El Malo at mid-career: WILLIE COLÓN PLAYS CELEBRATE BROOKLYN!by Alan Lockwood
This past August’s “Celebrate Brooklyn!” concert at the Prospect Park bandshell featured trombonist/bandleader Willie Colón. The summer series, in presenting their 3rd annual Boricua festival, picked the right man to headline the celebration of Nuevayorquino pride and ability.
Colón’s 30 years at the foundation and the forefront of salsa music have garnered him a Grammy award and numerous nominations, Yale’s CHUBB fellowship, and his present stature as activist and community representative.
His music remains a vital force on the radio waves, and in the hearts and throats of his fans. The festival audience stood as showtime neared, eager, brandishing hand percussion and Puerto Rican flags as bruised skies threatened over the park trees, wind ripping at tarps atop the bandshell. The MC from La Mega radio pitched up the vibe, Colón’s band Legal Alien took their places, the pianist chunking into the “Che Che Cole’s” opening riff.
He revamped the intro’s infectious stagger until the main man got out from the wings. Stout and suave in a grey suit and pink tie, Colón waved, greeted, lifted his horn, burst the trombone section into the melody’s blare.
Accompanied by just about everybody present, Colón took the vocals, a paean to the West African origins of the clave beat. When it first came out “Che Che Cole” was sung by Héctor LaVoe, salsa’s fallen angel and the first legendary vocalist with whom Colón has fronted his bands (Rubén Blades and Celia Cruz are two others). Colón has relied on his own voice for two decades; its strong pleasures were in evidence from the early days (two remarkable ditties, tandem sung with LaVoe, conclude the album that “Che Che” opens, 72’s Cosa Nuestra).
The band jumped “Che Che’s” break and began sampling Colón’s panoply of hits: “Te Conozco,” a taunting start ‘n stopper that LaVoe wrote, “Barrunto” (Colón’s records are repositories for song writer C. Curet Alonso’s art), Brazilian Chico Buarque’s “O Que Sera” made an appearance during a medley later in the set.
This medley approach, appropriate for the festival setting, utilized seams in Colón’s early hodgepodge writing to skip from song to song. The pastiches maximized on the irresistible gangster/carnival attitude Colón and LaVoe nurtured, at once street savvy and geared for dancing pleasure.
“Barrunto”, from ‘76’s La Gran Fuga, is a prime instance of this grab-bag song style. Its brazen melody flaunts defiance and pathos; LaVoe’s urgent improvs, backed by the chorus, juxtapose with cheesy oompah sing-alongs; a piano solo is inserted like a sleek money shot.
The early hits, unbeatable for raw, wringing fury, readily reverting to LaVoe’s impassioned sentiments about the world’s incomprehension, were churned out by Colón as boss Jerry Masucci’s Fania Records formulated and popularized salsa music. For the bandshell gig, Colón placed his more ambitious music among these hard-hitting medleys. As his songwriting developed through the ‘80s, his sound became more developed, with greater sweep and musical cohesiveness.
One of these numbers got a lush presentation. The saxophonist, alone on stage, wafted a soprano solo. It was smoothed by Korg synth chords, jostled with eerie percussion frills. The band returned to build the song’s stanzas, and Colón soloed forcefully on his shiny bass trumpet.
More medley material followed, the crowd dancing, banging cowbells, raising umbrellas as halting rain fell, singing all the words, cutting adroit salsa moves between the seats and in the aisles. The arch at the back of the bandshell flashed neon hues that would’ve done the Copacabana proud. Colón kept up banter between songs: U.S. Marines out of Puerto Rico; who’s getting whose votes for President.
And more music. His three trombone players, enthusiastic and concise, matched brawn and guile with the leader in sequenced solos. The guys sang choruses full of vim and humor; one levered maracas with wicked intent.
The percussion section, mounted on a riser behind Colón and the horns, took several opportunities to break the music’s lithe patterns of congas, bongos, and timbales. When the vigorous interplay is discernible, internal voicings pack the sound with feints and lunges.
For the most part, though, the drummers kept up with a steady surge, veering towards homogenous salsa, the facile meld that mars popular dancehall styles. The timbalero got his requisite stage-clearing solo towards the end of the set. Everybody loves the peppy, aggressive attack of a good timbalero and he didn’t displease.
The electric pianist laid back from leads. The electric bass player stayed plump and stolid, too well digested into the music where fine Afro-Cuban bass plays into the decay of the beat (as the knowing dancer always steps away from the the downbeat).
