Rafael Ithier - piano, director
In a "Schlitz Salute to Latin Roots" at Carnegie Hall, El Gran Combo shared the bill with Willie Colon, Eddie Palmieri and La Sonora Mantancera. Hailing from the island of Puerto Rico, this dynamic 13-piece band had played the previous summer before 50,000 salsa fans at Yankee Stadium as the warm-up act to the popular Fania All-Stars. Noting that kind of grand exposure, impresario George Wein was happy to include them the bill for the 21st edition of his Newport Jazz Festival. Performing material from their current album at the time, Disfrutelo Hasta el Cabo!, the members of El Gran Combo rocked Carnegie Hall with their infectious salsa grooves and scintillating vocal harmonies.
Following an extended introduction by salsa radio DJ Felipe Luciano, who provided some historical context for the evolution of the music from Africa to Puerto Rico to the South Bronx, El Gran Combo kicked off the Sunday evening concert with Ithier's joyous "Concierto de Amistad" (Concert of Friendship), which is fueled by the leader's son montuno groove on piano and spurred on by the percolating three-piece percussion section. Andy Montañez's passionate vocals perfectly capture the spirit of this fiery salsa jam. They next downshift into a slower, simmering groove on Ernesto Vigoreaux's dramatic "El Son de Santurce," which features some potent call-and-response between Epifanio "Fanny" Ceballos' trombone and the trumpet tandem of Luis "Taty" Maldonado and Gerardo "Grillo" Cruz. Singers Andy Montañez and Charlie Aponte then engage in tight harmony vocals on Roberto Anglero's joyous "La Salsa de Hoy." And for a rousing finale, they break out the infectious clave-fueled dance number, "Dugu-Dugu con Saus," a fiery descarga jam fueled by Miguel Cruz' tumbao bass groove and the churning, interlocking percussion of "Baby Serrano's bongos and Martin Quiñones' congas and featuring some bristling high-note trumpet exchanges from Malandro and Cruz. That irrepressible closer left the Carnegie faithful howling for more.
Founded in May 1962 by Rafael Ithier, who at age 86 is still the musical director of El Gran Combo, the popular Puerto Rican group is now celebrating its 50th year of making music for dancers and salsa fans alike. Their most recent recording is 2010's Sin Salsa No Hay Paraíso, which includes the fiery title track, a hit single for the group. (Bill Milkowski)