Manny Oquendo & Libre
On a warm May weekend in 1996, San Francisco reverberated with the sound of salsa con swing. Manny Oquendo and Libre swept into town like a brassy tornado, and for two nights at Bimbo’s 365 Club filled the place with a surging sea of dancers. Dozens of arms waved in the air, prompted by shouting horn lines and torrents of percussion. A hundred voices joined the band. "Vaya, Herman!" they shouted as singer Herman Olivera, with his twitching rumbero’s shoulders, sent his inspiraciones-spontaneous lyrics-floating over the crowd. As each composition wound to a finish, listeners added a coda of whoops and cheers, reluctant to let the moment end.
What those fans experienced is documented in On the Move. Their latest Milestone release represents Manny Oquendo and Libre in its element-live and spontaneous. For a group that echoes the conjunto tradition, the great days of New York’s Palladium ballroom, and the weekly battles of the bands, there’s no substitute for the energy of an audience or the interchange that happens when dancers demand the best, and the musicians deliver.
On the Move gets the crowd grooving with the opening track, "Chiquilla Ideal." "Lester Leaps In" is reminiscent of the descargas, or jam sessions, of the 1960s. "Oquendo and Libre" is a signature dance tune and tribute to the band’s leader, percussionist Manny Oquendo. The arrangement gives plenty of room to Oquendo’s timbale solo, demonstrating that his bashing attack on the skins hasn’t diminished over the years. "Piel Canela," a snappy cha-cha, features Andy Gonzalez’s tasty bass solo. The album rounds out with classic dance jams "No Cuentes," "Muevete Un Poco," and a fine "Medley.
The excitement of a live setting is so central to the Libre attitude that the band tries to duplicate that feeling even in the recording studio. "We don’t record in layers; we do everything live," Gonzalez said of their first Milestone release, Mejor Que Nunca. "It takes a lot to prepare mentally for the kind of concentrated work that involves, but the sound is much richer, more real."
Bandleader Oquendo, 65, is a veteran of the days when Latin bands crowded into a studio to polish off a recording in an all-night session. "The first recording [singer] Tito Rodriguez did, we took the 7th Avenue train to record for SMC Label," Oquendo recalls. "Tito Puente did the arrangements. You recorded on monaural, with just a few mikes. You couldn’t stop and overdub. You just played."
Oquendo’s musical education consisted of the old-school, "just play" approach, and he was in the right place to learn. He grew up on Kelly Street in the Bronx, New York, not far from the great Cuban tres player, Arsenio Rodriguez. Colin Powell, who’d later become a general, lived on the block too; so did pianist Noro Morales. And a lot of kids who’d later make their names in Latin music-such as Joe Cuba, the Palmieri brothers, Little Ray Romero-grew up playing stickball on Kelly Street.
One floor down from the Oquendo apartment was the Almacenes Hernandez record shop. "There was music constantly coming out of that store, and that was my education," Oquendo recalls. He became an expert on Cuban rhythms and began playing bongo and timbales with a sucession of New York’s top bands-with Jose Curbelo and Vicentico Valdes before moving into the orchestras of Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez. Those were the days when bands competed for the sartorial as well as the artistic spotlight. Manny laughs remembering the uniforms he wore in Puente’s band: green pants, a yellow jacket, green crocodile leather shoes.
In 1963, he joined La Perfecta, the conjunto organized by pianist Eddie Palmieri. "La Perfecta was struggling at that time, trying to compete with all the other bands at the Palladium," says Oquendo. "I’m talking about big bands with 15 people in them. Eddie’s was a small conjunto group. But what made us different was the music and the playing-we were looser, more free."
Oquendo’s alliance with trombonist Barry Rogers resulted in the driving, imaginative arrangements that made La Perfecta a dance hall favorite. "Barry was a natural musician," Oquendo says. "He wasn’t taught. He would sing coro [chorus] like a Latino; he didn’t hear rhythm like an americano. My relationship with him was beautiful."
Those trombones gave the conjunto an irresistible raw edge, a típico sound that Libre preserves today. "This is the band I love to play with the most," says trombonist Jimmy Bosch. "It’s an expressive group. A lot of well-schooled young musicians coming into the scene are so structured that they have a hard time playing clave or fitting into a groove. It’s not about reading the music and notes; for me, it’s about being able to turn to the side, whispering a line to the section and seeing the horns go up at the same time-creating that unspoken unity that musicians understand."
Bassist Andy Gonzalez joined La Perfecta in 1971. Gonzalez was a veteran of the Latin music scene before he hit drinking age; by age 13, Gonzalez had several years of violin and bass training behind him and had formed a quintet with his older brother, percussionist (and Milestone recording artist) Jerry Gonzalez. By that time Gonzalez joined La Perfecta, Oquendo was playing with numerous bandleaders, including Pupi Campo, Johnny Pacheco, Larry Harlow, and Israel "Cachao" Lopez. Gonzalez wooed him back to Palmieri’s company, where the young bassist and elder statesman of the drums formed a lasting friendship. In 1974, Oquendo and Gonzalez left La Perfecta to move in their own direction.
In the years since, Manny Oquendo and Libre have become preservationists of the típico sound, nurturing some of the most dedicated sidemen in the business. Jerry Gonzalez was a founding member of the group; singer Herman Olivera made his recording debut on 1979’s Los Lideres de la Salsa. At various times Barry Rogers, Jose Rodrigues, Angel "Papo" Vazquez, Jimmy Bosch, Reinaldo Jorge, Dan Reagan, and Steve Turre held down the trombone line, while Oscar Hernandez and Joe Mannozzi have romped on piano.
The group’s discography includes Increible (1981), Ritmo, Sonido y Estilo (1983), and Milestone’s Mejor Que Nunca, which set a Marvin Gaye hit to a mambo-guaguanco rhythm and launched the current wave of pop-turned-salsa arrangements.
With On the Move, Libre engages in a difficult collaboration: playing music for San Francisco’s demanding salseros. "Recording a live album is kind of scary," says Gonzalez. "But it’s energizing." Adds Bosch: "We just try to give back what the audience gives to us."