This two-disc overview of the work of the trombonist, vocalist, and composer Willie Colón presents a musically convincing case that Colón was to the history of Latin music what Don Drummond was to Jamaican ska and J.J. Johnson was to jazz. If the preceding suggests a holy trinity, note that all three had a fervor frequently associated with the spiritually possessed. While many jazz fans have immersed themselves in J.J. Johnson's legacy, few know Drummond and Colón as well as they should. Drummond still awaits a career retrospective, but the recent rebirth of the Fania label has brought the cream of Colón's individual albums from the 1960s through the 1980s back to the marketplace along with The Player: A Man and His Music
, which is an impeccable overview for the uninitiated.
Starting in his teens, Colón fashioned a raw Pan-Latin sound on trombone, with lots of shouts and wails and encouragements for dancers to re-arrange their anatomies to a sound mixing various Puerto Rican and Cuban popular dance rhythms with Stateside soul and funk. In a musical marriage made in heaven, Colón found an ideal crooner in Hector Lavoe, like himself a wild teen willing to mix-and-match Latin genres with tremendous energy. Ten of the twenty-six tunes in this set reflect the smoldering emotional synergy of Lavoe's bittersweet yet searing vocals and Colón's forceful trombone responses to them. There's some serious musical rage in these early Colón/Lavoe recordsyet just try to resist the innocent joy of "Che-Che Colé," a sing- songy, impossibly catchy tune based on a children's song from Ghana with a hint of a calypso lilt.
After Lavoe left Colón's band, other passionate vocalists found favor, the best known becoming international superstars Celia Cruz and Rubén Blades. And Colón polished his own singing style, though the weakest selections on this anthology seem to showcase Colón's sugary pop vocal stylings. Perhaps inevitable comparisons with the urgency, roughness, and the sheer roar of his trombone solos are bound to make his workmanlike vocals seem ordinary.
Although Colón's trombone improvisations aren't as sophisticated as J.J. Johnson's, or as tied to Caribbean ritual rhythms as Drummond's, he has always been more of a showman and entertainer than either of the latter two playersand more willing to be street-wise, vulgar, and funny in his original songs and taut horn solos. This is carnival music for every day of the year, a stirring testimony to how Latin music magnificently evolved in the second half of the 20th century.