Downbeat Magazine "Spanish Harlem Orchestra: Hot Salsa from the Bronx

Outside the Tribeca Performing Arts Center in Lower Manhattan, it was a chilly November evening. But inside the auditorium, things were heating up quickly as the 13-member Spanish Harlem Orchestra (SHO) took the stage. From the first few bars of “Latinos Unidos,” the orchestra’s theme song, many in the audience—a highly integrated mix of Latinos, Anglos, African Americans and Asians—were dancing in their seats. The dancing wasn’t confined to the audience, as the orchestra’s front-line trio of singers synchronized their mambo moves; even the five horn players in the back row stepped to the band’s fiery rhythms.

Orchestrating all the passion and split-second timing from his position at the piano was Oscar Hernández, the group’s founder, principal composer and arranger. Since its 2002 debut, Un Gran Dia En El Barrio, all four of the orchestra’s albums have earned Grammy nominations, including two wins: for 2004’s Across 110th Street and 2010’s Viva La Tradicion—an amazing feat for any new group.

“Spanish Harlem Orchestra is my baby,” Hernández says. “It’s music that is near and dear to my heart, that I’ve grown up playing. And I feel blessed that I’m able to do it on my own terms.” The group’s territory is salsa dura, the real-deal, traditional Latin music derived mostly from Cuban son. Its mission is to keep this music alive, but SHO is not merely a repertory orchestra: Hernández and other band members contribute newly minted but classic-sounding salsa tunes to each album.

Nor is the Bronx native just a classicist. Hernández has been at the forefront of contemporary Latin pop and jazz for decades. Since age 18, he has played with Ismael Miranda, Ray Barretto, Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, Julio Iglesias, Earl Klugh and Dave Valentin. He spent 13 years as musical director for Latin superstar singer-songwriter Rubén Blades, which took him all over the world.

For all his acclaim in Latin music, probably his best-known work is also one of his briefest: the theme music for HBO’s Sex and the City, which he composed and arranged (that’s him playing those famous vibraphone runs—on a keyboard). 

In 1997, Paul Simon asked Hernández to become musical director for his Broadway show, The Capeman; Hernández also helped produce Simon’s album of songs from the show. Simon returned the favor in 2007 by serving as executive producer for the band’s album United We Swing, on which he sings a blistering rendition of his 1980 hit “Late In The Evening.”

Trombonist-arranger Doug Beavers, who has been with SHO since 2010 and mixed its latest album, says, “Oscar is a joy to play with. He gets musicians of the absolutely highest level. He’s from the South Bronx and a very passionate guy, so if there is something amiss, he will let you know.”

After releasing the group’s previous album on Concord, Hernández opted to self-produce and distribute its latest self-titled album on ArtistShare, the fan-funding website. The new album features nine new songs and three covers, including the band’s first Great American Songbook standard, “You And The Night And The Music,” featuring guest appearances by Chick Corea and Joe Lovano.

“Here you are, you win a Grammy and everybody assumes you are on easy street,” Hernández says. “But today’s record business doesn’t work that way anymore. To be honest, the money that they offered was so low that I refused to accept it—I’d rather find a way to do it myself and own the product. We do things at a high caliber; we use the best studio, and I pay the musicians well. Ultimately, when I walk away from the studio, the one criterion I have is that I must absolutely love the music. And that’s the case here.”

Midway through the group’s high-energy Tribeca set, Hernández introduced “Esperame En El Cielo,” a languorous ballad sung lovingly in three-part harmony by vocalists Ray De La Paz, Marco Bermudez and Carlos Cascante. The sentimental lyrics translate as “Wait for me in heaven, my love, if you get there first.”

“This is part of our music that’s not heard anymore,” Hernández says, “but it used to be playing out of every window.” It’s still lovely, in any language. 

— Allen Morrison