Yambu - "Caballo" (Subway Salsa: The Montuno Records Story)
Subway Salsa: The Montuno Records Story lives up to its name in two literal ways. First, it’s not just a compilation of music from a compelling upstart record label; it’s not only a soundtrack to a label that has a history like any other. It’s also a proper story — a page-turner, even — documented in a generous booklet that lets one of the label’s founders tell it as he remembers it. Included in that booklet are helpful short biographies of the artists, who are far from household names, as well as images of more than a dozen original album art covers from records issued by Montuno. Second, subway salsa is not a metaphor. The label was an outgrowth of a famed specialty retailer, Record Mart, that had underground locations at the 14th and 42nd street stops in Manhattan.
In the mid 1970s, Jesse Moskowitz started Montuno Records with Bob Stack, his former Record Mart partner, and Al Santiago, the New York salsa pioneer who several decades earlier had founded Alegre Records (which itself was based out of a famed record store, “Casalegre”). In the liner notes, Moskowitz tells us that Montuno’s connection with Santiago was fruitful — yielding work by the outfits Tambó and Yambú — but short-lived. A smaller name Latin music producer/impresario of sorts quickly began to fill in Santiago’s shoes: René López, who had a day job, but also did some work for the more famous Fania Records.
The two-disc compilation Subway Salsa collects approximately two-and-a-half hours of Latin music, emphasizing varieties of the danceable Cuban music that came to be called salsa but also including elements of jazz, other then-contemporary American styles, and even the Haitian music of the ensemble Scorpio, which is represented by its funky “Ensem… Ensem…” Numbers by Tambó and Yambú are relentlessly horn-driven, offering many crisp if familiar variations of blaring brass. By contrast, on the two numbers it contributes, the charanga ensemble Son Primero, offers somewhat more restrained, piano-driven grooves showcasing effervescent flute work. Although Subway Salsa is filled with technically distinct styles, they blend with one another seamlessly, both in individual recordings and across the label’s output as a whole.
Less well known than Fania or even Alegre, Montuno Records released some excellent Latin music in its heyday, and Subway Salsa offers an easy and illuminating point of entry, both to Montuno and the cluster of sounds labeled “salsa” in 1970s New York. Fortunately, many of the records from which this collection draws have been reissued within the past few years on CD and in MP3 format. While Subway Salsa ought not be the final word on the Montuno label, it makes for a great introduction.