Casual salsa listeners familiar with legendary artists like Celia Cruz and Tito Puente may not recognize Larry Harlow’s name but the 67-year-old Brooklyn native is one of the most influential architects of modern salsa. And Harlow isn’t shy about telling people that.
"If you’re into salsa music you got to know who Larry Harlow is – period. All modesty aside (laughs)."
Back in the ‘70s, the prolific recording artist released more than 50 albums for the Fania label. Harlow’s band included some of the music’s top singers like Ismael Miranda. He even wrote a Latin opera called “Hommy” based on the Who’s Tommy. But Harlow is most associated with is his decision to mix trumpets and trombones together.
"There were no bands that played trumpets and trombones. There were either trombone bands – like Eddie Palmieri had two trombones and a flute, Tito Puente had three trumpets and three saxes. I always knew the whole counterpoint system was building something, you know, to build one layer on top of another that kind of meshed. It began to be the staple sound of most of the salsa bands in the golden age of salsa through the ‘70s. All the new bands used trumpets and trombones."
With most of his career devoted to salsa, it’s only been recently that Harlow has included Latin Jazz in his repertoire. It was inspired by his lifelong desire to play at one of New York’s premier jazz clubs.
"A friend of mine was one of the owners of Birdland and he said ‘can you put together a little sextet or something so that we can do a little Latin Jazz here at Birdland?’ And it has always been my dream to play in Birdland because ever since I was a kid I said ‘one day I’m going to play here.’ And I put together a small group, two horns and four rhythm and we recorded live at Birdland. We did an album a couple of years ago and I’ve been doing a little Latin Jazz."
Now that the Fania catalog is under new ownership, many of Harlow’s classic albums from the ‘70s are finally being reissued on CD and young Latin hip hop deejays are spinning them in the clubs. What’s Harlow’s explanation for the enduring quality of his sound?
"I’m a genius (laughs). Actually, the music is timeless itself. Afro-Cuban music will never die."
Larry Harlow and the Latin Legends perform Wednesday night in Old Sacramento’s Waterfront Park.