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Robert Lopez strums the guitar at the Pony Bar at June Farms in West Sand Lake, N.Y. on Aug. 31, 2022. He started performing with Alex Torres as a high school freshman in 1980. (Katherine Kiessling/Times Union)
Bandleader and bassist Alex Torres sings at the Pony Bar at June Farms in West Sand Lake, N.Y. on Aug. 31, 2022. (Katherine Kiessling/Times Union)
Alex Torres & His Latin Orchestra performed at the Pony Bar at June Farms in West Sand Lake, N.Y. on Aug. 31, 2022. (Katherine Kiessling/Times Union)
Alex Torres dances around his bass at the Pony Bar at June Farms in West Sand Lake, N.Y. on Aug. 31, 2022. (Katherine Kiessling/Times Union)
Alex Torres points at the crowd at the Pony Bar at June Farms in West Sand Lake, N.Y. on Aug. 31, 2022. (Katherine Kiessling/Times Union)
Vocalist Wilo Rodriguez takes a dance break mid-song at the Pony Bar at June Farms in West Sand Lake, N.Y. on Aug. 31, 2022. (Katherine Kiessling/Times Union)
Alex Torres watches on as Wilo Rodriguez sings at the Pony Bar at June Farms in West Sand Lake, N.Y. on Aug. 31, 2022. (Katherine Kiessling/Times Union)
From the top of the set at the Pony Barn at June Farms in West Sand Lake on a cool and sunny Wednesday evening, a sizable crowd bopped to the Latin beats in their seats over drinks and arepas, with a few couples immediately taking to the floor. Half an hour in, the barn was buzzing with salsa, cha-cha, bachata and laughter. And the dance floor was full.
Alex Torres & His Latin Orchestra know how to start the party – they’ve been doing it for 42 years.
Torres now recalls the origin story with a smile. After an Amsterdam High School music teacher kicked Torres out of class for asking why the marching band wasn’t playing better music, his mom told him, “Let’s start your own damn band.”
So, at 16, he did.
Alex Torres & His Latin Orchestra began as a two-person bedroom band with Bronx-born Torres and classmate Robert Lopez, then 14, in 1980. The band grew, and soon the “Puerto Rican Partridge Family” was traveling to venues as far as Hartford, Connecticut, in a repainted school bus with no power steering and no commercially licensed drivers (and somehow lived to tell the tale). Now, the 12-piece orchestra is celebrating 42 years with the upcoming release of the album “Son 40.”
“They have a really strong following,” said Mayra Zequeida, director of marketing for Rivers Casino in Schenectady where the band regularly plays for the casino’s new Latin Nights. “They create a fun and safe environment at our events and connect with the crowd … They have such a passion for their music, and they’re such perfectionists.”
It’s not usual for a local band to last for more than four decades, especially one rooted regionally like Alex Torres & His Latin Orchestra. But Torres’ ability to see and fill a void in the Capital Region’s music scene combined with his business savvy has kept the band together, even through 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down live concerts.
While other artists turned to virtual performances during quarantine, Torres was not interested in shrinking the band’s sound and spirit down to a screen.
“With Latinos, especially Puerto Ricans, music is not a luxury, it’s part of our DNA,” he said. “We wake up and put on merengue – you don’t need Ivory soap or coffee when you have merengue … so I started thinking, ‘How is this going to work with this computer model?’”
Instead of streaming home concerts, the band began “Son 40.” It was recorded in what Torres called the “freaking Incubator,” his booming laugh bouncing off the home studio’s pale orange walls that on a recent visit were lined with photos, newspaper clippings, instruments and records. The studio sits on the second floor of a two-story detached garage at his Scotia home with an isolated recording booth on the first floor. One-by-one, during the recording of “Son 40,” the musicians came by the booth to record their parts, communicating via videoconferencing with Torres upstairs.
“Not only were we able to play, but we made it work,” Torres said, who also spent 2020 letting venues know the band would be ready whenever live shows could resume again, leading to the band’s busiest touring season yet.
