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.