Colón’s broad ranging material keeps Legal Alien from lapsing into contemporary salsa’s turgid limitations. From it’s mid-‘70s inception as a distillation of Cuban and Puerto Rican styles, salsa hasn’t added much to the mix. The Times ran an article, on the day Colón played his gig, discussing last year’s dead end results of Marc Anthony and Ricky Martin’s English language excursions.
A major salsero who emulated LaVoe’s singing, Frankie Ruiz, died young at the end of the ‘90s, gutted as LaVoe was gutted by stardom’s excesses. Though his voice and his fate reminded one of LaVoe, the music Ruiz was singing lacked the nascent brawn and burgeoning sophistication of Colón’s work with LaVoe. Ruiz filled Madison Square Garden, but behind pleasing melodies, his salsa hadn’t diversified. The music’s origin as a codification process had played itself out.
The Fania All-Stars, including Colón and LaVoe, had such success that they were cutting live records at Yankee Stadium by the late ‘70s. But even at that early stage, salsa’s might was replacing right; there’s more blaze in their early-decade live dates from the Cheetah and the Red Garter.
Jazz crossover has provided salsa’s rhythms with some fresh ground, though most Latin jazz suffers the same pat confusion that hinders the pop music. The late & lamented Tito Puente went to jazzy and stayed durable; by the mid ‘90s he was cautioning that when the Cubans arrive here, New York musicians were going to have to go back to school.
Puente wasn’t talking about the Buena Vista Social Club. Their late life reliving of Cuban son revives music that served half a century back as the basis for Arsenio Rodríguez’s conga-driven urban verve, as he originated the conjunto lineup and revolutionized Cuban popular music. He brought that hyper-son sound to ‘50s New York, where the mambo-era big bands (and their jazz counterparts) were scaling back. Rodríguez’s music galvanized that reduction, led through pachangas then on to the hotter proto-salsa outfits of Eddie Palmieri and Ricardo Ray.
Now salsa plays to brief acclaim as an English pop fad, and the son revivalists tour Western capitals. Cuba’s working bands, though, who’ve been forging new styles for three decades while sealed out of our markets by political embargo, have evolved through songo to timba and nueva salsa: Los Van Van, NG La Banda, Isaac Delgado. These are the Cubans with advanced traditions of whom Puente was aware. Still not played on Latin radio here, they’re getting U.S. gigs at last and, rest assured, they’ve come to play.
Witness the Van Van’s juggernaut performance this summer at the foot of the World Trade Towers, deflated after a sterling hour by bad sound (occasioning pro-Castro leader Juan Formell’s wry comment that bad tech wouldn’t be plaguing them in Havana). Witness as well two failures in ‘99 to get Havana legends Ritmo Oriental working visas so they could play their first NYC gig.
Van Van’s gloved fist and Ritmo Oriental’s quirky, aggressive hits were already shaking things up in Havan in the late ‘70s, while Colón was teaming with Rubén Blades here in NYC. Their partnership peaked with their ‘78 album Siembra, Fania’s biggest-selling record.
Siembra remains a breathtaking achievement from the era of Aja and Hotel California. Colón reined in his hustler swagger and constructed a rich variety of settings for Blades’s lyrical forays into the life on the streets and in the human heart.
Colón and Blades continued working together, though Blades did hack work to free himself of his contract with Fania head honcho Jerry Masucci. He and Colón have had several reunions; both have also taken unsuccessful forays into politics, Colón running for the U.S. House for NY’s 17th District and Blades vying for presidency of his native Panama.
The songs with Blades form part of Colón’s pantheon, with all of Siembra on the radio to this day and “Pedro Navaja” and “Plastico” having become character definitions.
At the Prospect Park gig, before Colón and the band came on, a trailer P.A. at a hardscrabble filed beside the bandshell had the crowd dancing to “Todo Tiene Su Final.” The punch of massed trombones with LaVoe’s ecstatic strains may be the best thing on their ‘73 album Lo Mato (though both the opener “Calle Luna Calle Sol” and the canny swelter of “El Dia de Suerte” make for tough competition).
