Just going on the evidence of El Sonido Mágico, Javier Miranda’s record collection must be IMMENSE. Miranda, the Puerto Rican-born leader of DC-based tropical monsters Empresarios, has what jazz musicians used to call “big ears” – here, he manages to incorporate just about every kind of music into his band’s repertoire, without sacrificing its edge or ability to cook in many different styles. Empresarios are sometimes identified as a salsa band, but you won’t find straight-ahead salsa-qua-salsa numbers here. Instead, the band uses salsa much like most of us do: as a condiment. “Volume” has all the percussion touches (and huge horn sounds) of legends like the Fania All-Stars, but folds them into a disco jam that sounds a lot more like Los Amigos Invisibles. (That, if you know anything about THAT bunch of Venezuelan madmen, is a huge compliment.)
But nothing else here sounds like “Volume.” The next track, “Rompan Fila,” is a dubbed-out slow jam conjuring the spirit of another of my favorite bands, Mexico’s El Gran Silencio. Frankie Rosado and Felix Perez, the group’s two vocalists, pull off a great good cop/bad cop act, although it’s unclear which is which. Then we segue right into “7th Street Groove,” which manages to wed British New Wave synth washes to go-go music.At this point, I couldn’t figure out how Miranda got access to my iTunes “Party Music” playlist. Then, of course, I heard “Maria Juana.” It starts like a dubbed-out mix of reggaetón and salsa, thanks to Paul Chaconas’ melodica work and an easy groove. But then Chaconas puts down the melodica and picks up his guitar, laying down some nasty psychedelic licks, while the band’s two DJs start cutting everything into bits. At this point, I’m fully on board.
And this is not even to mention “Salsa de Gala,” where the Lee Perry echoes go into overdrive early on but never manage to override the group’s percussive groove, or “Rey de Reyes,” an even heavier dub where it’s sometimes hard to remember where the song was going to begin with, or even the carnival jam “Bestia.” It just keeps going, adding and subtracting sounds and effects at will, showing that Javier Miranda can pretty much do anything he wants as a composer and bandleader. Does he have anything to say about the world? Well, that’s not quite as clear, even adjusting for language differences. But when grooves are as sick as the ones displayed here, nothing else really matters. Get familiar, and quick – Empresarios aren’t slowing down any time soon, and we might be hearing the opening salvos in a new salsa renaissance.