Willie Colon, performing this Saturday night, August 18th at the Bronx Lehman Center, immediately conjures thoughts on innovation. Hip Hop rooted, I immediately think of The RZA's classic and superior albums with Wu-Tang Clan then with Method Man, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Raekwon, GZA, Ghostface Killah and himself as Bobby Digital. That Willie has the same track record with Hector Lavoe, Ruben Blades, Celia Cruz, Ismael Miranda, Mon Rivera and himself, the wonder of their innovation is evident. Rooted in the essence of their genre yet their work propelled the genre by its frenetically intent experimentation.
There are great bandleaders that have the legacy of countlessly successful albums with others from Tito Puente to Celia Cruz yet, for Willie, the genre continued to be explored and expanded in his collaborations. A major difference is that studying the diversity of albums as say, Lavoe's debut La Voz from 1975 and Ruben Blades debut Metiendo Mano of 1977, there isn’t an application of a set band sound to a new Sonero; rather, Colon is constructing a sound for the artist, drawing out their greatest techniques, accentuating their most melodious pitches, adjusting to their inflections and offering backdrops that propel the character of that Sonero. Other great bands have made superior works with new Soneros (i.e. Ray Barretto's Indestructible after the departure of Adalberto Santiago and other band players, Tipica '73 after Adalberto Santiago using Tito Allen, Jose El Canario Alberto, etc.) but when Colon had a new artist he explored the depth of their character via content, charisma, delivery, cadence, vocal power and intentions. It's why the classic Willie & Lavoe albums of the early 70's capture the perfectly executed rawness that exemplified Lavoe's vocal strength and uplifting brashness and style in being a rooted Boricua, despite being here in New York, uprooted. Then as Lavoe goes solo, there is an epic elegance brought to his presentation by the strings and layered production that graduates Lavoe to the deserved title as a legendary Sonero representing the peoples' hopes, yet still reflecting their character without compromise (i.e. the signature classic of Lavoe's catalog, "El Cantante" off the 1978 LP Comedia).
To add to the RZA comparison, there is the diversity of the two volume Maestra Vida albums he did with Ruben Blades telling the story of a family through generations. Larry Harlow's grafted Hommy off the Who's Tommy was earlier yet mainly respectable because of the lineup of singing characters from Celia, Cheo Feliciano and Adalberto. Still, Maestra is so much more well written and composed, where the story is dependent on the music guiding its sincerity and furthering the sensitivity we feel for the characters. It has an insight in approach that is reminiscent of RZA’s Afro Samurai soundtracks where RZA uses classic Soul, Rock and Hip Hop to represent the killed father samurai, the villain and the avenging samurai son, respectively. While RZA achieved a classic score with the great indie film Ghostdog, Willie’s 1977 El Baquine De Angelitos Negroes could be made into an intriguing movie.
As an MC, RZA is often criticized for his flow and limitations dexterity wise. However, he may be the deepest and most intelligent lyricist of Hip Hop’s history. The entire direction he took Wu-Tang Clan is one that can be studied as the peak of Hip Hop lyricism from storytelling, abstract lyricism, arcane ideas, spiritual insights and pure science to just elevated battle raps. With Willie Colon, the expansion of his compositions allowed for expanded lyricism of the genre from the very beginning. Lavoe merely needed a forum and direction to speak on all things and the stylings of the great Jibaro singers (i.e. Chuito) and Ismael Rivera’s stylings, dialect and rhythmic mastery to Cheo Feliciano’s technical superiority, all catapults Lavoe to really become the icon of his generation and a historical great for us all. Willie also molded Ruben Blades from just a precocious songwriter, yet vocally a Cheo clone, to a Sonero of his own command and cadence. Siembra, the 1978 sophomore album of the Colon/Blades union, is noted as the greatest selling Salsa album in history. Opening up Salsa to being overtly acknowledged as a listening music (though this writer feels musically it always was) where Blades himself noted fans just watched them perform; Colon is really just projecting the Bomba, Plena and Latin folk genres of lyricism to the forefront. Throughout Colon’s solo career, he would be not only one of the deepest, socially conscious lyricists but one of the most cleverly lined and dynamically inflected.
It actually may be an understatement to only compare Willie to the RZA. With the impact of Willie Colon (along with Eddie Palmieri and others) making the root Son (and its tempos guaguanco, guajira, etc.) into Salsa (the improvisation of Jazz) with all of the merging and inclusion of genres (i.e. PR Bomba, Plena, Colombian, African styles, etc.) and the freeing up of the actual Puerto Rican New York experience at its peak (i.e. Lavoe) he really is also like the Marley Marl of Salsa. Just as Marley Marl isolated drum samples and really propels the Boom Bap sound, the ideal Hip Hop track, so does Willie from his heavy trombone sound (with great credits to Mon Rivera and also Barry Rogers of Palmieri's La Perfecta band) and exploration of genres do the same.
Focusing on Colon as the solo artist, thought turns to one of the greatest composers in American history, Miles Davis. Miles never stayed in one sound and constantly blended genres as new ideas into the structure of his compositions and the stylistic variants of his tempos and lyrical presentations. It isn't a consistency of sound but a consistency of experimentation that has propelled both Miles’ and Colon’s music. Willie's solo career incorporating English Pop sounds, new digital techniques, explored singing formats and new lyrical ideas, went from huge orchestras (i.e. 1979's Solo), diverse worldly orchestras (i.e. 1989's Altos Secretos) back to the perfection of the pure Salsa record (i.e. 1993's Hecho En Puerto Rico). If the genre of Salsa is now stagnant, it is the lack of excavation into Willie's music, the blueprint for the resurrection of it. Uncovering the Willie Colon catalog is to better understand creativity in all its forms. While the popped ears fatally seek to pick a sound, the point lost is that perfection of the song is by expressing oneself completely with great vigor.
Willie Colon’s catalog also gives insight to a time just as records by Bird, Diz, Billie, 'Trane and Miles can. Salsa, the first urban genre of New York City has a captured realness that is classic in recovery just as Rakim, KRS-One, Gang Starr or Wu-Tang is. The respect for Willie Colon is immediately noted as not merely being an incredible champion for the preservation of the music. Latin music, particularly everything that is from the family of Son, is often preserved with excellent musicianship but none of the character of an oppressed people, a people with blatant subcultural contributions and powerfully subtle and most relevant counter-cultural ideas, insights, experimentations and revolutions proposed and demanded. The edge to Salsa, and any genre of our Black/Brown peoples, is lost with cover traditionalism, where young bands just harken the acceptable styles, techniques and lyric ideas of the past. True innovation is far more balanced, with a preserved ethic and wildly experimental dynamism that is ultimately necessary to our music. Our music that keeps being the voice of our very real people.