Spanish Harlem Orchestra Kicks the Holiday Up a Notch

Photo courtesy of SHO

The Spanish Harlem Orchestra

REVIEW: The Latin/Caribbean combo brought a high-energy freshness to the holiday classics, which worked most of the time.

While it draws its influences from throughout the Caribbean and Latin America, salsa music was forged in the dance clubs of New York City in the 1960s. From there, its complex percussive attack and general exuberance have gone global, spread by popular ambassadors like Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, Celia Cruz, Rubén Blades and Willie Colón.

The genre has nearly as many sub-genres as players—Salsa Cubana, African Salsa—with some tending more toward a softer Latin pop style, and others reaching toward a hard-driving jazz vocabulary. Firmly in the latter category are the musicians of the Spanish Harlem Orchestra, three-time Grammy winners and one of the premiere Salsa Dura (“Hard Salsa”) ensembles.

Salsa Dura puts the instrumentation front and center and takes no prisoners. It’s raw, brash, taut, aggressive and relentlessly high-energy. And this past Friday, the orchestra (affectionately known by its fans as SHO) made its Segerstrom Center debut at the Samueli Theater as part of its West Coast “Salsa Navidad” tour.

Founded 17 years ago by pianist and arranger Oscar Hernández, the 13-member SHO has been performing holiday repertoire in one fashion or another since 2013. Friday’s 70-minute show was split half-and-half between its signature pieces and traditional Christmas tunes with decidedly nontraditional arrangements.

SHO didn’t waste any time getting to the business at hand. Decked out in suits and ties, they kicked off with three pieces from the band’s latest release, “Anniversary.” From the first few bars they reached a high-octane intensity that rarely let up. “Yo te prometo” showed them off at their confident best: constant forward propulsion, unpredictable accentuation, crisp ensemble work, gutsy and well-supported vocals. The tempo was fast but not rushed, and as was the case all evening, they found that sweet spot between precise and disciplined articulation and improvisational looseness.

“Como baila mi mulata” followed, an elegant and less frenetic work than the previous, featuring a wildly inventive flute duet with Jorge Castro and Jeremy Bosch. Bosch also served as one of the three exemplary vocalists (along with Carlos Cascante and Marco Bermudez) and acquitted himself well all evening; an engaging and amiable young performer.

Preliminaries out of the way, the band launched into the holiday portion. To start, it’s fair to ask whether Christmas can be a brash and high-energy holiday, and how do you make something new out of incessantly played chestnuts like “I’ll be Home for Christmas” or “Sleigh Ride”?

The answers, for this listener anyway: Christmas songs can work in high-energy format some, but not all, of the time. And with a gifted arranger like Doug Beavers, there’s still a lot you can pull out of the too-familiar carols.

Beavers arranged the medley that introduced this part of the show and his work showed sophistication, taste and a deep understanding of jazz vocabulary. Listening to “Winter Wonderland” in salsa-fied form was, if not a revelation, at least a welcome departure from the easy listening/sleep-inducing arrangements one usually hears. It had plenty of percussive thrust and a generally playful attitude.

Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song” also worked in this style. Bosch handled the vocals cleanly without edging into cheese territory. The arrangement took a few harmonic detours that elevated rather than detracted from the song’s intrinsic beauty.

As for the take on “Silent Night”: there was nothing silent about the arrangement, and for such a simple and childlike song, the full salsa treatment was overkill. The song’s appeal rests in its soft and lullaby-like melody. Turning it into a barn-burner was one of the evening’s rare missteps.

The concert closed with one of the SHO’s signature pieces, “La Salsa Dura.” It was brilliantly done, with deceptive rhythms, melodic grace and unity throughout. The theater was in its cabaret-style seating plan, candlelit tables for four, leaving plenty of room for the many dancers who kept pace with the band from start to finish.

Peter Lefevre is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He may be reached at palefevre@gmail.com.