Alex Torres & His Latin Orchestra in stride after 42 years

From the top of the set at the Pony Barn at June Farms in West Sand Lake on a cool, sunny Wednesday evening, a large crowd jumped to Latin beats in their seats over drinks and arepas, with a few couples immediately taking to the floor . Half an hour later, the barn was buzzing with salsa, cha-cha, bachata and laughter. And the dance floor was full.

Alex Torres & His Latin Orchestra know how to get the party started – they’ve been doing it for 42 years.

Torres now remembers the origin story with a smile. After an Amsterdam high school music teacher kicked Torres out of class for asking why the marching band didn’t play the best music, his mother told him, “Let’s make your own fucking band.”

So, at 16, he did.

Alex Torres & His Latin Orchestra began as a two-room band with Bronx-born Torres and his then 14-year-old schoolmate Robert Lopez in 1980. The band grew, and soon the “family Puerto Rican Partridge” traveled to places as far-flung as Hartford, Connecticut, in a repainted school bus with no power steering and no commercial driver’s license (and somehow lived to tell the tale). Today, the 12-piece orchestra celebrates its 42nd anniversary with the forthcoming release of the album “Son 40”.

“They have a very strong following,” said Mayra Zequeida, director of marketing for Rivers Casino in Schenectady, where the band plays regularly for the casino’s new Latin nights. “They create a fun and safe environment at our events and connect with the crowd…They have such a passion for their music and they are such perfectionists.”

It’s not usual for a local band to last more than four decades, especially one rooted in the region like Alex Torres & His Latin Orchestra. But Torres’ ability to see and fill a void in the capital region’s music scene, combined with his business acumen, kept the band together, even well into 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic 19 has discontinued live concerts.

While other artists shifted to virtual performances during quarantine, Torres wasn’t interested in reducing the band’s sound and spirit to a screen.

“With Latinos, especially Puerto Ricans, music is not a luxury, it’s part of our DNA,” he said. “We wake up and put on merengue – you don’t need Ivory soap or coffee when you have merengue… so I started thinking, ‘How is this going to work with this computer model? ?'”

Instead of broadcasting home concerts, the band started “Son 40”. It was recorded in what Torres called the “freaking Incubator”, his resounding laughter bouncing off the pale orange walls of the home studio which, on a recent visit, were lined with photos, newspaper clippings, instruments and discs. The studio is on the second floor of a detached two-story garage in his Scotia home with a secluded recording booth on the first floor. One by one, during the recording of “Son 40”, the musicians came near the booth to record their parts, communicating by videoconference with Torres upstairs.

“Not only were we able to play, but we made it work,” said Torres, who also spent 2020 letting venues know the band would be ready whenever gigs could resume, which led to to the band’s busiest touring season to date.

Alex Torres and his Latin orchestra

Next shows: 8:00 p.m. Thursday at Rivers Casino, Schenectady

3-5pm, Saturday September 17 at Culturefest, Schenectady


The COVID-19 pandemic delayed production of the album, and the band wanted “Son 40” pressed on vinyl, furthering the delays as Torres searched for a company capable of churning out a high volume of records. The album will finally be released on October 27, a day before the band’s official 42nd anniversary.

The title “Son 40” has a double meaning. The first is its literal translation: “They are 40”. It celebrates four decades of opportunity and achievement, including the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts; perform in China; performing for then-President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton at the New York State Democratic Convention; share the stage with big names like Tito Puente and the Count Basie Orchestra; partnered with New York State’s Arts in Education to bring Latin music education to schools; 14 studio albums; and music featured on shows such as “Ugly Betty” and “Shameless.”

“Even his detractors can’t deny what he accomplished through sheer tenacity,” Lopez said between sets at June Farms on Wednesday. “In 42 years, he has never deviated from his vision.”

“Son” also refers to an early genre of Cuban music that was a precursor to salsa. The album is not strictly sound because the band is not strictly a Latin music genre, but naming the album “Son 40” speaks to the musicians’ connection to the history and culture of music that they play. The band’s original music draws on Afro-Caribbean origins, including salsa, merengue, bomba, cha-cha and plena, colored with the brassy sounds of music by Duke Ellington and Count Basie that Torres listened to alongside Spanish radio stations growing up.

“We’re sincere in what we do,” Torres said. “Our original songs are our Mona Lisas.”

Watching Torres perform those tunes at June Farms’ Pony Bar was like cardio exercise by proxy. He is rarely still as he jumps from one instrument to another. It squirms and sparkles around its white electric double bass; shaking the maracas becomes a whole-body act. Torres even came out for a song to kick off a move on the dance floor and encourage those shyly rocking in the corner to join in. For Alex Torres & His Latin Orchestra, music is made to be experienced.

“If people aren’t dancing, I’m going to quit,” Torres said. It may have taken 30 minutes to fill the dance floor at The Pony Barn in the first set, but it only took 30 seconds in the second set.

The easy camaraderie between musicians has helped sustain the orchestra over the years, even when musicians have cycled away to start families or set off for new careers. As Lopez puts it, they’re a “dysfunctional bunch of brothers.” The band is a mix of self-taught musicians like Torres, who figured out how to play bass on an old beat up guitar with the highest tuned strings removed, and formally trained musicians.

“When the music is in your blood and you can articulate the notes, you can go fret by fret until you get it,” said Lopez, who learned to play guitar as a teenager at the sides of Torres. “We learned as we went along.”

But much of the credit for the band’s enduring legacy goes to Torres’ leadership. He’ll cook for the band before each rehearsal and whip out “the Incubator Juice,” a bottle of Mount Gay rum, when inspiration needs a boost or memories kick into high gear. “Family” and “group” are interchangeable when talking about the group. But Torres also knows when it’s time to get everyone focused and working.

“He’s a lot of fun, but he’s also very professional,” said trumpeter Terry Gordon, who joined in 1998. “He expects professionalism.”

While Torres is the conductor, he knows he is collaborating with exceptional musicians and ensuring that their talents and knowledge are welcomed. Tyler Giroux, the band’s trombonist who joined the band in 2018, learned not only to cook authentic empanadas and mofongo, but also to apply his formal songwriting training to a new style alongside Torres. Through a series of Facebook Messenger videos and FaceTime calls, Giroux helped Torres with some of the arrangements for the new album.

“I feel like I have a voice in the sound of the band,” Giroux said. “That’s why he’s had a group for so long. He makes everyone feel important.

The almost 59-year-old has no plans to slow down any time soon. He is writing a book and working to expand the educational reach of the group. The band continues to tour the tri-state area, and “Son 40” won’t be their last album.

“I always said there was a place I wanted to die,” Torres said. “I’m very macabre, but I want to die on stage.”

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