When producer, innovator, and self-described “extrovert of manic proportions and overachiever,” Al Santiago heard Panart’s Cuban Jam Sessions (1959) he flipped. “Wow! How loose, groovy, funky and swinging, and musically avant-garde,” he wrote. “If they could put together a party studio band in Cuba and just jam, well so could we, and of course we did.”
His objective was three-fold: Create a record that rivaled the Cuban Jam Sessions, sell records and have the performers, “improvise music gratifying not only to themselves but to the listeners and dancers.”
But organizing an all-star group with sizeable egos, personality conflicts, opposing musical visions, and ridiculously busy schedules was no easy task. “The solution,” according to Salazar, “was to pick an off-night during the week when all could be available and find a place where they could work as a unit while preparing for the LP; the night was Tuesday and the place was the Bronx Social Club, The Tritons,” a second-story nightclub on Southern Boulevard between 163rd Street and Westchester Avenue. Over the next six to eight Tuesdays, the band gelled, the music evolved and for those who lived in the neighborhood or learned about it through word-of-mouth, the rehearsals were an event.
The all-star cast included pianist, composer, arranger Charlie Palmieri; flutist Johnny Pacheco; bandleader, timbalero “Kako” Bastar; violinist, saxophonist and veteran of the original Cuban Jam Sessions, Chombo Silva; vocalist, composer Rudy Calzado; percussionists Marcelino Valdés and Julián Cabrera; vocalist, percussionist and guitarist Dioris Valladares; vocalist Yayo el Indio; trombonist Barry Rogers and bassist Bobby Rodríguez.
At the outset, there was no designated leader or charts. The music, which consisted of Cuban standards with jazz elements included Bebo Valdés‘ “Rareza del Siglo,” Abelardo Valdés‘ “Almendra,” Mongo Santamaría‘s “Para Tí,” R. Cueto‘s “Al Carnaval,” the bolero “Soy Feliz,” Charlie Palmieri‘s “Ay Camina Y Ven,” and “Estoy Buscando a Kako,” a “head” arrangement credited to the trumpeter, jazz singer, vibraphonist and mellophone player Don Eliot (1926-1984).
When the group was ready, Salazar assembled the players at Mastertone Recording Studios and the session went off without a hitch. Something Santiago says, “never happened again.”
When the album was released in 1961, between advertising, word-of-mouth, and Santiago’s retailing savvy the albums sold between five to ten thousand copies and made a modest profit, considering the fact that, Santiago says he “never made records for the mass listening audience,” which was a plus.
As Latin recordings go, Volume 1 was unconventional and ahead of its time. Much like its creators: “Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Cubans, and a golden long-haired Jew,” the music was diverse, spontaneous, danceable, jazzy, and fun. Also, the icing on the cake was the studio chatter, which revolved around quips, looking for Kako, the sound of booze being poured into a shot glass, and someone yelling, “Cierra la Puerta, Chico!” (Close the door, man!).
Standout tracks include “Almendra” (check out Barry Rogers solo 2:21, followed by Bobby Rodríguez on bass), which earns a well-deserved así se toca! (that’s how it’s played!). Also, Rogers and Chombo trading licks on Mongo Santamaria’s “Para Tí.” The tune that never fails to make me smile is, “Estoy Buscando a Kako,” a “head” arrangement that begins with a vamp inspired by the aforementioned Don Elliot, that swings from start to finish. Also, it’s apparent the band members were having a blast!
Post Volume 1: What separates Volume 1 from the records that followed is the loss of Johnny Pacheco, who left the group when Santiago chose Palmieri as the designated leader. Also, the loss of Barry Rogers, who was ably replaced by the trombonist, Mark Weinstein. Other reasons include the deaths of the major players, the revolving cast, and the introduction of arrangements, which, according to Willie Torres, put a damper on the group’s spontaneity.
A short-list of some of the names who passed through the Alegre All-Stars includes Cheo Feliciano, Louie Ramírez, Orlando Marín, Frankie Malabé, Joe Quijano, Willie Torres, Mario Rivera, and Chivirico Dávila among others.
The Alegre All-Stars went on to record El Manicero (The Peanut Vendor, 1964); Alegre All-Stars Volume 2; Lost and Found (The Alegre All-Stars Volume 3, re-released 1966); Way Out (The Alegre All-Stars Volume 4, 1965) Perdido (1977), the compilation, They Just Don’t Makim Like Us Anymore (1976) and The Alegre All-Stars Te Invita (1992). Also, to avoid contractual problems, the group recorded under different names including The Cesta All-Stars, The Salsa All-Stars, and The Tico-Alegre All-Stars.
In 1996, on what would have been the group’s 35th anniversary, an ailing Santiago presented a new incarnation of the group at New York’s Sounds of Brazil (SOB’S). The group played to a full house and was scheduled to record and tour but it was short-lived. The same year, Santiago passed away.
Arguably, The Alegre All-Stars, Volume 1 is one of the greatest jam session LPs ever made. Also, it’s worth noting the all-star concept preceded groups such as The Fania All-Stars, The Puerto Rico All-Stars, and Descarga Boricua among others.
If you’re not familiar with The Alegre All-Stars, I invite you to listen to the compilation, Te Invita.
- Blondet, Richard – Research
- Carp, David – Profile: 35th Anniversary of the Alegre All-Stars – Descarga.com (6/1/1996)
- Editor, Descarga.com – Alegre All-Stars – Te Envita (11/27/2007)
- Flores, Juan – Salsa Rising, New York Latin Music of the Sixties Generation (Oxford University Press, 2016)
- Santiago, Al – Alegre All-Stars Volume 1. – Liner Notes
Sounds of Brazil Publicity Photo – According to the historian, Richie Blondet, the promo should read, “35th Anniversary.”
- Alegre All-Stars Volume 1. (1966)
- The Alegre All-Stars Vol.3 – Lost and Found (Fania, 1996)
- The House that Al Built – The Alegre Records Story (Fania/EMusica, 2008)
- Tico-Alegre All-Stars Live at Carnegie Hall (Tico, 1974)
- The Complete Cuban Jam Sessions (Craft, 2018)
© 2020 Tomas Peña
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