Founded in San Juan by bass player/composer Gary Núñez, Plena Libre is well into a 15-year voyage that has seen the orchestra re-invent the sound of Puerto Rico’s plena and bomba traditions. During that time, Gary and his group have recorded 12 stellar albums which have garnered four Grammy nominations. In taking their unparalleled live show to the world, the group has spread the gospel of their unique Afro-Rican sound on international jazz festival stages from Montreal to Milan and Denmark to Veracruz.
Since their last studio recording, 2006’s Grammy- and Latin Grammy-nominated Evolución, Plena Libre have continued to add contemporary cumbia, merengue, salsa and other Afro-Caribbean sounds into their mix, creating a unique sofrito borinqueño that is pushing the island’s roots music well into the future. With Núñez now securing some of the Puerto Rico’s top players for his band, Plena Libre has aptly transcended their humble beginnings – evolving into a powerhouse force that is undoubtedly one of the heavy-weight live orchestras on the current Latin music scene.
Inspired by the concerts during Plena Libre’s lengthy Summer 2007 North American tour, Nuñez began to ponder how best to capture his group’s live energy. “This idea of a live recording was something that I had been pushed to do for years”, says Gary, “but just in the past year or two, the personnel and the chemistry in the band had gelled so much that I knew that there would never be a better time. The evolution of the musical sound, and the excitement, and energy of Plena Libre’s live shows over this past year was something I honestly had never experienced with the group before. I knew this sound had to be captured right now!…. But when, and where?.....that was the question.”
The opportunity arose in November 2007 when Plena Libre was invited to perform five concerts in Monterrey, Mexico at the World Forum of Cultures and Education Festival, organized by UNESCO to promote world peace and understanding. “We were absolutely thrilled to be invited to play Puerto Rican music at such a special event”, recalled Nuñez, “And this seemed to be both the right place and the right time to do the live CD. Unfortunately, however, we had no time to prepare for a live recording, so we just left for Mexico, without making any formal advance arrangements,” Gary notes. “After the first two performances – we were all so charged I just became convinced that we had to record these shows. My wife Valerie and I started looking in the Monterrey phone book for recording studios and, when we came to one called ‘Cielo’ (“Heaven” in English), I just felt that this name had to be a sign! We found this big beautiful studio with an amazing engineer. By the grace of God, he had just had another job fall through so he was available. On terribly short notice, he was willing to bring all the remote equipment to Monterrey’s Parque Fundidora in time for our final shows. The whole experience just fell into place so beautifully and seamlessly, it was unbelievable.”
Plena Al Salsero, the group’s 13th release, truly captures the music of Plena Libre as it should be experienced, live and brimming with the band’s overwhelming spirit and musical chemistry. As Gary said when he first heard the recording back in San Juan: “This train will just run you over.”
Núñez should know what he’s talking about – he helped build the train. Alongside his wife (and band manager) Valerie Cox, he has charted his band through a career that reflects a lifelong commitment to the roots music of Puerto Rico. “When I was 20 years old,” remembers Gary,” I met Noel Hernández, who is now my compadre. He opened my eyes to my Putero Rican heritage, got me into studying my history and my musical roots. I realized that back then, as much as Puerto Rican musicians were known worldwide in many fields of music, the music that was truly traditional to Puerto Ric