

Spanish Harlem Orchestra
Where: Manchester Craftsman's Guild Jazz Concert Hall, North Side.
When: 7 and 9:30 p.m. Friday.
Tickets: $45; www.mcgjazzorg; 412-322-0800.

Mr. Hernandez, a Puerto Rican native of the Bronx, had worked over the years with such Latin music superstars as Tito Puente, Ray Barretto and Celia Cruz. That background, he said, "afforded me the ability [to start] my own project."

He did that in 2000, working with producer Aaron Luis Levinson originally on "a concept recording for Warner Bros. -- old songs with new arrangements," Mr. Hernandez says. But the deal didn't work out, and the first record, "Un Gran Dia en el Barrio," was released in 2002 on a small label.

No matter -- it was nominated for a Grammy for best salsa album. In fact, all four of the band's CDs have been similarly nominated.

The third album, "United We Swing," contains a cover of "Late in the Evening," which was originally recorded in that Latin style but is nevertheless familiar to pop audiences. That was no accident, as Mr. Hernandez had previously served as music director for Paul Simon, who wrote and recorded the song decades ago, and "it was a song I always liked," Mr. Hernandez says. Mr. Simon did sing on it.

Don't be fooled, however, as these guys can and do play jazz, which is why they're coming to the Guild in the first place. Not a surprise, perhaps, because the fusion of jazz and Latin music that began in the 1940s with Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo continues to this day.

"A lot of the guys have intentions to play jazz -- it's another great style of music that we can do as well," he says. "Just about all the musicians in our band are extremely knowledgeable in the history of jazz."

As a result, Mr. Hernandez is inviting all local musicians who play Latin jazz to attend the show.

"[Those] guys need to be there," he says. "They won't be disappointed. I feel it's the best music in the world."

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