Review of CD Plena al SalseroDescarga.com / Editor\'s Pick
Plena Libre, what a fantastic band. The recording catches the group live, and it simply rocks. .....everywhere is percussion and great singing and improvisation, and whether the band\'s stretching out to Latin jazz or working over Van Van\'s \"Sandunguera,\" it\'s all pretty great, a portrait of one of the Caribbean\'s most powerful groups. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. Peter Watrous.
Founded in San Juan by bass player/composer Gary Núñez, Plena Libre is well into a 15-year voyage that has seen the orchestra re-invent the sound of Puerto Rico’s plena and bomba traditions. During that time, Gary and his group have recorded 12 stellar albums which have garnered four Grammy nominations. In taking their unparalleled live show to the world, the group has spread the gospel of their unique Afro-Rican sound on international jazz festival stages from Montreal to Milan and Denmark to Veracruz. Plena Libre has heated up performing arts venues like D.C.’s Kennedy Center and New York’s Lincoln Center and has run all the way to obscure outposts such as Lake Okoboji, Iowa. This year, with debuts on the horizon that include the Playboy Jazz Festival and Morocco’s Fes Jazz in Riads Festival, one of Latin music’s hottest live bands finally has a CD that wraps it up: PLENA LIBRE: Plena al Salsero - Live in Monterrey, Mexico.
Since their last studio recording, 2006’s Grammy- and Latin Grammy-nominated Evolución, Plena Libre have continued to add contemporary cumbia, merengue, salsa and other Afro-Caribbean sounds into their mix, creating a unique sofrito borinqueño that is pushing the island’s roots music well into the future. With Núñez now securing some of the Puerto Rico’s top players for his band, Plena Libre has aptly transcended their humble beginnings – evolving into a powerhouse force that is undoubtedly one of the heavy-weight live orchestras on the current Latin music scene.
Inspired by the concerts during Plena Libre’s lengthy Summer 2007 tour, Nuñez began to ponder how best to capture his group’s live energy. “This idea of a live recording was something that I had been pushed to do for years”, says Gary, “but just in the past year or two, the personnel and the chemistry in the band had gelled so much that I knew that there would never be a better time. The evolution of the musical sound, and the excitement, and energy of Plena Libre’s live shows over this past year was something I honestly had never experienced with the group before. I knew this sound had to be captured right now! But when, and where?.....that was the question.”
The opportunity arose in November 2007 when Plena Libre was invited to perform five concerts in Monterrey, Mexico at the World Forum of Cultures and Education Festival, organized by UNESCO to promote world peace and understanding. “We were absolutely thrilled to be invited to play Puerto Rican music at such a special event”, recalled Nuñez, “And this seemed to be both the right place and the right time to do the live CD. Unfortunately, however, we had no time to prepare for a live recording, so we just left forMexico, without making any formal advance arrangements,” Gary notes. “After the first two performances – we were all so charged I just became convinced that we had to record these shows. My wife Valerie and I started looking in the Monterrey phone book for recording studios and, when we came to one called ‘Cielo’ [“Heaven” in English], I just felt that this name had to be a sign! We found this big beautiful studio with an amazing engineer. By the grace of God, he had just had another job fall through so he was available. On terribly short notice, he was willing to bring all the remote equipment to Monterrey’s Parque Fundidora in time for our final shows. The whole experience just fell into place so beautifully and seamlessly, it was unbelievable.”
Plena al Salsero, the group’s 13th release, truly captures the music of Plena Libre as it should be experienced, live and brimming with the band’s overwhelming spirit and musical chemistry. As Gary said when he first heard the recording back in San Juan: “This train will just run you over!”
Núñez should know what he’s talking about – he helped build the train. Alongside his wife (and band manager) Valerie Cox, he has charted his band through a career that reflects a lifelong commitment to the roots music of Puerto Rico. “When I was 20 years old,” remembers Gary,” I met Noel Hernández, who is now my compadre. He opened my eyes to my Puerto Rican heritage, got me into studying my history and my musical roots. I realized then that, as much as Puerto Rican musicians were known worldwide in many fields of music, the music that was truly traditional to Puerto Rico was hardly known. I wanted to change that, to devote myself to the music that is based on our African heritage, the plena and the bomba. Up to then they were relegated to holiday get-togethers and in danger of disappearing entirely. That’s how Plena Libre, or ‘free plena’ was born.”
Plena and bomba beats are at the core of Plena Libre’s sound, a modern, forward-looking pulse of Puerto Rico that is firmly rooted in the island’s musical history. The sound is built on the panderos, hand-held drums used to support the soneros (singers) who have been brought up on the Afro-Rican group vocal traditions. The trombone is perhaps the brass instrument most associated with Afro-Rican traditions, and Plena Libre’s horn section also reflects past masters such as NuYoRican salsero Eddie Palmieri and singer Mon Rivera. But the band now has expanded to include keyboard, bass, timbal, conga and miscellaneous percussion ad boasts a truly formidable sound that can venture into other Caribbean rhythms, as well as the harmonics and improvisations of jazz. The result is muscular, energetic and sophisticated without losing the grit and rawness of the street, a high-speed train that delivers folklore to the dance floor.
The offering on Plena al Salsero include six new songs, four of them composed by Gary Núñez and two by Angel Luis Torruellas. The CD also includes extended live versions of Plena Libre’s hits from prior releases, including the Grammy-nominated 2001 release Más Libre, as well as the Grammy- and Latin Grammy-nominated later recordings Mi Ritmo (2003) and Evolución (2006).
Plena Libre’s lineup boasts founder Gary Núñez on bass, with veterans Kalie Villanueva (singer), Pole Ortiz (singer), Victor Vélez (singer and percussion), Kachiro Thompson (congas), Rafi Falu (handdrum), Roly López (piano), Raúl Rosario (timables), Cesar Ayala, Moises Cancel and Gamaliel González (trombones). Gary Núñez’s son, Luis Gabriel (Luisga) Núñez, is the newest addition, a pandero player who makes his recording debut here
Could Plena Libre’s 13th release be their lucky number, the one that takes them to a Grammy Award? Could the band that took plena music to the world get the nod this time? The band is hopeful, of course. But whether or not it happens this time, for Plena Libre the party is still on.