El Maestro: A Man and His Music

by: Johnny Pacheco

For a man who cut as many records and worked with as many artists as Johnny Pacheco has, as bandleader, collaborator, producer, and label boss, a mere two CDs doesn’t seem to be enough as a retrospective. Nonetheless, that’s what we have in El Maestro. It collects 30 album tracks from near the beginning of his career, from his stay at Alegre from 1961 through 1964 through his classic movement toward defining salsa in New York at Fania -- the label powerhouse he formed with Jerry Masucci -- from the mid-'60s through the '70s, and subsequent tracks through 1985 on Vaya. The material is arranged chronologically: Nine tracks come from the Alegre years including the singles “El Güiro de Macorina,” and “Soy Guapo de Verdad” from 1961’s legendary album Pacheco y Su Charanga. The Fania material begins with the label’s namesake cut, recorded for Pacheco’ s debut album on the label called Cañonazo in 1964, and featuring the mighty Pete Rodriguez on vocals. Also included is the seminal tribute to Africa, “Dakar: Punto Final” from the same album. “El Mundo” is here from Viva Africa, where Pacheco’s obsession with the Afro-Cuban sounds of La Sonora Matancera is displayed so prominently for the first time with his conjunto orchestra. Disc one ends in 1965 with “Sugar Frost,” from Latin Jam, where the forms of Cuban son and charanga are married seamlessly. Disc two features 1968’s “Maria Cervantes,” with Pacheco playing flute and Charlie Palmieri arranging and playing piano. Other high points include “La Esencia del Guaguanco,” with Rodriguez on vocals, from La Perfecta Combinacion, and “Quimbara," from the set Celia y Johnny in 1974 on Vaya, marking the first collaboration between Pacheco and Celia Cruz. Disc one leans heavily on the '60s, as it should be, given the many hit singles Pacheco recorded -- but so many more are missing it’s a bit frustrating. That said, disc two’s concentration is not so pointed. It continues in the '60s and moves all the way through the '80s, leaving out many key songs from the '70s -- there are no performances with the Fania All-Stars, for example -- to fill in the picture of Pacheco’s very direct involvement in the development of salsa. Nonetheless, this is still a fine introduction to one of the most important and innovative figures in Latin music. ~ Thom Jurek

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