The Fania Records catalog has passed through the hands of multiple owners since the label’s 1970s heyday. In the mid-2000s, it was relaunched with great fanfare by the Florida-based company Emusica (no relation to emusic.com), and began reissuing remastered CDs of classic albums, as well as terrific compilations. The NYC Salsa series (Vol. 1 was a two-CD set, while Vols. 2 and 3 were single discs) are essential, as are the single-artist A Man and His Music/A Woman and Her Music two-CD sets. Trombonist Willie Colón, flautist/bandleader/Fania co-founder Johnny Pacheco, keyboardist Eddie Palmieri, percussionist Ray Barretto, singer-songwriter Rubén Blades, bandleaders Tito Rodriguez and Tito Puente, and vocalists Cheo Feliciano, Héctor Lavoe, Joe Cuba and Celia Cruz have all had double-disc career retrospectives of this type (one on Cuban singer La Lupe is coming very soon, and there was also one devoted to performances of songs by Tite Curet Alonso), and they’re uniformly fantastic, including a couple of dozen tracks each and putting essential hits alongside artistically important cuts in order to truly provide a full portrait of the artist(s) in question. For almost every artist listed, the compilation provided an ideal starting point, and indeed, the casual fan could pretty much stop there. The only volume in the series I felt was seriously lacking was the one devoted to the Fania All-Stars.

The Fania All-Stars began as something of a marketing gimmick, a band composed of artists who’d already succeeded on their own. Musicians and singers including Pacheco, Palmieri, Barretto, pianist Larry Harlow, guitarist/cuatro player Yomo Toro and multiple guest stars (Blades, Colón, Lavoe, Cruz) got together for sold-out live performances, playing raucous sets of salsa classics. In many ways, they were a Latin equivalent to the Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts. Later, when the band’s lineup solidified somewhat and extensive tours began to be booked, they offered a live experience not unlike Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. The songs they played were frameworks on which to hang solos, or vocal interpolations that were as much shout-outs to the audience, fellow bandmembers, or the glories of salsa itself as any kind of message or narrative. The band became ambassadors for salsa, taking the music to South America, Africa (they were part of the music festival built around the 1974 Muhammad Ali/George Foreman fight in Zaire) and even Japan. They even booked—and sold out—a gig at Yankee Stadium. Consequently, most of their best albums are live recordings. But their studio catalog offers more than a few indisputable gems, one of which is among my favorite salsa albums, and maybe one of my favorite albums of the 1970s, period. But it’s not represented on Campeones: A Band and Their Music at all.

That album is called Latin-Soul-Rock, and it’s a mix of live and studio recordings that was originally released in 1974. It includes two performances from the aforementioned Yankee Stadium show: “El Raton,” sung by Cheo Feliciano and featuring a guitar solo by Jorge Santana, brother of Carlos and leader of his own Latin rock band, Malo; and “Congo Bongo,” a 10-minute number that builds up to a percussion duel between Ray Barretto and Mongo Santamaria. These two bookend a live version of “Soul Makossa” recorded in Puerto Rico around the same time and sung by vocalist/saxophonist Manu Dibango, who also wrote it. The first side is even more adventurous; it offers five studio tracks augmented by Dibango and Santana, as well as Jan Hammer and Billy Cobham, the keyboardist and drummer for Mahavishnu Orchestra. The music is a terrific blend of Latin groove, thick funk, and jazz fusion adventurousness, one of those cross-pollinations that could only have happened in the early ’70s. Dibango’s saxophone solo on “Viva Tirado” is like a cross between Archie Shepp and Fela Kuti.

Well, remember what I said about Fania’s catalog changing owners? The current copyright-holders, Código, are keeping the “Man/Woman and His/Her Music” series of compilations alive (I’m hoping they’ll get around to Ismael Rivera, Roberto Roena and Larry Harlow soon), but they’ve decided that to really tell the story of the Fania All-Stars, four CDs are required. That’s how many are in the Ponte Duro boxed set, and it’s justified.

The first three discs go more or less chronologically through their live catalog, from their debut on the two Live at the Red Garter LPs from 1968 through the other paired sets they released, Live at the Cheetah and Live at Yankee Stadium (the latter two being somewhat dishonestly titled, since only part of the music came from New York; the rest was recorded at Roberto Clemente Stadium in Puerto Rico) and into some less well known discs like Live (recorded 1975, released 1978), 1976’s Live in Japan and the currently out-of-print Live in Africa, recorded at their concert in Zaire. (There was also a documentary film version of the latter, which is not currently available on DVD.) There’s even a track from a 1994 live album, a couple from a late ’70s concert in Cuba, and one real treasure: a previously unreleased 18-minute medley of “Quítate Tu” and “Hang On Sloopy,” recorded around 1976 with Stevie Wonder sitting in. While the music is always ferociously tight and energetic, with some astonishing solos worthy of a top-flight hard bop act, the recording quality is occasionally dodgy. The Zaire tracks sound like short-wave radio transmissions, while the Yankee Stadium material sounds like you’re listening to it from the nosebleed seats.

The fourth disc encapsulates their studio career, and there’s a definite progression audible. Early tracks (there were a couple of studio numbers on the Red Garter albums) are rooted in boogaloo, the Latin rock ‘n’ soul that was salsa’s precursor, while two songs from Tribute to Tito Rodriguez are raw, horn-heavy blasts of energy. The songs pulled from Latin-Soul-Rock, Commitment and their various 1980s albums demonstrate an increased embrace of musical progression and studio technology. At times they got too slick for their own good; Gato Barbieri turns in a guest saxophone solo on “Back to My Roots,” from 1981’s Social Change, that sounds like the score to a Cinemax erotic thriller. But the grooves are unstoppable, all the way to the end.

Salsa is a huge genre, and not all its best years are behind it—young groups like Colombia’s La 33 are making great records in 2010. So there’s no way any one group or artist can represent it all. But so many astonishing talents made so much brilliant music under the umbrella of the Fania All-Stars that this box is a fantastic starting point for anybody new to salsa. Highly, highly recommended. (Buy it from Amazon)

Phil Freeman

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