By Rick Nowlin
Watching the Spanish Harlem Orchestra in action on Friday night at the Manchester Crafstmen’s Guild Jazz Concert Hall you couldn’t tell whether you were supposed to listen or dance.
After all, the 13-piece band that performs traditional salsa music puts on a show the likes of which hadn’t been seen there in a while, if ever, and the entire performance, which included appropriate choreography, was tight as a drum (pun intended). It was easy to hear why every CD that the band has recorded has received a Grammy nomination.
But while salsa is primarily dance music and thus highly dependent on the rhythm — in this case three percussionists who played congas, timbales and bongos and cowbell throughout — on this night the percussion simply overpowered everything else. For those used to hearing nuances in music, they became very hard to detect, with the three vocalists and even the first-rate five-piece horn section being drowned out for the most part.
That was my only complaint about the 10-song concert that otherwise delivered the goods on that cold night. Although it would be a stretch to call what the Spanish Harlem Orchestra does jazz, it was still a lot of fun. Even the soloists — and there were plenty — fit the overall theme of graceful rhythm, hitting accents in just the right places. It mattered little if you didn’t understand Spanish.
After “SHO Intro,” during which every member of the brass section got to solo, the band launched into “La Salsa Dura” and “Son De Corazon,” both from its newest CD, 2010’s “Viva La Tradicion.” (Pianist and bandleader Oscar Hernandez mentioned that a new recording would be out later this year.)
“Como Baila Mi Mulata” featured a dissonant, twisting brass intro before hitting the groove (truth be told, the band didn’t miss a groove all evening). The gentle cha-cha “Ahora Si” featured the flute of Jorge Castro, and the instrumental “Rumba Urbana” featured Mr. Hernandez, a percussion breakdown and a tasty trombone solo from Douglas Beavers immediately following.
Probably the highlight of the show was “You and the Night and the Music,” the only song sung in English, with vocalist Ray de la Paz recalling Tony Bennett, and Mr. Beavers contributing another solo.
It was only a matter of time before folks started dancing, and a number of people down front finally did during the final number — “This Is Mambo.” Marco Bermudez took primary vocal chores and Mr. Colon added a baritone sax solo during the proceedings. There was no encore — but, frankly, none was necessary.
Rick Nowlin: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-3871.