Editors' pick

Going Out Guide Weekend Concerts: Latin Night featuring Orquesta La Leyenda

Latin
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Editorial Review

There are two ways to get your free tickets:
Pick them up at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, beginning at 8:30 a.m. on the day of the show, or swing by the Carter Barron box office, 16th Street and Colorado Avenue NW, beginning at noon. Tickets go fast and are limited to four per adult.
There are no scheduled rain dates. Picnic areas are available in the park around the amphitheater. For more information, call The Post at 202-334- 6808 or the Carter Barron concert line, which will have updated information on weather-related cancellations, at 202-426-0486.

When the core members of Latin jazz band Orquesta La Leyenda pour into founder Ted David’s Hyattsville home to rehearse, one thing is immediately clear: La Leyenda isn’t your average jazz quartet.

There are 14 members in this sprawling act, and when the orchestra squeezes into David’s low-ceilinged basement, every inch of the tiny space fills up with trombonists and flutists, saxophonists and singers — not to mention percussionists and an upright bass (which barely clears the ceiling) that has nowhere to go but in a back corner.

The army of musicians is the secret to La Leyenda, whose name is Spanish for “the legend.” The legend that the band upholds, David says, is that of the old big bands of the 1940s and ’50s — the ones that gave Miami its salsa sizzle and the glamorous guests at New York’s Waldorf Astoria their cha-cha. Think: Tito Puente, the Buena Vista Social Club, Eddie Palmieri.

Orquesta La Leyenda headlines tonight’s free Going Out Guide Weekend Concert at Carter Barron Amphitheatre, and one wonders if any pairing could be more ideal than the band’s tropical sounds and the warm summer air.

La Leyenda’s music takes you back to the days when bow-tied gentlemen and gorgeous red-lipped ladies, many of them of Cuban and Puerto Rican descent, flocked to New York’s Palladium Ballroom to mambo all night long.

But this local homage has a curious twist: “I’ve always played salsa where everybody is Latino,” says singer Rafael Alvarez. “In this big band, we have two generations, and speakers of both languages, English and Spanish.”

Band members hail from Puerto Rico, Venezuela and Peru, as well as from Haiti, Maryland and Tennessee. Trombonist Rick Lillard, 70 and a veteran of the Air Force’s crack jazz ensemble the Airmen of Note, is the band’s quiet elder, while singer Laura Sosa, a firecracker behind the mike, and bass player Oliver Albertini, both 28, are the youngsters, getting their first exposure to sounds whose heyday was during their grandparents’ era.

What La Leyenda’s numerous members have in common, Sosa says, is that “we all love music.”

To play the band’s vintage of music, some members, including David, had to play catch-up. The saxophonist recalls the time he accepted a gig to perform with a Latin band, hoping he’d catch on as he went. When he arrived, the sheet music was all but illegible, but David got a quick lesson from a bandmate and he was hooked. The bandmate now plays in La Leyenda.

Today, his shelves are packed with his “textbooks” — CDs of the late Cuban salsa queen Celia Cruz, Xavier Cugat, Puente and the Conga Kings. He guesses the oldest music he references dates back to the 1910s, though he does include modern songs in the band’s repertoire of 300-odd pieces (members flit seamlessly from Gloria Estefan’s “Mi Tierra,” a fast-paced mambo hip-shaker that David refers to as a “chopbuster,” to “A Gozar Timbero” — vintage Puente).

When they get together, you can hardly tell that La Leyenda’s members didn’t grow up listening to Latin big band. Timbales crack, horns blow and, between songs, the musicians — despite their age differences, and backgrounds — share stories and laughs.

“When you have a big band, it’s a school,” says percussionist Rudy Morales, who had his own education playing with Washington’s Latin greats in the 1980s. “It’s a family.”

--Lavanya Ramanathan, July 15, 2011