Jazz had Dukes and Counts. Latin music had one King. And hype aside, by the time of his death in 2000 at age 77, Tito Puente was an icon.
Puente, who would have turned 90 on April 20, had the substance and the style. For more than 50 years, he was a part of every major development in Latin music in the United States, from the mambo craze and the Latin rock phenomenon to salsa, Latin jazz, Rickymania and hip-hop.
He was a flamboyant, engaging performer, directing his band from behind timbales at the front of the stage. Offstage, he was the big star who never forgot his roots in Spanish Harlem. He once called himself “just a street musician from the neighborhood.”
Still, his name became a shorthand for Latin music and often, by extension, Latin culture. He appeared on Sesame Street and The Cosby Show and as a character on The Simpsons.
What sometimes gets lost in the culture of celebrity is that, like Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie, Tito Puente was a transcendent artist disguised as entertainer.
The release of Quatro: The Definitive Collection, a five-CD set, five-LP or digital download timed to commemorate his birthday, is a reminder of his brilliance as percussionist, composer, arranger and bandleader.
While called “definitive,” this set, in fact, highlights only one period in Puente’s long career, from 1949 to 1960, when he was signed to RCA Victor. It was an often contentious relationship (some at the label called Puente “Little Caesar”), but it also produced enduring masterpieces that celebrated the roots of the music while pushing innovation. It is a tribute to the force of Puente’s personality but also to his understanding of his audiences in El Barrio and at the Palladium Ballroom and how far to take them before tacking back closer to mainstream tastes.
Quatro includes two exceptional dance recordings, Cuban Carnival (1956) and Dance Mania (1958), and excellent explorations of jazz in Night Beat (1957) and Revolving Bandstand (1960), a daring and little-known project featuring two big bands. The set also includes a bonus disc with Ran Kan Kan (1949), Puente’s early hit, as well as alternate takes and extra tracks from Revolving Bandstand.
“My selections here were not based on commercial potential but artistic value and influence,” says Anthony Gonzalez, curator and producer of Quatro and Sony Music Latin A&R executive. “If they happened be commercial it was simply because people enjoyed it. These are not only perhaps the most influential, most important albums in his career but in Latin music period.”
Says Puente’s long-time friend Joe Conzo, author of Mambo Diablo: My Journey with Tito Puente and co-producer of the set: “This period represents Tito’s creative years. These recordings show how Tito was growing, from album to album, and it shows his genius.”
Cuban Carnival is also a good example of Puente’s shrewd balancing of tradition and innovation. The opening track, Eleguá Changó, is an interpretation of ritual music from the Afro-Cuban Orisha religion (also known as Santería), and Puente makes it both richly complex and danceable.
“Nobody would play something like that in those days,” says Conzo. “It was unheard of.”