Up One Level: Suggestions for Further Listening

Up One Level: Suggestions for Further Listening

ENTRY: Los Van Van: Ay, Dios Amparame! (1000 Recordings, page 800).

Next Stop: NG La Banda: En La Calle

After That: Fania All-Stars: Commitment

Up One Level: Sonora Poncena: “Boranda” from Gigante Del Sur (Inca, 1977).

Further Inquiry: Sonora Poncena: “A Night In Tunisia” from New Heights (Inca, 1980); Sonora Poncena: “Date Cuenta” from Determination (Inca, 1982).

Spotify Playlist: click here.


Tucked between the smooth dancefloor classics of the Fania All Stars’ Commitment is a showcase for one of the underloved giants of Latin music – the pianist and master improvisor Enrique Arsenio Lucca Quiñonez, better known as Papo Lucca.

The tune, “Piano Man,” starts with a thundering superfast trill on a single piano note, a “look-at-me” parlor trick you’d expect from Elton John.

Then sonero Ismael Quintana and his agile crew of backing vocalists begin singing the praises of Papo Lucca, the brain behind salsa powerhouse Sonora Poncena. As often happens in such tribute songs, there’s a big helping of hyperbole in the lyrics; just as you’re wondering whether all the love is over the top, Papo Lucca begins a coolheaded, wonderfully inventive solo that combines danceband theatrics with intricate, and strikingly original, bebop lines.

By the time Commitment was released in 1980, the salsa world was obviously in awe of Papo Lucca, in part because through his stewardship, Sonora Poncena had become one of the most creative ensembles in Latin music. Starting with the 1977 Gigante Del Sur, the group put out a string of electrifying records that established a high bar for salsa innovation and routinely reset it higher. Those records usually feature a few disciplined tunes designed to satisfy dancers (salsa’s core audience, after all), like the lovely “Date Cuenta” from Determination. Alongside those would typically be one or two experiments, pieces that challenged the band.  To fully appreciate Papo Lucca’s genius, move from “Piano Man” to “Boranda” on Gigante Del Sur. Adapting Brazilian songwriter Edu Lobo’s account of the ravages of drought to salsa rhythm, Papo Lucca and crew conjure a brilliantly loose yet bittersweet mood in the verses. Incredibly, the catchiness of the tune carries right through the piano solo, on Fender Rhodes electric; here Papo Lucca scatsings along with his extemporaneous musings, and though he’s as technically adept as ever, what’s most striking about the solo is its lyricism. Anyone looking to understand the alchemy of a great improvisation – what makes a solo thrilling and musically profound at the same time? – will enjoy burrowing into this one.

A few years later, on a record fittingly titled New Heights, Sonora Poncena covered Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night In Tunisia.” This offers another perspective on Papa Lucca: Though he opens his solo with a big flourish in the style of the better-known piano demon Eddie Palmieri, he quickly settles into the more subtle, subversive task of renovating this oft-heard warhorse. He uses small gestures to outline the harmony, then adds splashes of unexpected dissonance that offer an entirely fresh color scheme. As with many of Papo Lucca’s solos, there’s more than dazzle involved – he’s clearly thought, at some depth, about the material and how to reframe it. For all the sparks he sends shooting through the keyboard, this “Piano Man” is really a conceptualist at heart.

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#1 from Tom - 03/09/2012 8:23

FYI, I added one of my favorite versions of Edu Lobo’s “Boranda”—featuring vocals from the incredible Maria Bethania—to the Spotify playlist!

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