By the time that Willie Colón took his group into the Broadway recording studios in late 1971 in order to work on the music of El Juicio, he was in charge of one of the most dynamic groups in Latin music. The transition that Willie and his unbelievable star vocalist Héctor Lavoe had made over the course of the previous four years had tranformed them - from young pretenders mocked by the establishment for their rough-and-ready style, to pioneers of the new salsa sound. The band's personnel had shifted, too. Talented pianist Mark Dimond had been replaced by Joe Torres. This loss could have damaged a band irreparably - but Torres fitted right in and the music continued to grow. ...MORE >
By the time that Willie Colón took his group into the Broadway recording studios in late 1971 in order to work on the music of El Juicio, he was in charge of one of the most dynamic groups in Latin music. The transition that Willie and his unbelievable star vocalist Héctor Lavoe had made over the course of the previous four years had tranformed them - from young pretenders mocked by the establishment for their rough-and-ready style, to pioneers of the new salsa sound. The band's personnel had shifted, too. Talented pianist Mark Dimond had been replaced by Joe Torres. This loss could have damaged a band irreparably - but Torres fitted right in and the music continued to grow.
1971 had seen the release of La Gran Fuga, with hits such as "Ghana' E," and also the success of the definitive Christmas album Asalto Navideño. Both LPs showcased Willie, Héctor and the band at the top of their game. This level of success continued with the material of El Juicio, which as Willie explains on this edition's main notes, had been presented onstage during the six months previous to recording.
Understandably, the band plays with an almost telepathic understanding. Having access to the master tapes, we were able to go back and examine the group in action on alternate instrumental takes of “Si La Ves” and “Timbalero.” It is interesting to note that these work as instrumentals just as well as the album's only instrumental track - “Pan y Agua (Bread and Water).”
“Timbalero” exemplifies Willie’s willingness to absorb the cultures of Africa and the Caribbean. In this outtake, the breakdown is more emphatic, evoking the feel of Jamaican reggae.
Although the sessions did not yield any unrelased songs or alternate vocal takes by Héctor - he tended to add his vocals during the final take of a song - these earlier takes are different enough to justify sharing them with the public.
We have also chosen to present the edited versions of “Pan y Agua" and “Piraña” that were released in the 45 rpm format. All of El Juicio's tracks with the exception of "Timbalero" were released as singles. The demand from fans, radio DJs and jukebox operators illustrates the level of stardom that Willie and Héctor had achieved.
Both Willie and Héctor would move on to even greater success. With its impeccable playing and non-stop selection of hits, this album took the new sound of salsa beyond the borders of New York.
I spoke with Willie Colón about El Juicio, an album that Fania Records released in 1972, and he made a confession that I found somewhat disturbing: he said that this one was his last "reckless" recording with Héctor Lavoe.
I thought that he was making a mistake, since the following year, he produced the LPs Lo Mato and the second volume of Asalto Navideño. And yet, when compared to El Juicio, these two productions are clearly organic, well articulated and thought out.
I realized then that Willie was right. In 1972, at the height of its popularity, the band was playing hundreds of shows in nightclubs across the Americas. Their lives were reckless indeed.
"It was - and still is - a record of crazy ideas and rhythmic mutations," explains Willie. "Our perspective was middle-of-the-road. We looked at the dancer in the eyes, knowing how much he could stand, so as to push him to the limits of exhaustion."
Examples of this tendency can be found in the descargas "Aguanilé" and "Timbalero," which last six and eight minutes respectively - with timeless contributions by timbalero Louie Romero, Willie and Eric Matos on trombone, and, naturally, Héctor Lavoe with the swing and impishness of his soneos.
"I had a club in the Bronx named El Hipocampo, where young kids danced tirelessly," adds Willie. "When we threw 'Aguanilé' or 'Timbalero' at them, we generated marathons that lasted 15 to 20 minutes. The club was on a second floor in Jerome Ave. and Burnside. The smoke and heat were suffocating, but people would not leave. Dancing to those jams was like playing a basketball game, and then stepping out to the merciless cold outside."
During that time, Willie and Héctor would play the new songs live for about six months before recording them. "Often, we would come up with new ideas in concert," he says. "Maybe a new section, a chorus or a hook, which would be added to the song. When we finally recorded, the instruments virtually played themselves. You didn't think - wow, I have to hold the steering wheel and press the pedal with my foot. You did everything automatically. When the material is digested in such an organic fashion, the music assumes a swing and a natural flow that cannot be imitated."
The rest is history - ready to be tasted and appreciated in the sequence of "Ah-Ah/O-No," the bolero "Seguiré Sin Ti," "Timbalero," "Aguanilé," "Soñando Despierto," "Si La Ves," the instrumental "Pan y Agua," and "Piraña" - the Tite Curet Alonso composition with the peculiarity that the trombones respond to the lyrics performed by Héctor with melodic lines from "Caravan," "Total," "Perfidia," "Llanto De Luna" and other hits.
El Juicio also brought in Willie a deep and sincere reflection on the excesses of his life. The train appeared destined to be derailed. He was getting a divorce from María Dávila, and had lost his respect to drugs. He needed a pause, a change. His conscience was shouting to him: "coño, take a break."
"All those feelings are reflected in the song lyrics," explains Willie. "They forebode the ruptures of my marriage and my relationship with Héctor. Even in the raucous celebrations like 'Timbalero,' it says that timba no va a soná - the drum will not sound. In other words, it is all over. In the end, 'Pan y Agua' represents the deserved punishment for all this decadence."
In 2009, El Juicio represents for Willie Colón a metaphor of reflection for a group of teen musicians with international fame who, when faced with the overwhelming blows of life and its many lessons, they would simply answer: "que se joda!"
MASTERWORKS - El Juicio
By Dean Rudland