Like father, like son

The Spanish Harlem Orchestra leaps before the Unisphere in Flushing Meadows Corona Park. Photo courtesy of Spanish Harlem Orchestra
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Héctor Colón was only 13 years old when he first became enamored with the prospect of becoming a trumpet player.

“It was the sound of it that just attracted me so much,” said Colón, an Astoria resident. “It was a visceral thing.”

It probably didn’t hurt matters that his father, Héctor Colón Sr., is a longtime trumpeter, specializing in Latino music, both in his native Puerto Rico and in New York City, where he settled with his family in Flushing.

“I think that my love for the trumpet started from the very first note I heard, but that happened because I heard my dad practicing at home” said Colón.

The senior Colón, now in his mid-70s and living back in Puerto Rico, was an active session player during the 1950s through the ’70s, which many consider the heyday of Latino music. He gigged with — or at least hung out in the same musical circles as — singer Pete Rodriguez, known as “El Conde” (The Count), Willie Rosario, Gilberto Colon, among many others.

Though he always kept his day job, playing the trumpet and preserving the legacy of Latino music remained his passion.

On Sunday, Dec. 4, when the junior Colón takes the stage at Queens Theatre, it will be as the lead trumpeter of the renowned Spanish Harlem Orchestra, a 13-member band also obsessed with preserving — and at the same time reinterpreting — Latino music.

“I crossed paths with Héctor’s father and knew him as a musician on the Latino music scene,” said pianist and bandleader Oscar Hernández, who, along with producer Aaron Luis Levinson, founded the Spanish Harlem Orchestra. “It’s kind of a beautiful thing that the same music his father played 30 years ago, Héctor is now playing with the Spanish Harlem Orchestra.”

The group’s first recording, Un Gran Dia en el Barrio (A Great Day in the Neighborhood), released in 2002, is filled with nostalgic but fresh takes on classics by Tito Puente, Ray Barretto and Willie Colón and Hector Lavoe, among many others. Like all four of SHO’s albums, it was nominated for a Grammy Award (two of their recordings have won the prize).

All 13 members of the orchestra either live or grew up in New York City, said Hernández.

Expanding tradition

While the sound of his father’s horn may have been Héctor Colón’s muse, the family’s move to America when the young Héctor was just 5 afforded him the chance to take a more schooled approach to the instrument.

He played with the Parsons Junior High School band and was picked for a boroughwide band that rehearsed each weekend.

“Getting into that boroughwide band wasn’t easy to do; you had to audition,” he said with no small amount of pride. “I met kids with all kinds of musical traditions. That’s what makes it so easy to travel to so many different countries today. Living in Queens I had friends from all over the world.”

Colón earned a bachelor’s degree from the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and then a master’s in composition from Queens College-CUNY Graduate Center.

“My father was pretty amazed that I would want to compose classical music,” said Colón. “But he was very proud and curious about what I was learning. Everything from different types of instruments to different methods.”

Though he played gigs throughout his years in school, Colón decided to — at least temporarily — postpone pursuing a doctorate.

The son of a trumpeter had yearned for the stage.

“The thought of a life not performing was not appealing to me,” he said.

So, in the early ‘90s, Colón began “living the life of a New York City musician, playing anywhere and everywhere I could.”

He played live with Johnny Pacheco and Ray Barretto, among others. He also played on some recordings from a variety of musical traditions.

“I was working all the time,” he said, recalling one marathon in which he played 10 shows in two nights with Barretto.

“I remember one weekend where I played three Salsa dura (hard Salsa) concerts in L.A. on a Saturday and then flew back to New York to play at an opera on Sunday.”

Hernández first asked him to sit in with the Spanish Harlem Orchestra in 2004. He played on the band’s third album, “United We Swing” in 2007 and became a full-time band member in 2009. “This band lays it down,” he said. “They are as real as it gets.”

The significance of returning to play a concert in Flushing is not lost on Colón.

“Queens, in a lot of ways, represents the beginning of my musical studies,” said the horn player. “Queens was the first place I heard the trumpet. It is where I started to get serious about studying the trumpet.”

And though he will be playing with Hernández and other world-class musicians, his mind is sure to drift to a fellow trumpeter.

“I never do a gig without thinking about my dad,” he said. “He is a big part of my career. Just like this band, my old man and I are just trying to preserve a musical tradition we love.”

If You Go

Spanish Harlem Orchestra

Queens Theatre

Flushing Meadows Corona Park

14 United Nations Ave. S, Flushing

Sunday, Dec. 4, 2 p.m. and 6 p.m.

Tickets are $39

(718) 760-0064

Updated 9:51 am, November 28, 2011
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