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Yoshi's Oakland

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Dining Reservations

Student Discounts

Dinner:
Monday-Wednesday
5:30pm to 9:00pm

Thursday-Saturday
5:30pm to 10:00pm

Sunday
5:00PM to 9:00PM
*Open 2 hours before the show

Happy Hour:
Mon-Sat
4:30-6pm



Yoshi's Oakland
510 Embarcadero West
Jack London Square
Oakland, CA 94607
Phone: 510.238.9200


press reviews

The Spanish Harlem Orchestra heat up Yoshi's in Oakland with their special brand of salsa music
by Derk Richardson
SFGate

The Spanish Harlem Orchestra heat up Yoshi's in Oakland with their special brand of salsa music

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Millions of baby boomers wax nostalgic for the music of Motown, the Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel. Oscar Hernandez, born in 1954, has a soft spot for the sounds of the Machito Orchestra, Eddie Palmieri, Ray Barretto and Willie Colon. But the Bronx native does more than listen to oldies stations and wallow in sentimentality — he takes the matter into his own hands by leading one of the hottest salsa bands of the past 30 years. His grand passion will be on display as his 13-piece Spanish Harlem Orchestra heats up Yoshi's in Oakland during this week's six-night run, which culminates in a special New Year's blowout.

"The bottom line is that when you hear this band in person, it's just an ass-kicking band, from top to bottom, and I'm proud to be part of it," Hernandez said in a phone conversation last week from Los Angeles, where he's lived for the past year and a half. "I've paid my dues for over 30 years in this music, playing with a lot of great people," he added, "and I think that I'm more than well-prepared and well-equipped to take responsibility for taking the music where I think it ought to go."

Hernandez's dues include playing piano and writing arrangements for the giants of salsa and Latin jazz — including Tito Puente, Ceclia Cruz, Johnny Pacheco and Ray Barretto — and serving as musical director for Ruben Blades in the 1980s and '90s, when that socially conscious Panamanian singer was at his crossover peak. As for where he thinks the music should go, that has everything to do with where it was during its golden age.

"I'm nostalgic when I listen to records that I grew up listening to in my neighborhood and in my circles when I was young in the '60s and'70s," Hernandez said. "What I wind up telling a lot of people, and I think it's true, is that the music lost its way in the last 15 years or so. It became something else, which didn't contain some of the beautiful things that made it so special back in the '50s, '60s and '70s."

What are those "beautiful things" that have been lost? "The music had a very individualized sound," Hernandez explained. "You could put records on by different artists and know immediately who they were. Oh that's Eddie Palmieri; oh, that's Tito Puente; oh, that's Ray Barretto, that's Hector Lavoe, that's Tito Rodriguez, that's the Machito Orchestra and on and on.

"Then later on, in the Fania [Records] era [of the 1970s], oh, that's Cheo Feliciano, that's Ismael Miranda. They all had their own unique sound. That's one thing that's been missing, because everybody started trying to sound the same. The records were recorded the same, in a very bland manner, with click tracks. They became formulaic; the arrangements themselves became very watered down and the musicians' creativity was stifled.

In 2000, Hernandez was approached by producer Aaron Levinson (the force behind such concept recording projects as "The Philadelphia Experiment" and "The Harlem Experiment") with the idea of making a roots salsa record. "I said, 'Beautiful, that's right up my alley, I could do it with my eyes closed,'" Hernandez recalled. But after the album was finished, it was shelved for a year and a half and eventually dropped altogether by the major label that had planned to put it out.

The independent Rope A Dope label picked it up and released "Un Gran Dia en el Barrio" in 2002. "It came out and boom!," Hernandez said. "I think it came out at exactly the right time in terms of the business and the state of affairs with this music. It started to make a buzz, and I started a band, and I guess you could say the rest is history."

"Un Gran Dia en el Barrio" garnered a Grammy nomination for Best Salsa Album, and its 2004 follow-up, "Across 110th Street," featuring Ruben Blades on four tracks, won the 2005 Grammy award for Best Salsa/Merengue Album. And now the SHO is up for yet another Grammy — in the Best Tropical Album category — for its 2007 release, "United We Swing," on San Francisco's eclectic Six Degrees Records label.

"I was a little worried about it," Hernandez said, confessing his anxiety about the Grammy nominations, announced earlier this month, "because, man, it would be tough not to be recognized for this record. It would be tough on me personally, because I know the quality of record we have, and somebody's going to be hard-pressed to come up with a better CD from beginning to end."

"United We Swing" is indeed a sizzling and smoking example of classic salsa and Latin jazz styles, updated by a tightly arranged ensemble that features Hernandez at the piano, singers Ray De la Paz, Marco Bermudez and Willie Torres on the vocal mics, five superb horn and reed players and a churning rhythm section of bass and three percussionists. The album opens with Hernandez introducing the players, and closes with "Tarde En El Noche," a new Hernandez arrangement of Paul Simon's "Late in the Evening," with Simon as the guest salsero.

If that last feature smacks of gimmickry, it's in fact an organic outgrowth of Hernandez's myriad musical affiliations. In the mid-1990s, Simon recruited Hernandez, then Ruben Blades' musical director, to help organize, arrange and play on his "Capeman" project, which resulted in the 1997 CD, "Songs From the Capeman," and the stillborn 1998 Broadway musical, "Capeman."

"I earned my doctorate in musical theater working on that show for three years," Hernandez recalled with a laugh. "I got thrown into the fire." When he was recording "United We Swing," he said, "I didn't plan to have a guest artist, but I've always loved 'Late In the Evening,' and although I didn't really see how Paul would fit into anything we did, a friend kept bugging me — 'You've got to have Paul on the record.'

Much to Hernandez's surprise, Simon jumped at the opportunity to sing on the track. But Hernandez was concerned that the song not stand out as an aberration. "I didn't want it to sound like we're a completely different band only for one track," he said, "and I think we arranged it and played in a way that it does sound like Spanish Harlem Orchestra — it's just Paul Simon singing with Spanish Harlem Orchestra."

The integrity of the sound and style is everything to Hernandez. "There's a certain organic sound to the music of the '50s, '60s and '70s, and that's what you get when you see Spanish Harlem Orchestra perform and 13 individuals being featured throughout the course of the evening. It's hardcore style of music that speaks to a pretty wide audience, and I feel I was blessed when it was put in my path, because it was something that was sorely needed. We love doing what we do and It gives me a purpose that goes even beyond the music."

Spanish Harlem Orchestra performs Wed.-Mon., Dec. 26-31, at Yoshi's Jazz Club, 510 Embarcadero West, Oakland. Show time 8 p.m., tickets $26-$100. For more information, call (510) 238-9200 or click here. For more on SHO, click here.


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