Larry Harlow: 3 Albums at Apex of Salsa

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Larry Harlow recorded 3 albums that helped elevate the orchestration in Salsa music, and catapult the genre to its apex. These were “Hommy“, “Salsa“, and “Live in Quad“.

In the first part of the 1970s, artists like the Palmieri brothers, Barretto, and Harlow began to expand the orchestrations in Salsa music, building on the sound of the 1060s and the more advanced orchestrations of the Big 3 (Puente, Rodriguez, & Machito).

Hommy” (1973)

“Hommy, a Latin Opera” was released more than 40 years ago and became an instant classic of Salsa music.

In the early 70s, Larry Harlow got the itch to try new things. Around the time of the album “Oportunidad“, he basically gave the reins of Orchestra Harlow to Ismael Miranda to give himself time to experiment.
[Note that this is the only album of Orchestra Harlow (up until then) where he’s not on the album cover].

After “Oportunidad” Ismael left to form his own band, “La Revalación“. Harlow took the opportunity to experiment with the concept album “Hommy“. For this “Latin Opera”, he expanded his orchestra and added a full string section. The recording became one of the masterpieces of Salsa music.

Note: you can find my full blog on the 40th Anniversary of “Hommy” HERE.

Salsa” (1974)

Orchestra Harlow Salsa album cover
“Salsa” is one of my favorite Salsa albums for its orchestrations.

But finally, Harlow had to do his first regular album without Ismael Miranda. Junior Gonzalez had passed the fire test in “Hommy” with flying colors. Using songs from his idol Arsenio Rodriguez (“No Quiero“, “La Cartera“, “Popo Pa’ Mi“) and other Cuban classics (e.g. Eliseo Grenet’s “No Hay Amigo“, and Pedro Aranzola’s “El Paso de la Encarnación“), Harlow went to work on orchestrations that made his band sound bigger and jazzier.

Lewis Kahn, who joined Orchestra Harlow in “Hommy” playing the trombone, took out his violin to play around and it became a standard in the band ever since. Bassist Eddie “Guagua” Rivera, who also joined Harlow in the post-Miranda band reorganization, shined in “Salsa” so much, that Harlow gave him even more solos in his next recording “Live in Quad“.

Live in Quad” (1974)

Orchestra Harlow "Live in Quad" cover
Orchestra Harlow was at it’s peak in “Live in Quad”. Too bad the sound is not the best in stereo!

Harlow continued to experiment in “Live in Quad“. It became the first, and as far as I know, the only Salsa album recorded using the then-innovative quadraphonic sound. If using two audio channels in the stereo format was a big leap over the flat single-channel mono sound, then the four-channel quadraphonic should be superb!

Harlow decided to go for it with a Live performance. For it, he recorded a collection of past hits dating back the days with Ismael Miranda, along with a couple of new songs (again, the Cuban oldie “Mayarí“, and the Cuban-based “Descarga Final“).

But the sound was certainly very different.

If you compare the songs “Jovenes del Muelle” and “Tumba y Bongó“, both from the “Tributo to Arsenio Rodriguez” album (1971), there’s a huge difference in sound!

Harlow’s Leap in Orchestration

The orchestrations in “Salsa” and “Live in Quad” were certainly a leap forward in Salsa music. Yes, it all started with “Hommy“, but “Hommy” was mostly restricted to follow the music written for it. In “Salsa” and “Live in Quad“, Harlow gave the band more space to spread their wings.

You can hear many more solos as compared to the Miranda-era albums, sometimes several within the same songs…as in jazz. Everyone seemed to have a chance to do solos. Harlow, as always, did his great improvisations at the piano, but the percussion and brass section also got plenty of air time. Lewis Kahn on violin and Eddie “Guagua” on bass were especially impressive. Where do you see a band with so many bass solos? Eddie “Guagua” became my favorite bassist in Salsa (but I still take my hat off to Salvador Cuevas).

Harlow’s Top 3 Albums

For me, this trio of albums is the crème of the crème of Harlow’s discography. Larry Harlow continued to experiment and release other good albums with Junior Gonzalez, Nestor Sanchez, and others (like his “Salsa Suite“). But these three albums cemented Harlow’s Hall of Fame-like legacy in Salsa music.

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