Band leader, composer and percussionist Rafael “Rafa” Cortijo Verdejo (December 11, 1928 – October 3, 1982) made indigenous Boricuan music a central feature of his sound starting in the 1950s, leaving a deep mark on the future development of Puerto Rican music and salsa in particular. Cortijo and his Combo did this through their early introduction of various robust rhythmic patterns that were not widely known previously, as well as their utilization of intense call and response structures (including distinctive African-based vocal timbres), plus their prominent placement of the rhythm section out in front of the band. More innovative still was the fact that Cortijo’s percussion setup utilized the Cuban dance band instrumentation of timbales, congas, cowbell and bongos to play Afro-Puerto Rican bomba and plena rhythms in addition to the mambo, calypso, bolero, and guaracha. Add to that the combo’s fresh and creative arrangements for brass and piano, which served to strengthen and enhance the infectious melodies and rhythms of the band, and you have a seemingly unbeatable formula for driving a dance-hungry public wild, not only on their home turf but also everywhere abroad from North to South America and the Caribbean.
Cortijo’s whole concept of the “combo” was a simple stroke of genius: create a medium-sized group that takes the best features of its larger and smaller cousins at the same time. His combo utilized brass -- like an orchestra -- but was more economical to maintain and lighter on its feet -- like the Cuban conjunto -- having more flexibility and sonic impact than a large orchestra, like that of César Concepción’s Orquesta Panamericana. Rafa Cortijo’s real liberating innovation was that he wanted his relatively small combo to play hot music spontaneously and to avoid the colder, rigid routines of the big bands that kept the musicians practically nailed in place on stage seated behind their music stands and written arrangements. If you look at vintage photos of Cortijo’s band, you’ll see they played standing up without sheet music. But beyond that, they were as kinetic as their playing was, often dancing about on stage, sometimes even joining the crowd on the dance floor. In this way, they broke down barriers and loosened up the interchange between the performer and the audience, bringing the informal beach jam session and carnival parade vibe of their youthful working-class origins to clubs, and eventually theaters and television. The Combo’s musical arrangements were more like basic outlines used as a template over which the musicians’ improvisations or the vocalist’s ‘inspirations’ would spar and weave around the song structure in a way that was thrilling to experience. It was this novel structural freedom and direct connection to the dancers that allowed Cortijo Y Su Combo to compete with the big names like Tito Puente, Tito Rodríguez and Machito.
Unfortunately, at the peak of popularity in 1962, Cortijo’s Combo fell nearly as quickly as it had risen. This is because the previously adoring Puerto Rican public and media was harshly unforgiving and rejected Rafa and lead singer Ismael “Maelo” Rivera when Rivera was implicated in drug-related legal charges stemming from cocaine possession at the airport in San Juan after a South American tour. Adding to their woes, Cortijo was then arrested for heroin soon after. In retrospect, the band’s rapid and immense fame, coupled with hefty earnings and international travel, all in a world that still saw them as the black underclass, may have been too much for the two to handle, and drugs did unfortunately play a part in this world they found themselves in. However, an essentially conservative 1950s island society was just not prepared for these revelations. The arrest and subsequent negative press, coupled with local record labels, radio, and performance venues turning their backs on them, resulted in a profound trauma that ultimately broke up the close-knit family that once was the Combo, forcing both Rivera and Cortijo to try their hand at making a new start in New York, where there were larger opportunities and a fresh scene to conquer.
As with many of the best sounding and popular Ansonia releases over the decades, "Noche De Temporal" (AL 1476) was recorded at Beltone Studios in Manhattan (the engineer was Irv Greenbaum) and sounds every bit as fantastic and diverse today as it must have half a century ago. Part of this is due to the tradition of excellent production values and recording conditions that label boss Ralph Pérez had always insisted on and his son-in-law Herman Glass continued after Pérez passed away in 1969. A portion of the credit for the album’s great sound must also be attributed to the top-notch band and repertoire of tunes Cortijo had assembled for the date. Unfortunately there is not a lot of information about who played on the sessions aside from the obvious album credits of Cortijo on percussion, Johnny Vega on lead vocals, and Javier Vázquez at the piano and handling arrangements. Vázquez has said he doesn’t recall exactly who he played with on each session as this period was a transitional time in Cortijo’s career and the band had a rather fluid membership. From the engineer’s notes we can determine the recording dates were January 15 and March 18, 1970; the numbers were recorded on a four-track with overdubs added here and there, and the final song order was completely different from the sequence in which they were originally recorded. In addition to the typical combo rhythm lineup of congas, bongos and cowbell, timbales, bass and piano, the engineer noted a brass section consisting of two trumpets, a trombone and a saxophone. Looking at the label copy, we see the album was released May 4, 1970.
The rhythms and genres on the record range from Cortijo’s beloved plena and bomba, which kick off the album, to the guaracha, mambo, descarga, guajira and guaguancó, which were more popular in the ballrooms and nightclubs of New York than the bomba and plena. There is also a genre Cortijo and Vázquez list as “Rítmo Meloso” which sounds like the Latin boogaloo, mixing rhythm and blues with the cha cha and guajira. Cortijo’s good friend Catalino “Tite” Curet Alonso comes through with five tunes, while the album’s lead vocalist Johnny Vega contributes the curious “Cortijo En Inglés,” a mambo with English lyrics that reach out to New York’s Anglophone audience. Vega would become a celebrated songwriter in his own right and gained a reputation in subsequent years singing with Mike Rosario’s La Muralla as well as penning “Popeye El Marino,” a big hit for Fania All-Star Adalberto Santiago in 1978. Among the top dance tracks are the band’s revival of Javier Vázquez’s super hot “Calefacción Aquí” (“Heat Here”) which was originally recorded on a salsa collectors’ favorite, the LP Latin Cuban Session (Fonseca, 1967), when Vázquez was with Cuban percussionist Osvaldo “Chihuahua” Martínez’s all-star descarga (jam session) outfit. Other recommended cuts include the stormy title track “Noche De Temporal” as well as “El Combo De Cortijo”, “Tú Y Tu Guarapo”, and the rightfully boastful “¿Quién Fue El Primero?” (“Who Was The First?”), a tasty descarga jam session piece that showcases Cortijo’s timbal playing to great advantage.