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Essential Albums

The Alegre All-Stars, Volume One (1961)

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Alegre All-Stars

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

References

  • 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.” 

Recommended Listening

  • 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
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

A graduate of Empire State College with a dual major in journalism and Latin American studies, Tomas Peña has spent years applying his knowledge and writing skills to the promotion of great musicians. A specialist in the crossroads between jazz and Latin music, Peña has written extensively on the subject.

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Essential Albums

Azymuth: Telecommunications

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This album, Telecommunications, is one of the most iconic recordings by Azymuth, the ineffably funky Brasilian trio. When it was released – on the Milestone label in 1982 – it became a monumental hit, propelling the group, it went Gold and exploded into the Top 10 in the British Charts, soaring heavenward in popularity all over Europe too.

It’s not hard to understand the extraordinary popularity of Azymuth. First and foremost has to be the unmatched funkiness of all the musicians who made up the original trio: keyboards superstar, vocalist and percussionist José Roberto Bertrami, who sadly passed away on July 8th 1012, Ivan Mamão Conti, who just has to be considered one of the most funky drummers since Zigaboo Modeliste, [who practically invented funk drumming as one of the illustrious members of the iconic New Orleans group The Meters], and bassist Alex Malherios whose rumble and roar made for the glue [together with Mamão] that solidified the rhythmic edifice of the trio, while the soloist [particularly, Bertrami] launched himself on his mighty solo flights.

Azymuth: Telecommunications
Azymuth: Telecommunications

It may have been the syncopation of choro that carried over into Brasili’s most iconic urban music and dance forms – samba, a versatile rhythm that can assume many forms. Heated up, with a shouted call-and-response verse backed by literally thousands of samba-school drums on parade, it becomes samba de enredo [the mass Carnival music that is famous the world over]. But what happens when you take the vocals out of the musical equation, funk up the rhythm, add a rumbling electric bass guitar and jazz up the rippling Brasilian percussion?

That’s when you get the funkiest music that became the clarion call of Brasilian funk music ensembles, of which Azymuth was probably the most famous, plying its stock-in-trade at all the major jazz festivals – from the Americas to Europe – Monterey to Montreux and way beyond.  The music on this seminal album, Telecommunications is characteristic of Azymuth at its very best. The repertoire came at a time when this heavyweight trio had reached the apogee of the musical style that continues to be a niche. A style that it had carved out for itself, with an eclectic, jazzy mix of Brasilian rhythms upon which were overlaid dallying soli by Mr Bertrami and Mamão, together with the rumbling bass of Mr Malherios.

Azymuth Trio
Azymuth Trio

Telecommunications’ opener “Estreito de Taruma” features a filing solo by the great Brasilian guitarist Helio Delmirio. The warm sonority, clean technique and penchant for spare ornamentation in his playing made him a guitarist like none other to come out of the raging flood of guitarists that cascaded out of the ocean of Brasilian music. The music that Mr Delmirio sculpted, from the steel strings at his fingertips, made the musical notes fly off the paper. His lines floated askance, oblique to the not so predictable keyboard playing by Mr Bertrami.

Throughout the two sides of this vinyl –superbly remastered by George Horn, by the way– we find music that is a testament to the musicians’ [and composers’] boundless invention. This music is replete with a wide expressive range and technical challenges, not to mention the fact that once all of the musicians have had their say, a musical structure is constructed that defies logic, convention and other well-worn stylistic hooks. So monumental is the music’s cachet. Mr Bertrami’s “Last Summer in Rio” and the wistful finale – “The House I Lived In” [together with its “Prelude” – as a finale, no less] is typical of the brooding, tumbling groove that Azymuth created for itself – a sound so unique among [any] other musicians from the 1970’s onward, is yet to be imitated, copied or otherwise reproduced by Brasilian artists other than Azymuth.

YouTube Playlist

Tracks – Side A – 1: Estreito de Taruma; 2: What Price Samba [Quanta Vale um Samba]; 3: Country Road [Chão de Terra]; 4: May I Have This Dance? [Concede me Esto Dança?]. Side B – 1: Nothing Will Be As It Was [Nada Sera Como Antes]; 2: Last Summer in Rio; 3: The House I Lived In [A Casa em Que Vivi]; Prelude

Musicians – José Roberto Bertrami: organ [Side A 1, 4; Side B 1-3], keyboards [Side A 2, 4; Side B 1, 2], vocoder [Side A 3, 4], vocal [Side A 2] and percussion [Side A 1, 4; Side B 1]; Alex Malherios: electric bass [Side A 1, 4; Side B 2], fretless bass [Side A 2, 3; Side B 2]; bass guitar [Side A 4], and acoustic guitar [Side A 3]; Ivan Mamão Conti: drums [Side A 1, 2, 4; Side B 1, 2] and percussion [Side A 1, 3]; Special Guests – Helio Delmirio:  electric guitar [Aide A 1; Side B 2]; Aleuda: percussion [Side A 3, 4; Side B 1]; Dotô: repique [Side A 2]; Cidinho: percussion [Side B 2]

Released – 1982
Remastered and Released (vinyl) – 2022
Label – Milestone [1982]
Jazz Dispensary – [2022]
Runtime – Side A 19:21 Side B 21:43  

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