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.”
Trumpeter, conguero and bandleader Jerry González astutely noted in an interview cited in Steven Loza’s Tito Puente and the Making of Latin Music (University of Illinois Press, 1999) that Puente’s orchestra was “like the [Count] Basie band, a riff band. … Puente was listening to the band as a rhythm player and interpreting the band as a drum.”
One can hear that approach in his use of brass and horns. And this orchestra features an extraordinary percussion section: Mongo Santamaría, Carlos “Patato” Valdés, Willie Bobo, Cándido Camero and, of course, Puente himself. Cuban Carnival is a classic.
Puente grew up listening to Latin music and jazz, and in Night Beat, which continues the explorations of Puente Goes Jazz (1956), he reclaims a birthright.
“For a long time American bands have been playing Latin music,” Puente said in the original liner notes. “Now, we as a Latin band want to play jazz, but play it so jazz comes first with the Latin additions just that — additions.”
The band’s rhythm section includes Latin stalwarts such as Bobo and Santamaría but also drummer Jimmy Cobb (of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue fame). Doc Severinsen (who went on to direct Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show band) and trombonist Eddie Bert (Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk ) are among the soloists.
On the other side of the spectrum, Dance Mania, arguably Puente’s greatest artistic and commercial success, plays like an evening at the Palladium , the legendary Manhattan dance hall, as it moves forcefully but smoothly from mambo and guaguancó to cha cha chás and boleros.
“The way Tito explained to me is that he recorded for dancers,” Conzo said in an earlier interview. “ Always.”
Revolving Bandstand features two full bands, Puente’s and trombonist Buddy Morrow’s, playing side by side in the studio, the music flowing from swing to Latin grooves and back. The arranging and playing turn what could have been a gimmick into a revealing exploration of the music. Autumn Leaves, for example, featuring Puente on vibes, opens as a slow mambo and seamlessly becomes a swing piece before returning to a Latin feel.
“This was so creative,” Conzo says. “It was the first and as far as I know, the only time, two bands of different idioms, Latin and jazz, were in the studio at the same time.”
Unfortunately, the album died in the cutout bins before it could get a fair hearing.
“Right when it was released in 1960, there was a change of administration at the corporate level,” explains Gonzalez, of Sony Music. “And the story goes the head of RCA at the time wanted to bring his own stable of artists and he was not very interested in Tito Puente. So there was minimal manufacturing, no distribution, the company didn’t bother to promote it. … Most of Tito’s fans didn’t know anything about it.”
The most intriguing tracks on the bonus CD are the start-and-stop outtakes of Pa’ Los Rumberos, a piece from Cuban Carnival that became a Latin rock hit in Santana’s version decades later.
For some of us, it might be hard to hear what was wrong in those takes, but Puente knew how it was supposed to sound and how to get it, and he insisted until he did. Showmanship is fine, but that is how he became immortal.