The integration of disco and orchestras was big business in the mid-’70s. At its best, this marriage of musical elegance and relentless groove perfected the glitz that made disco such a dominant force in popular music during this era. Philly soul’s creamy, orchestrally-inclined soundscapes led the way in the development of orchestral disco, with the instrumental outfit MFSB pioneering the sound.
However, the outfit that really perfected the concept of orchestral disco was the Salsoul Orchestra. It contained a lot of the DNA of MFSB – both outfits shared many of the same players, arrangers and producers – but it was Salsoul Orchestra that tailored its sounds directly for the dancefloor, bringing in a strong Latin music element that gave it a rhythmic complexity to match its instrumental breadth.
Salsoul Orchestra’s sound has been anthologized several times over the years but Groove Line Records’ The Salsoul Orchestra Story: 40th Anniversary Collection is the very best. Spread out across three compact discs and lavishly annotated, it takes a carefully sequenced trip through the group’s catalog captures all the classic tracks and a number of intriguing experiments that showcase the malleable nature of their epic sound.
Disc one is devoted to the “Vincent Montana era”: this arranger and vibraphone player was the original architect of the group’s sound, an accomplished arranger in the Philadelphia soul music world who essentially took a raw concept from the owners of Salsoul Records – “Philly soul + Latin music” – and transformed it into dancefloor gold. Montana lays out the heart of the sound in this compilation’s first track, “Salsoul Hustle”: the band grooves relentlessly, bolstered by an array of Latin percussion, but the sleek, string-accented melody carried atop the grooves has a delicacy and a yearning quality to it that puts it over the top.
From there, the first disc covers a set of diverse yet complimentary modes of orchestral disco. There are tracks like “Tangerine” and “Ritzy Mambo” that take an old standard or a traditional Latin music form and pump it up with Technicolor strings-and-horns elegance while also tailoring the groove to mid-’70s dance music needs. There’s also pure-blood dance fare like “Nice N’ Naasty” and “Runaway” that get a cinematic dimension from the orchestral elements deployed like surprise bursts of color. Even inherent novelties like covers of “Ease On Down The Road” or “Night Fever” get a lift from the rich arrangements and deft playing.
Montana departed Salsoul in 1978 but the label kept the Salsoul Orchestra banner aloft through 1982. This era is covered on the second disc, in which the maestro chores are handled by Philly soul vets Bunny Sigler and Ron Tyson, disco mix kingpin Tom Moulton and New York pop and soul producer Stan Lucas. A few tracks dispense with the orchestral stuff – “How High” and “Seconds” are two key examples – but they mostly stick with the template Montana established, offering big band disco with a soundtrack-ish flair in places. Epics like “Resorts International,” “212 North 12th” and “Take Some Time Out (For Love)” all showcase string-driven elegance while also weaving in updated electronics and touches of boogie.
The final disc is devoted to remixes old and new: Moulton returns here and is joined by heavyweights like Larry Levan, Danny Krivit and Walter Gibbons while Mike Maurro represents the new generation. Moulton’s remixes of tracks from the first Salsoul Orchestra represent the ’70s disco remix at its classiest, extending the joy of what already exists in the grooves, and Maurro’s newer mixes follow suit with other debut album selections (his mammoth take on “Tangerine” finds the hidden disco epic in one of the group’s more pop-oriented tracks). True to form, Gibbons does the most experimental work: his tension-and-release revamp of “Magic Bird Of Fire” sounds like a suspense soundtrack cue with a sizzling rhythm track.
The package is tied up neatly by a thick booklet of liner notes that covers the group’s history and makes an excellent case for the profound musicality under the surface of these cult favorite recordings.
Simply put, The Salsoul Orchestra Story: 40th Anniversary Collection is as lavish as a celebration of this group’s recordings should be and is assembled in a way that conveys the reasons this work deserves to live on for disco fanatics. Whether these songs are new or old to your ears, you can lost in the glamour and melodic warmth of this set for hours.