Brash, brassy and rhythmic: the Spanish Harlem Orchestra © LUXe Creative Imaging

The brash, brassy and intrinsically rhythmic Spanish Harlem Orchestra have been genre leaders since Aaron Levinson and artistic director Oscar Hernandez founded the band in 2002. They won the Grammy award for Best Salsa/Merengue album for Across 110th Street in 2005 and picked up a third Grammy last year for Anniversary, which was deemed Best Tropical Latin Album.

For nearly two decades, ballroom energy was the band’s focus — tight brass and powerhouse percussion their key to acclaim. That energy and precision remain on The Latin Jazz Project, not surprising since pianist and producer Hernandez’s 40-year career stretches from working with Tito Puente to Rubén Blades and from Paul Simon to Gloria Estefan. 

But here the focus broadens to include the shifting harmonies and supple shades of orchestral jazz. With top-tier guests added to beef up the band’s solo strength, the Spanish Harlem Orchestra’s first entirely Latin-jazz release is an orchestral tour-de-force.

The approach is clear from “Ritmo de mi gente”, the album’s opening track featuring Hernandez and vocalist Jeremy Bosch. An urgency of cowbell clave and cross-stitch percussion signify Latin roots, harmonic movement and off-kilter brass stabs add the flavours of jazz. And with flute shading brass and even timbales following the form, there is more to engage than hooky melodies and immaculate beats.

The body of the album sashays between the soulful and the serene and each track has a strong narrative drive. Bob Mintzer’s tenor sax curls round harmony and rhythm on “Bobo”, trumpeter Tom Harrell negotiates the sharp stabs and bolero inflections of “Las Palmas” and “Invitation” is graced by Kurt Elling’s vocal finesse. “Silent Prayers” is an impressionist feature for bass and Dave Liebman’s fluttery soprano sax, “Fort Apache” combines salsa with modernist flare. 

The set closes with “Descarga de Jazz”, the album’s purest Latin track. Pulsating with rhythm, uplifted by Hernandez on the piano and decorated with vocals and tight fanfare brass, the line “harmony and swing” is sung midpoint, a verbal clue to the album’s artistic success.

★★★★☆

‘The Latin Jazz Project’ is released by Artist Share

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