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Colon sets salsa fans' feet tapping

His Conga Room performance is punctuated by an emotional connection to late Hector Lavoe.

November 12, 2002|Ernesto Lechner | Special to The Times

You don't dance at a Willie Colon concert. Doing so would be a sacrilege of sorts.

When Colon is in the house, you stand as close to the stage as possible, tap your feet ever so lightly to the beat of the clave and pinch yourself in disbelief: You're watching a salsa legend in action.

That was the reaction of the capacity crowd Friday at the Conga Room, where the Bronx-born singer and trombonist, 52, delivered a brisk, 2 1/2-hour set.

From the late '60s to the early '80s, Colon, Ruben Blades and Hector Lavoe functioned as salsa's New York-based holy trinity, creating the genre's essential canon. If Blades was salsa's ultimate songwriter, and Lavoe the vocal distillation of its raw, tragic spirit, Colon was the unifier, the alchemist, the enabler.

Working as a solo artist and also as Lavoe and Blades' producer, he preserved the authentic grit of Afro-Caribbean dance formats while fusing them with other styles (bossa nova, R&B), embellishing his elaborate epics with lush strings and perfecting a trombone sound that reflected his streetwise sensibility: rough, unpolished and recklessly exuberant.

The golden age of salsa is a distant memory, but Colon's performance was not an exercise in nostalgia. He performed relatively recent hits ("Idilio," "Talento de Television") and allowed his young octet plenty of space for improvisation.

Still, the emotional connection with Lavoe, who died in 1993, continues to define Colon's every musical moment.

Fittingly, a medley of old favorites -- including the anthemic "El Cantante," the wistful "Periodico de Ayer" and the fatalistic slice of religious fervor "El Todopoderoso" -- was the most poignant moment.

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