Ola Fresca Bring Some Oldschool Cuban Flavor to Classic NYC Salsa

by delarue

“You jacked my beats!” the old Cuban salsero said with a scowl to his Puerto Rican colleague. That accusation doesn’t hold a lot of water, since music from the Caribbean, with its island nations and many ports of call, is so well-traveled and full of ocean-borne cross-pollination. But that argument still gets some play in latin music circles. So there might be a little irony in the fact that Jose Conde – a guy who’s operated at the artsy edge of latin pop for the past decade or so – would revisit his oldschool Cuban roots with his band Ola Fresca. They’ve got a new album, Elixir – streaming at Spotify -and an album release show coming up at 9:30 PM on September 16 at Joe’s Pub. Cover is $15.

The album’s opening title track sets the darkly bronzed trombones of Jose Davila and Rey David Alejandre over a terse four-man percussion section, pianist Pablo Vergara holding to a similarly tight, almost minimalist groove in tandem with bassist Juan-Carlos Formell (heir to the Los Van Van legacy). While the production is closer to digital-clean than, say, Machito, it’s also not sterile.

Conviviencia is a cool exercise in dynamics, a biting horn arrangement with trumpeter Dennis Hernandez joining with the trombones over a jovial, lowdown groove. With its balmy brass chart, Bizcocho is both more ambitious and retro, again pairing jazz sophistication alongside vaudevillian flourishes. La Mano del Rumbero puts some extra slink on a rhumba beat, the percussion section – Roberto Quintero, Obanlu Iré, Gabriel Machado and Román Diaz – taking a welcome turn front and center.

A Formell cover, Mulata, starts off on the careful side but then the band relaxes. Likewise, the band resists shifting El Niño de la Clave from an elegantly tiptoeing pulse toward the stomp that a lot of salsa bands would make out of it. In the same vein as the lighter, more party-oriented material from the golden age of Nuyorican salsa, the songs’ lyrics put Conde in the position of party-starter or rootsman guiding everybody back to their island origins, sometimes with a droll, punny sense of humor, as in the catchy, playful, Veracruz-tinged Pollitos de Primavera. The humor takes a backseat to relevance with the starkly shuffling border-crossing tale Bandera. Otherwise, this isn’t particularly heavy music (although the playing has a laser-direct focus): it’s a lot of fun and will resonate with people who look back fondly on the classic Fania era as well as those who go back deeper into history with the Buena Vista crew.