The Alegre All-Stars, also known by various names such as Cesta All-Stars, Tico-Alegre All-Stars, and Salsa All-Stars, have released a number of recordings over the years. Their first album, Volume 1, is particularly notable since it is the only one in which the ensemble adhered to their original concept of spontaneous arrangements, and featured Johnny Pacheco and Barry Rogers, who never recorded with the group again.
In 1959. musician, composer, arranger, bandleader, producer, and entrepreneur Al Santiago heard and flipped over Panart’s Cuban Jam Sessions (Volume 1). “Wow, how loose, groovy, funky, swinging, and musically avant-garde,” he wrote In the liner notes. “If they could put together a studio band in Cuba and jam, well, so could we, and of course, we did.”
Panart was founded by Ramón Sabat in 1944 and quickly became one of Cuba’s most successful independent record labels. However, in 1961, Fidel Castro’s regime seized Panart’s studios and the label was nationalized. It was renamed “Panart Nacionalizada” and absorbed by Egrem, which is the national label of Cuba.
1956, Panart asked Julio Gutiérrez, a pianist, composer, arranger, and musical director, to record a “descarga” (jam session). The session featured the pianist Peruchin, who specialized in jazz-influenced Cuban popular music and other famous Cuban musicians. However, they were secretly recorded while jamming at a party that lasted three days without their knowledge. Cuban Jam Session (Volume 1) was released in 1959, was widely praised, and became a hit in the United States. Additionally, it paved the way for recordings by Chico O’Farrill, Israel “Cachao” Lopez, and Niño Rivera.
The Alegre All-Stars was a multi-ethnic and multi-generational band made up of artists contracted to Alegre Records: Pianist and composer Charlie Palmieri, flutist Johnny Pacheco, Cuban saxophonist and violinist Chombo Silva, Puerto Rican percussionist and bandleader Kako Bastar, Dominican singer, arranger, and multi-instrumentalist Dioris Valladares, Dominican singer Yayo El Indio, Cuban vocalist, composer, arranger Rudy Calzado, Jewish Bronxite and trombonist Barry Rogers, percussionists Julian Cabrera, Puerto Rican bassist Bobby Rodríguez and singer Marcelino Valdés.
Santiago aimed to produce a record similar in quality to the Cuban Jam Sessions but not a mere imitation. He wanted to create music that satisfied the musicians and sold well. However, forming a group with musicians who had big egos, conflicting personalities, different musical visions, and busy schedules was a difficult task. Santiago’s solution was to pick a night during the week when the musicians were available and find a place where they could work as a team while preparing for the recording session. They chose Tuesday as their night and Tritons, a nightclub and after-hours spot on the second floor of the former Spooner Theater, as their venue. It was located next to the Hunts Point Palace on Southern Boulevard, between 163rd and Westchester Avenue. In front of a live audience over six to eight Tuesdays, the band put their unique spin on Cuban classics such as “Rareza del Siglo” by Bebo Valdés, “Almendra” by Abelardo Valdés, “Para Tí” by Mongo Santamaría, “Al Carnaval” by R. Cueto, the bolero “Soy Feliz,” “Ay Camina Y Ven” by Charlie Palmieri, and jazz multi-instrumentalist Don Eliot’s “Estoy Buscando a Kako.” When the band was in sync, Salazar quickly assembled the players at Mastertone Recording Studios in Manhattan, and the recording session went smoothly.
In 1961, when Volume 1 was released, it was anything but ordinary and received little public attention. The music was genuinely impromptu and ground-breaking. Moreover, thanks to the expertise of recording engineer Roy Ramirez, it incorporated snippets of studio conversations and sound effects. Regardless, the album profited through word-of-mouth and Santiago’s marketing skills.
Standout tracks include Almendra, which includes masterful solos by (trombonist) Barry Rogers and (master bassist) Bobby Rodríguez. Mongo Santamaria’s Para Ti features the dynamic duo of Barry Rogers and Chombo Silva. The song that always makes me smile is Estoy Buscando a Kako, a “head” (improvised) arrangement and running joke among the musicians.
One thing that sets apart Volume 1 from subsequent records is the absence of Johnny Pacheco. He was unhappy with Santiago’s choice of Charlie Palmieri as the band leader. Another missing member from the Alegre All-Stars recordings is Barry Rogers, whose reasons for not appearing on subsequent records are unknown.
A short list of some of the musicians who passed through the Alegre All-Stars includes Cheo Feliciano, Louie Ramírez, Orlando Marín, Frankie Malabé, Joe Quijano, Willie Torres, Mario Rivera, and Chivirico Dávila, among others.
In 1996, to celebrate The Alegre All-Stars’ 35th anniversary, Santiago introduced a new edition of the band at SOB’s in New York. The concert was a huge success, and the group had plans to record and tour. However, their plans were shattered when Santiago died.
Al Santiago passed away with a deep regret that only the musicians were aware of his substantial contributions to the music industry. “I never realized that my work was contributing to our culture and changing the music. I did it because I enjoyed it,” he said.
A two-disc tribute to Al Santiago, titled “The House That Al Built – The Alegre Records Story (1957-1977),” was released by Fania Records in 2008. It’s worth noting that Alegre Records was the only label to rival and often surpass the mighty Fania in terms of quality and innovation within Latin music during the 1960s. The label was originally formed by Al Santiago as a mid-’50s record store named Casalegre, and his ear for great music naturally turned from selling it to organizing its recording and production.
For a selection of the Alegre All-Stars throughout the years, I highly recommend checking out the compilation albums Te Invita (Alegre, 1993) and They Don’t Make Them Like Us Anymore (Alegre, 1976).
What should we think about the Alegre All-Stars today? In 1959, Al Santiago brought together some of the most talented Latin musicians, and they created “Cuban music with a New York attitude” that still resonates today. It’s a must-listen for anyone who is even remotely interested in the development of Latin music and jazz in New York.
Blondet, Richard – Contributor: Research
Carp, David – Profile: 35th Anniversary of the Alegre All-Stars – Descarga.com (6/1/1996)
Editor, Descarga.com – Alegre All-Stars – Te Envita (11/27/2007)
Flores, Juan – Salsa Rising, New York Latin Music of the Sixties Generation (Oxford University Press, 2016)
Kent, Mary – Salsa Talks! A Musical Heritage Uncovered (Digital Domain, 2005)
Santiago, Al – Alegre All-Stars Volume 1. – Liner Notes
Sounds of Brazil – Publicity Photo
Alegre All-Stars Volume 1 – (1961)
The Alegre All-Stars Vol.3 – Lost and Found (Fania, 1996)
The House that Al Built – The Alegre Records Story (Box Set, Fania/EMusica, 2008)
Tico-Alegre All-Stars Live at Carnegie Hall (Tico, 1974)
The Complete Cuban Jam Sessions (remastered and include comprehensive liner notes, Craft, 2018)