Liner Notes by Don Heckman, "International Review of Music":
The first time I saw Susie Hansen in action, leading her Salsa band in a rhythmic set that was setting even my non-terpsichorean feet into action, I knew she was something special. The tunes and the rhythm and the sheer energy of the music she was creating – moving lithely in front of the microphone, her flip hairdo flying – were more than enough to prove that fact. But it wasn’t until I found out more about her, about the fact that she was a Chicago girl with a classical music background and a pair of Master’s degrees in Electrical Engineering from M.I.T., that I realized how unique Susie really was.
So, strange though it may seem for the title Representante de la Salsa to be claimed by a slender blonde, playing a five-string electric violin, leading an all-male band of Latin jazz veterans, the proof is in the music. And the music in this collection is a scintillating display of what she loves most and does best -- Salsa and Latin jazz.
One of the fundamental givens about Latin jazz has always been that it is fueled by a simmering undercurrent of dance rhythms. Whether it was the pioneering Machito band, Dizzy Gillespie’s Latin-infused bebop, Cal Tjader, Tito Puente, Los Van Van or Poncho Sanchez, whether the first emphasis was on jazz or dance, the two elements seem almost symbiotically connected. In this case, Susie notes that the dance element was what led the way in the planning of Representante de la Salsa.
“My producer Erich Bulling and I wanted to keep the connection with jazz that’s always been basic to my music,” says Susie, “while moving more in the dance direction. We included a couple of instrumentals, and lots of soloing on every track, while still making it a total dance album.”
Susie has done exactly this. The title track, Representante de la Salsa, written by Susie, Bulling and singer George Balmaseda, is given a dynamic vocal interpretation by Balmaseda. According to Susie, this will be the first single released from the album, and the vibrant combination of Balmaseda’s vocal with the hip-shaking rhythms virtually guarantees that it will quickly become a dance hit with the Salsa DJs. “Vehicle” drives – appropriately – with swinging enthusiasm, enhanced by Kaspar Abbo’s roaring, David Clayton-Thomas-like lead vocal and Susie’s high-flying solo. Backing him, the ensemble, with David Stout’s orchestration placing Susie’s crisp violin lines at the top of the horns, recalls the hit tunes of Blood, Sweat & Tears.
“I always tell arrangers,” explains Susie, “that you need to think of this as a three-horn sound – trumpet, tenor and trombone – but with the violin playing the lead role of the trumpet.”
A pair of instrumentals, “Si No Contigo” and “Las Calles de Chicago” (a tribute to her hometown written by Hansen and Bulling), swing hard with exactly the kind of sound she describes. For some exciting soloing, listen to Joe Rotondi’s jaunty piano solo on the former, Susie’s soulful violin and Stout’s fervent trombone on the latter.
And, as Susie noted, the dance card is always present. Songs such as the only Charanga in the set, “No Te Metas Conmigo” (by Hector Manuel), the Salsa Dura “Y Sigue Pensando” (another original by Hansen and Bulling), Angel Lopez’s pop-style “I Want to Love You” (sung with sexy intimacy by Susie, Kaspar and her back-up singers) and Charles Trenet’s classic “Beyond the Sea,” have an inescapable ability to keep the body moving and the blood flowing.
George Balmaseda’s brawny sound takes center stage on the gently rocking “Si Me Vas a Querer,” and he dips into his rich baritone for the floating lyricism of the love song “Te Quiero, Te Amo.” One track that has it all is the medley “Frank Sinatra Cha Cha Cha,” which manages to combine four standards (“Fly Me to the Moon,” “It Could Happen to You,” “It Had to Be You” and “All of Me”) from the Great American Songbook, feature vocals by Abbo, Hansen and Balmaseda, toss in solos from tenor saxophonist Tim Messina and trombonist Stout, and do it all over yet another infectious dance rhythm. Susie sings both lead and back-up throughout the album, and her duet with Abbo on “All of Me” and her convincing vocal version of “It Could Happen to You” testify to yet another facet of her colorful array of talents.
Representante de la Salsa celebrates the 20th anniversary of the Susie Hansen Latin Band. A few of the players – Rotondi, bassist Rene Camacho, Stout and Balmaseda – have been there almost since the beginning. And the current personnel reaches back close to a decade. Keeping a ten-piece band together over that period of time – given the roller-coaster ride the economy’s been experiencing – has to be considered a remarkable achievement, musically and financially.
The eleven tracks on this entertaining collection of tunes provide solid evidence of how Susie’s been able to do it. Back in the days of LPs, musicians used to say, “It’s either in the grooves or it isn’t.” In the case of the Salsa-driven music of the very contemporary Susie Hansen Latin Band, one could easily transform the line into a pun and say, “It’s either in the groove, or it isn’t.”
When I mentioned the thought to Susie, she responded with her typically effervescent laughter, and added, "As long as the rhythm is there you can do whatever you want. As long as it’s smoking, it’s swinging, it’s cooking.”
A line like that – just like the music on Representante de la Salsa – should delight both the dance fans and the jazz fans of her irresistible music.
- Don Heckman, The International Review of Music