Yesterday I gave Spotify an ad-hoc “depth test,” aimed at measuring just how comprehensive the service really is. My subject was the Colombian-born salsa pianist and arranger Hernan Gutierrez, who led one of the most musically sophisticated and downright thrilling live bands in Miami in the early ‘80s. I did a basic search knowing that though his few releases are beloved in the salsa community, they’ve been out of print for decades. (And even when the records were available, they were regional hits, hardly international sensations.)
Spotify shot back a playlist (it’s here) with material from two of his releases, though alas it doesn’t include the stellar Con Sacrificio from 1984, which was completed just before Gutierriez died and is regularly mentioned as one of the decade’s lost salsa classics. I don’t have the original LPs so I can’t tell whether some selections have been omitted, but it hardly matters: What survives, against long odds after all this time, is prime hard-hitting Afro-Cuban music made in the years just before the pop-leaning Miami Sound took over in South Florida.
Like Papo Lucca, Gutierrez was a master of the recurring “tumbao” phrases that are part of the skeleton of modern salsa. Gutierrez’ cannily broken chords have a distinct modern-jazz feel – this is what McCoy Tyner would sound like fronting a dance band. And that’s just the foundation: Gutierrez was a terrifically gifted arranger, a master of audacious brass shout choruses and tight, pinpoint-precise rhythm section accompaniments. His settings are plenty energetic and sometimes busy, yet somehow allow the vocalists – primarily the tremendous Gabino Pampini – room to create loose, clearly extemporaneous melody lines.
It had been a long long time since I heard this music. During the period when Gutierrez’ band was royalty in Miami, I was in the horn section of a younger outfit called Salsa Express. We played some of the same clubs, but we were not in the same league. We were in awe of Gutierrez, and Pampini, and the entire ensemble – these guys could roar, but they were slick in the best sense, too. They’d take the stage and within minutes, you’d feel like you were in the middle of a rare happening. The singers drew listeners close, with the low-key, confident charm that often eludes modern soneros. The players got people moving, and kept them on the floor not with power but finesse: By articulating every note cleanly, they showed dancers exactly how to operate within each tune.
One warning: The sound quality is iffy in spots. But the quality of the music never wavers: If you only have a few minutes, check out “No Te Vayas” and “Vagabundeando,” and prepare to be converted.