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Spanish Harlem Orchestra bandleader Oscar Hernandez on the new album 'Imágenes Latinas'

Pianist and bandleader Oscar Hernandez
Courtesy of Oscar Hernandez
Spanish Harlem Orchestra
Pianist and bandleader Oscar Hernandez.

Released on May 20, "Imágenes Latinas" continues the Spanish Harlem Orchestra tradition of excellence in blending salsa dura and jazz. In an interview with KNKX, Oscar Hernandez spoke about the roots of the new album and some of his other projects.

The title track of the new album was originally written by Hernandez for the group Conjunto Libre, an influential band that incorporated jazz, Afro-Cuban, and Afro-Puerto Rican rhythms. Leaders Manny Oquendo and Andy Gonzales encouraged band members to explore alternative sounds.

"There's an indelible memory in my mind about that particular song, because we recorded it live," said Hernandez. "It's also a tribute to my association with Andy Gonzalez, Jerry Gonzalez, and Manny Oquendo, because I was a founding member. Recording that song for the new album is kind of a way to say thank you and pay tribute to them as well. And to trombonist Barry Rodgers, who was an important part of the concept of that particular song. I'm so happy to be able to honor people who mean a lot to me, who I love, and give my tip of the cap to those people who were important in my formation as a musician."

"Conjunto Libre had a big, big impact on a lot of musicians during that time in the seventies," Hernandez continued. "They formulated their own sound and their own identity, and were at the forefront of making some really interesting things happen in the music. So I'm proud to have been a part of that."

The Spanish Harlem Orchestra was founded in 2001, and started performing in 2002.


"I'm really proud of sustaining the band for 20 years, and what we've accomplished," said Hernandez. "We've traveled the world, and we've won three Grammys. That says a lot about the music. It says a lot about maintaining the culture of that music and the tradition that it steeped in."

"I'm one of the few guys still around that can say they played with Machito, with Tito Puente, with Celia Cruz, with Ray Barretto," Hernandez continued. "So it's part of keeping that music alive with Spanish Harlem Orchestra. And I'm proud to be the carrier of that flame."

Honoring the roots of the music while allowing it to grow is important to Hernandez.

"It's music that comes from a real place, influencing the rest of the world, with Fania Records and all of the music that was happening in New York City. I'm proud to have been a part of that and to keep it going in my own way with Spanish Harlem Orchestra."

Hernandez is constantly composing, arranging and transcribing music. He takes care of the business end of running the orchestra as well, from booking gigs all the way down to buying the airline tickets.

His other projects include working with vocalist Margo Rey, and with his Latin jazz ensemble Alma Libre, whose third album, "Visión" received a 4-star review in Downbeat magazine.

Oscar Hernández & Alma Libre III " Visión" Promo Video

When he's not working, his family is his focus. And baseball.

"I'm a big baseball fan," Hernandez confirms. "I got the MLB package and I'll sit there for 3 hours and just like, get lost. I watch my beloved Yankees play, almost every day."

Hernandez is looking forward to returning to Seattle's Jazz Alley in July.

"Jazz Alley is a place that I love," said Hernandez. "The band loves playing there. It's an opportunity for an audience to come see us close up and see exactly what we do and feel the music. It's one of the great venues and we're blessed to be there at least once a year."

More information and tickets for the Spanish Harlem Orchestra at Jazz Alley is here.

Enter to win tickets to see the Spanish Harlem Orchestra at Jazz Alley on Thursday July 14 here. Deadline for entry is July 3.

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Originally from Detroit, Robin Lloyd has been presenting jazz, blues and Latin jazz on public radio for nearly 40 years. She's a member of the Jazz Education Network and the Jazz Journalists Association.