A proud throwback to the classic era of Latin jazz big bands as exemplified by Tito Puente's classic salsa orchestra, Spanish Harlem Orchestra formed in 2000 under the tutelage of producer Aaron Luis Levinson and bandleader Oscar Hernandez.
Best known as Rubén Blades' piano player and musical director, Hernandez had also worked with everyone from Celia Cruz and Ray Barretto to Kirsty MacColl and Paul Simon. (Hernandez arranged and produced the score for Simon's ill-starred Latin-influenced Broadway musical The Capeman.) Although the orchestra's lineup is forever shifting, Hernandez usually sticks to the traditional layout of himself on piano, a bassist, a trio of drummers and percussionists, and a five-man front line consisting of two trumpeters, two trombonists, and a saxophone and flute player. A trio of male vocalists starring lead singer Ray de la Paz completes the orchestra. Spanish Harlem Orchestra's blend of classic salsa tunes and new material debuted with 2002's Un Gran Dia en el Barrio (A Big Day in the Neighborhood). In 2003, they performed at the Montreal Jazz Festival and the Newport Jazz Festival. One year later, the collective's second album, Across 110th Street (named for Harlem's southern boundary), featured four songs with guest vocals by Hernandez's former boss, Rubén Blades. It also won a Grammy award for Best Salsa/Merengue Album. United We Swing followed in 2006 on the Six Degrees label, with a special appearance from Paul Simon. Viva La Tradición appeared four years later on Concord Picante. ~ Stewart Mason, Rovi