Colón continued his set, introducing a medley/tribute to the late LaVoe. He sang from “El Cantante,” the Blades song that LaVoe made his signature piece during a solo career debilitated then cut short with fast living and smack. Last year’s musical play Quién Mató a Héctor LaVoe? Had an extended off-Broadway run featuring salsero Domingo Quiñones reprising LaVoe material under Fanny mainstay Johnny Pacheco’s musical direction, backed by a crack band featuring ex-Blades pianist Oscar Hernandez. The play’s title, a bitter tease at the singer’s fatal appetites, indicates both LaVoe’s attainment and the music world’s lingering loss.
Colón concluded with “El Gran Varón,” his chart-topping, Grammy-winning single from the ‘80s. He announced it as what the crowd had been waiting and hoping for, and he should know. It’s drawn tears as his show closer for 15 years, during which time it’s been doing its emotional wrenching on every radio station that plays salsa.
With its two measured vaults from misty languor into the vivid, forceful chorus, “El Gran Varón” follows the progress of its character Simon (“the big baron”) from the hospital bed of his birth to that of his death. To being, he’s in the presence of his father’s pride and great expectations; in the end, out of the closet and a victim of AIDS, he’s alone.
The unforgettable chorus sounds didactic in translation: a tree growing curved is a natural thing, if you wind up with lemons make lemonade. But when hundreds of people around you are singing it at the tops of their voices after who knows how many hundreds of previous times, it’s a strong and human and hopeful plea for acceptance and reconciliation.
Colón, having warbled “Feelings, nothing more than…” to much laughter at the vocal entrance to the song, let “Le Gran Varón” take its time and find its mark for the umpteenth time. When he finished singing the extended story, he left the band to give the song its wrap.
No encore expected, the audience headed out gratified. Colón stayed away from Blades material, as he’d done at his Central Park gig last summer. That show had included more jazzy numbers, more of his contemporary sound. And that show had been a farewell, as the Bronx-born Colón was moving to Mexico City, where he has more opportunities with his music and in TV acting. He’d announced, in saying his goodbyes to the Central Park crowd, that it’d been 10 years since he’d played the Garden. Was he being rueful? Or demanding?
Thorough shows and his dynamic body of work remain. Recording early Fanias as a teenager in the late ‘60s, Colón was building on the formidable two-trombone sound pioneered by Palmieri’s first band. Colón frayed and cracked the muscular twin bone harmonics, toned down the solo spots (Palmieri and trombonist Barry Rogers’s improvisational vigor was a rare match and a tough act to follow), and added the bomba bounce particular to Puerto Rican music.
The bomba is the P.R. equivalent to Cuban rumba. An ensemble of drummers, singers, and dancers, the lead drummer trading and feuding with the lead singer, each of them facing off with the spotlighted dancer while massed percussion plays to incantatory choral chants.
Colón’s ‘75 recording on Vaya Records, wryly titled There Goes the Neighborhood (Se Chavo el Vecindario), is yet another of his collaborations with a great vocalist, this time the Puerto Rican singer Mon Rivera, Rivera’s high, sly voice, scatting words into the vocables like a deranged woodpecker, singing with wrenching uplift at other stages, rides over the proceedings with the incessant scrape of his güiro, a serrated gourd that’s flayed with a thin stick or metal tines to trace the music’s pulse.
Right behind Rivera is Colón, fronting a trombone section of that era’s lynchpin players: Jose Rodrigues, late of La Perfecta, then in early Conjunto Libre, as was Ed Byrne, Lewis Kahn of Orquestra Harlow. Colón also sings in the chorus, an astonishing quartet with LaVoe, Blades, and Fe Ortiz. They give a collective tour de force of background singing, a fierce and effortless union landing way in the front of the beat (“Ya Llego”, also “La Humanidad” which is another C. Curet Alonso gem, as is the opening barnstorm, “Pena de Amor”). Behind them is the stellar percussion team of timbalero Kako (co-leader on the raucous Alegre All-Stars’ early ‘60s jams), Milton Cardona generating a boxy conga whack (at present Cardona authenticates clarinetist Don Byron’s strong Latin band), and Jose Mangual, veteran of the Machito big band that played with Parker, Gillespie, et al in the ‘40s and ‘50s (Mangual and Cardona were both in Colón’s ‘70s band).
Round the lineup off with the core of Eddie Rivera’s bass and Papo Lucca’s (Sonora Poncenta’s leader) superbly simplified piano figures and you’ve got an album of drive and masterly restraint that sounds like it was put together in a matter of days out of sheer enthusiasm, and like it will continue to sound as fresh and scintillating as it does now, a quarter century after it was made.