What makes for a superior salsa album in 2009? Integrity, swing, feeling, honesty, and flavor. What makes a superior album great in 2009, takes it to the next level? Salsa with a conscience, that sounds like a real band playing real music, with its own style an tumbao that melds affairs of the heart with current affairs. What band has something to say that is worth listening to? Who is going to fulfill all these needs in 2009? What band will make the barren, cracked desert landscape of U.S.-made (the wild country) Latin music turn lush and green as El Yunque, take you to "el monte" (the tropical wilderness) and show you the Latino side of the American Dream?
¡La Excelencia! Go no further.
Their brand new album, Mi Tumbao Social, according to this writer, will probably prove to be the best salsa disc of 2009, and looking ahead, will be one of the top ten all-time greats of the current salsa dura resurgence. It should also win awards this year, that is, if prizes are indeed given out based on merit.
Building on the previous achievements of its fabulous freshman effort, aptly titled Salsa Con Conciencia, La Excelencia has deliberately crafted a cinematic masterpiece with Mi Tumbao Social. From the beautifully designed cover and entertaining sound effects, to the thoughtful lyrics and masterful playing within, this collection of diverse original compositions covers a lot of ground, both musically and thematically. As in the previous album, there is a certain pain and emotional power infused through the compositions that draws you in. Vocalists Edwin Pérez and Gilberto Velázquez bring a dramatic double punch to the proceedings because they have different vocal timbres, so it's like having Adalberto Santiago, Ismael Miranda, and Lalo Rodríguez rolled into one.
The percussion section is superb: Charles Dilone (bongó/cencerro/quinto), Julián Silva (co-leader, co-producer, timbal), and José Vázquez-Cofresí (co-leader, co-producer, congas) are well aware of their roots; they play with that essential "fundamento"--the mystical Afro-Cuban foundation--that is missing from most salsa recordings these days.
Completing the rhythm section, bassist Jorge Bringas keeps it all together with his liquid low end, bringing to mind greats like Cachao, Joe Santiago, and Eddie "Guagua" Rivera. In these days of digital dullness, the bass can often sound flat and thin; not here though, which makes this recording sound grounded--after all, what is a tumbao without a truthful bassist? As for the keyboard, it cannot be stated enough that, nowadays, the acoustic piano is an endangered species; La Excelencia knows that it makes all the difference to play the real thing, and Willy Rodríguez is a master.
The secret weapon in La Excelencia's formidable arsenal of W.M.D. (Weapons of Musical Destruction) is their wild brass section: Ronald Prokopez, Tokunori Kajiwara, and Jack Davis form a holy 'bone trinity, while Sam Hoyt, Jonathan Powell, and Willie Oleneck are a trumpet trio from heaven. The nostalgic rawness of the raging trombones and razor sharp trumpets on the first album (which I loved) has given way to a more balanced e.q., with the meters not so "in-the-red." This more mature approach allows one to really hear the dynamism in the band's crossfire moñas and fanfares. When the trombones start to deploy in American Sueño, you feel the shivers go up your spine (people actually clapped after I played this cut at a nightclub).
Overall, the high quality of the lyrics, the dynamic arrangements, and the purity of sound remind one of the days of Colón, Blades, Barretto, Harlow, and Tite Curet Alonso (with engineering by John Fausty and Irv Greenbaum). Speaking of Fausty and Greenbaum, it is wonderful to hear a contemporary independent production that has the warmth and clarity of the golden knob twiddlers of old; the engineering on the album really showcases the band in all its sonic glory. Lead engineer Kamilo Kratc, his assistant Sandra Kratc of Soundworks Recording Studio (in Astoria, N.Y.), and Andreas Meyer (masterization) of Meyer Media Mastering (above the recording studio), do a terrific job bringing La Excelencia into your speakers, making it sound like all thirteen members of the orchestra are with you in the room.
Hopefully, the eleven cuts on Mi Tumbao Social will gain La Excelencia greater recognition in their hometown. With their own blood, sweat, and tears, they have already conquered hearts, feet, and minds in Europe, Latin America, and Asia, where the fans can't get enough of them; but so far, the...