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Spanish Harlem Orchestra born out of 'Latin explosion'

| Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014, 8:55 p.m.
Bill Douthart
Spanish Harlem Orchestra

Oscar Hernandez views his music with a sense of mission.

“We have a job to protect the great history and legacy of this music,” he says of the Spanish Harlem Orchestra.

The 13-piece big band will be working hard — even if it seems like fun — doing that Jan. 24 at the Manchester Craftsmens Guild on the North Side.

Keeping a big band alive these day is never easy and Hernandez, a pianist and founder of the group, admits it has “been a process.” But the band has such energy and such a lively book of material, it has little trouble staying alive. It was founded in 2000, started touring in 2002, and its four albums all have been Grammy-nominated.

“Across 110th Street” and “Viva La Tradicion,” the second and fourth, have been winners. A fifth album is in production now and should be released in May, Hernandez says.

The band has been successful not only because it is doing a good job presenting the music of its genre, but because “it is one of the best musical ensembles of any kind,” he says. Its playing is tight and precise, but hotter than a summer in the Caribbean.

Hernandez says the band was formed to counter the Latin music that, around 2000, was “very pop, mass-produced and lacking energy.”

He was approached by producer Aaron Luis Levinson with the idea of assembling an orchestra that could work with the classics of Latin jazz. Hernandez has played with such greats a Tito Puente, Ray Baretto and Eddie Palmieri, so, was a likely candidate to do that job.

In putting together a band that would be more lively than the pop stuff that was surging during what Hernandez calls a “Latin cultural explosion,” he says he didn't want to feature one or two stars, but, during a concert, get to practically everyone.

He believes he has accomplished that goal and says the band's travels to such sites as Russia, Australia and Singapore show it has created an enticing product.

Hernandez says he is proud the music naturally evokes dancing, but he sometimes thinks it can “trivialize the music.” As a result, he says, he enjoys playing in concert halls where the audience might be more focused on listening.

But a bigger issue is simply keeping the band alive with jobs. This show is part of a four-concert swing through the East Coast, part of about 25 concerts a year the band does. That number is down from 50 to 70 a few years ago, he says.

Part of the reason is paying for a big band creates a big bill. There are plane tickets to buy and hotel rooms to rent, he says, making concerts tougher to book.

“But we all know this is a long-term project,” he says. “The slump in concerts doesn't dim our love and dedication for the music.”

Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at bkarlovits@tribweb.com or 412-320-7852.

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