While browsing through back-issues of LATIN BEAT magazine I discovered a fascinating article by the writer, SILVIO ALAVA titled “BEBOP SPOKEN HERE.”
In 1991 Alava wrote, “More than a decade ago La Sonora Ponceña from Puerto Rico started to include instrumental jazz in their albums. This delighted most of the listening audience and it certainly intrigued me. Elias Lopez’s arrangement of Dizzy Gillespie’s ‘Night in Tunisia,’ and Enrique “Papo” Lucca’s arrangement of Horace Silver’s ‘Nica’s Dream’ were gems of the highest quality. The compositions were familiar to me as a ‘jazz aficionado’ in New York City. Having witnessed the birth of ‘bebop’ and seen the creators of this genre in person, I often wondered what motivated a guy in Ponce, Puerto Rico to record arrangements by notable (jazz) musicians. Of course, Papo Lucca’s piano playing has always displayed a facility for using long phrases and extended melodic figures; the very essence of the bebop style. These extensions are also apparent in the long structures and variety of ‘coros’ which are used in many of his band’s arrangements.”
In 1991, Alava caught up with La Sonora Ponceña at the Co-Op City Ballroom in the Bronx and requested an interview with Papo Lucca. The next day Alava met with Papo and they spoke over lunch.
THE JAZZ CONNECTION
According to Alava, “He related to me that he was a restless musical soul, who sought other experiences in Cuban music and jazz. When he was a student La Escuela Libre de Ponce in Puerto Rico, the school director asked Papo if he was interested in buying his record collection. Papo bought the entire collection and brought home a treasure trove of jazz records that included the music of Bud Powell, Oscar Peterson, and McCoy Tyner. Of the three, Powell was Papo’s favorite because he liked how ‘the amazing Bud’ handled melodies, dissonance, and long extended playing. Soon, these features entered into his playing and arranging, and to this day, remain the essence of his style.”
Papo confirmed this in Mary Kent’s book, “Salsa Talks! A Musical Heritage Uncovered.” “The jazz influence is very evident in our music. I would say it is present in almost all the bands that play these rhythms. You can sense it in the brass phrasing, in the solos. The arrangers in particular have the duty to dress up the numbers making it inevitable to hear a phrase in salsa that you haven’t necessarily heard in jazz, but sounds like it originated there due to our influences.”
THE PUERTO RICAN CONNECTION
In the same interview, Papo cited the trumpeters, José Febles and Luis “Perico” Ortiz, composer, arranger Angel “Cuco” Peña, and bassist, bandleader Bobby Valentin as significant influences. Interestingly, before achieving stardom as a bassist and bandleader, Valentin was an aspiring trumpeter, flugelhorn player, and disciple of Art Farmer. Also, trumpeter Luis”Perico” Ortiz shared the stage with jazz greats at the legendary “Salsa Meets Jazz” sessions at The Village Gate and leads a jazz Big Band and the Jazz Boricua Ensemble.
THE CUBAN CONNECTION
Founder Quique Lucca was a fan of Cuban music and groups such as La Sonora Matancera, El Conjunto Chapotin, Roberto Fax and particularly Arsenio Rodriguez. So much so he named his son Enrique Arsenio Lucca Quiñones (aka Papo Lucca) after Arsenio. Also, Sonora’s early recordings include the compositions “Hachero pa’ un palo,” “Fuego en la 23” and “Rincon Caliente.” According to Papo Lucca, “Arsenio’s compositions had a lot to do with the success of La Sonora Ponceña.” In fact, the first tune Papo Lucca arranged for Sonora was “Hachero pa’ un palo.” “For me, the work of the musical genius, which we now call Salsa, will never go out of style. I still listen to the songs he (Arsenio) left us and they still make me vibrate!”
Instrumental jazz tunes in La Sonora Ponceña’s repertoire include (1980-2021): “Nika’s Dream Mambo” (Unchained Force, 1980), “Night in Tunisia,” “Woody’s Blue” (Future, 1984), “Satin N’ Lace” (Jubilee, 1985), “Capuccino” (On the Right Track, 1988), “Nica’s Dream” (Back to the Future, 2003), “Mack the Knife” (Back to the Road, 2003, “Caminando Con Papi” (Hegemonia Musical, 2021).
A classic example of Papo’s ability to seamlessly inject a jazz-feeling into La Sonora Ponceña’s repertoire is “Boranda” (composed by the Brazilian singer, songwriter Edu Lobo) and appears on the album, “El Gigante del Sur” (1977). Midway through tune (3:39), Papo rips into a jazz-inspired solo and scat, the inspiration for the “Boranda Challenge,” which you can view HERE.
Some years ago I met and spoke with Papo and I asked him if he gave any thought to recording La Sonora Ponceña in a jazz context. Or creating a compilation of the jazz tunes that appear on Sonora’s albums. The short answer was, “yes,” but, for reasons only known to Papo, the project never materialized.
The legacy of bebop also lives in the music of Bobby Valentin, Willie Rosario, Robert Roena’s Apollo Sound, Papo Vazquez, David Sanchez, Miguel Zenón, Furito Rios, Charlie Sepulveda, and others, who routinely incorporate jazz and other influences and express their art uniquely.
- Alava, Silvio – Bebop Spoken Here (Latin Beat magazine, Volume 1, No. 2, February 1991)
- Kent, Mary – Salsa Talks! A Musical Heritage Uncovered (Digital Domain, 2005)
- Rodriguez, “Atabal” Hector – Arsenio Rodriguez: Padre de la Salsa en Puerto Rico (Ediciones Callejón, 2015).
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