The Story 

One of the most exciting ensembles in contemporary Latin Jazz, the Spanish Harlem Orchestra makes its Exit Zero Jazz Festival debut on November 9. The 13-piece ensemble under the direction of Bronx-born pianist-composer-arranger Oscar Hernández (best known as musical director for Panamanian singer Rubén Blades) is still basking in the glow of its third Grammy win for Anniversary, named Best Tropical Latin Album at the 61st Grammy ceremony in February of 2019. Now celebrating its 17th year, the Spanish Harlem Orchestra is characterized by the raw, organic and vintage sound defined by the genre. They are on a mission to carrying on the musical legacy of the barrio while expanding its audience. Grounded in the past while focused on the future, they strive to keep the music relevant, creating a unique and fresh approach. 

Formed by Hernández and producer Aaron Levinson, the Spanish Harlem Orchestra debuted with 2002’s Un Gran Dia en el Barrio, which scored a Grammy nomination for Best Salsa Album and a Latin Billboard Award for Salsa Album of the Year. Their 2004 followup album, Across 110th Street (named for Harlem’s southern boundary) featured singer Ruben Blades and earned the group its first Grammy Award. 2007’s United We Swing, which featured Paul Simon as special guest singing a burning rendition of his “Late in The Evening,” earned the group yet another Grammy nomination. (Hernandez arranged and produced the score for Simon's Latin-influenced Broadway musical from 1988, The Capeman). The group’s second Grammy-winning album, 2010’s Viva La Tradicion, was released on the Concord Picante imprint while 2015’s self-titled release on ArtistShare featured jazz legends Chick Corea and Joe Lovano. Their most recent Grammy-winning release, Anniversary, featured trumpet great Randy Brecker. 

A proud throwback to the classic era of Latin jazz big bands as exemplified by Tito Puente's classic salsa orchestra, the Spanish Harlem Orchestra is tailor-made for dances. “Our music style is the original sound of New York old school ‘salsa dura’ that was played in the early years by our pioneers,” said Hernández. “That sound has been lost and we want to keep it alive while educating the new generations on the true musical roots of our culture. So we’ve brought back the essence of what makes this music great and are keeping the salsa spirit alive in our recordings and shows.” 

As for the name of the band itself, Hernandez explained, “If you’re a Latino in New York City, you always have a connection to Spanish Harlem. It’s a kind of a microcosm for Latin New York. As a community, it is an important part of the fabric that makes up the city, and we’re compelled to share the power of the music and culture with the world.” 

The Sound 

A Spanish Harlem Orchestra concert is relentless. Whether in a concert hall or at an outdoor jazz festival, there is no easing you in. They come at you full force from start to finish, leaving audiences mesmerized until the last note is played. Along the way, they deliver the classic sounds of El Barrio with refreshing originality. From old school salsa, mambo and cha-cha-cha to Latin soul, boogaloo and touches of doo-wop, it’s an aural party. As the Los Angeles Times 

noted, “They make you get up and dance, tap into the good-natured, communal spirit characteristic of salsa at its timeless best.” 

When & Where: Saturday, November 9, It’s A Breeze/ Hawk Haven Vineyard Stage, Cape May Convention Hall, 9:30pm

Michael Kline