Alex Torres & His Latin Orchestra
Next shows: 8 p.m. Thursday at Rivers Casino, Schenectady
3-5 p,m, Saturday, Sept. 17 at Culturefest, Schenectady
The COVID-19 pandemic delayed production of the album, and the band wanted to have “Son 40” pressed on vinyl, which furthered delays as Torres sought out a company that could produce a high volume of records. The album will finally get its release on Oct. 27, a day before the band’s official 42nd anniversary.
The title “Son 40” holds dual meanings. The first is its literal translation: “They are 40.” It celebrates four decades of opportunities and achievements, including the Governor’s Excellence in Arts Award; performing in China; playing for then-President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton at the New York State Democratic Convention; sharing the stage with big name acts like Tito Puente and the Count Basie Orchestra; partnering with New York State’s Arts in Education to bring Latin music education to schools; 14 studio albums; and music featured on shows including “Ugly Betty” and “Shameless.”
“Even his detractors can’t deny what he’s accomplished by sheer tenacity,” Lopez said in between sets at June Farms on Wednesday. “In 42 years, he’s never deviated from his vision.”
“Son” also refers to an early genre of Cuban music that was a precursor to salsa. The album isn’t strictly son because the band isn’t strictly one genre of Latin music, but naming the album “Son 40” speaks to the musicians’ connection to the history and culture of the music they play. The band’s original music pulls from Afro-Caribbean origins, including salsa, merengue, bomba, cha-cha and plena, colored with the brassy sounds of the Duke Ellington and Count Basie music Torres listened to alongside Spanish radio stations while growing up.
“We’re sincere in what we’re doing,” Torres said. “Our original tunes, they’re our Mona Lisa.”
Watching Torres perform these tunes at The Pony Bar at June Farms was like a cardio exercise by proxy. He’s rarely still as he hops from instrument to instrument. He wiggles and shimmies around his white upright electric bass; shaking the maracas becomes a full-body act. Torres even stepped out for a song to bust a move on the dance floor and encourage those tentatively swaying in the corner to join. For Alex Torres & His Latin Orchestra, the music is meant to be experienced.
“If people aren’t dancing, I’ll quit,” Torres said. It may have taken 30 minutes to fill The Pony Barn’s dance floor during the first set, but it only took 30 seconds by the second set.
The easy camaraderie among the musicians has helped sustain the orchestra throughout the years, even as musicians cycled out to start families or move away for new careers. As Lopez puts it, they are a “band of dysfunctional brothers.” The band is a mix of self-taught musicians like Torres, who figured out how to play bass on an old, beat-up guitar with the higher tuned strings removed, and formally trained musicians.
“When the music is in your blood and you can mouth the notes, you can go fret by fret until you get it,” said Lopez, who taught himself how to play guitar as a teen alongside Torres. “We learned as we went.”
But much of the credit for the band’s enduring legacy goes to Torres’ leadership. He’ll cook for the band before every rehearsal and whip out “the Incubator Juice,” a bottle of Mount Gay rum, when inspiration needs a nudge or the reminiscing kicks into high gear. “Family” and “band” are interchangeable when he talks about the band. But Torres also knows when it’s time to get everyone focused and working.
“He’s a lot of fun, but he’s also all business,” said trumpeter Terry Gordon, who joined in 1998. “He expects professionalism.”
While Torres is the bandleader, he knows he’s collaborating with exceptional musicians and makes sure their talents and knowledge are welcome. Tyler Giroux, the band’s trombonist who joined in 2018, has learned not only how to cook authentic empanadas and mofongo but also how to apply his formal composition training to a new style at Torres’ side. Through a series of Facebook Messenger videos and FaceTime calls, Giroux helped Torres with some of the arrangements for the new album.
“I feel like I have a voice in the sound of the band,” Giroux said. “It’s why he’s had a band for so long. He makes everyone feel important.”
The almost 59-year-old has no intentions of slowing down soon. He’s writing a book and working to extend the band’s educational outreach. The band continues to tour the tri-state area, and “Son 40” will not be their last album.
“I’ve always said there is one place I want to die,” Torres said. “I’m very macabre, but I want to die onstage.”
Katherine Kiessling covers arts and entertainment for the Times Union. The New Jersey native has written for syracuse.com, Central New York Magazine and Charleston City Paper. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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