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Pop Music Review

Novel's Rare L.A. Date Proves a Fiery Treat

April 07, 2001|ERNESTO LECHNER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Finding someone who remembers the Orquesta Tipica Novel in this day and age is a pretty difficult task, so it was particularly noble of the Conga Room to fly the seminal New York band for a Friday engagement. But it's the kind of innovative booking for which the Conga is becoming known among devoted salsa fans.

Formed in the late '60s by pianist Willie Ellis, the Novel is the kind of Afro-Cuban ensemble known as a charanga--its sound defined by the combination of supple percussion, acrobatic flutes and elegant violins.

In 1976, the Novel was signed to the legendary Fania record label and quickly became one of the company's finest ensembles. Not a small feat, considering the Fania was the home of Willie Colon, Ruben Blades and other salsa stars.

Re-formed recently after a decade of inactivity, the current Novel boasts some tremendous instrumentalists: no-frills timbalero Jimmy Delgado, bassist Marino Solano and, most notably, Joe "El Profesor" Torres, a virtuoso pianist responsible for some legendary sessions with the late Hector Lavoe.

At the Conga, the 10-piece combo performed two lengthy sets, working up relentless crescendos of fiery polyrhythms and easy-to-hum choruses. Old and new tunes were equally exciting, although an emotional version of the oldie "La Batalla de los Barrios" was particularly effective.

Unlike most of the Fania acts, whose music was distinguished by a dark, hard-core edge, the Novel plays sunny, uncomplicated montunos. This is joyful stuff, the aural depiction of an afternoon spent drinking and dancing somewhere in the Cuban countryside.

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