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Latin Jazz Collection Begins With Tito Puente

For those of you considering how to start your collection of Latin Jazz recordings, begin by selecting one or all of these eight albums by Tito The Latin Jazz Corner blog points out in the following article:

"Latin Jazz Corner readers awarded a major honor this past December when they chose our first entry into the LJC Hall of Fame, with an overwhelming amount of votes going to legendary timbalero, vibraphonist, composer, arranger, and bandleader Tito Puente. More than any other Latin Jazz artist before or after him, Puente symbolized the passion, finesse, musicality, and hard working aesthetic that became the cornerstone of the Latin Jazz sound. Puente’s skills as a performer are legendary, defining a complete school of timbale performance practice with a dazzling combination of technique, clave driving phrasing, and flash. His compositions and arrangements gave the world the big band mambo sound and solidified the marriage between jazz and Afro-Cuban rhythms. Puente made the music his life, recording over 100 albums as a leader and spending most years performing hundreds of times around the world. His public face reached out to the world, making a good-natured connection with the general population without sacrificing the integrity of his musical personality. Without Tito Puente, it would be fair to say that Latin Jazz would sound much different and hold a very different place in the overall musical world.

Puente went through several musical stages in his career, and fortunately, a great deal of his output was recorded. His early days as one of the Palladium’s “Big 3” are well documented, providing recordings with plenty of big band mambo swing. Puente was young and adventurous at this time, taking chances on percussive projects or recordings that experimented with mixtures of jazz and Latin music. The record companies placed their faith in Puente’s musicianship and recorded him through many of his explorations. In the 1960s and 1970s New York salsa ruled the Latin music world; many of the genre’s leaders took inspiration from Puente. It was a natural transition for Puente to jump headfirst into this musical trend, once again becoming a leader among Latin music artists. Late in his career he shrunk his group and focused upon Latin Jazz, releasing several outstanding albums on the Concord Picante label. Puente found a spot in many jazz festivals around the world and encountered a broad audience ready to embrace his work. By the time that Puente died in 2000, his massive output as a bandleader left us with a strong picture of his many musical personalities.

There are so many incredible Puente albums out there; it’s next to impossible to narrow it down to a handful of great albums. So don’t think of this as a “best of” list, instead think of it as a starting point that will launch you into a world of important Latin Jazz. I’ve tried to choose albums from different eras of Puente’s career, reflecting his many approaches to both jazz and dance music. Make sure that you’ve got these albums in your collection and then keep exploring – there’s a world of Puente waiting!

1., 2., & 3.
The Complete 78s, Volumes 1, 2, & 3
By the late 1940s, Puente’s band had caught fire among the New York community and record companies realized that he represented a gold mine just waiting to be harvested; as a result, he was recorded extensively during this time. RCA captured Puente leaning mostly on the big band mambo sound that fueled the dance craze, giving us long playing recordings such as Dance Mania, Cuban Carnival, and Night Beat. They allowed Puente to step outside the mainframe and into pure Latin culture occasionally with albums like Top Percussion, but this was a rare occasion. Tico Records recognized the fact that there was another side to Puente’s music, aimed at the Latino music market. They captured Puente at his best, performing Cuban dance music that swung with a frenzied heat, recording 156 tracks between 1949 and 1955. Tico released these recordings in the 78 format, with varying amounts of quality supporting the presentation. Fania later purchased Tico, and although these recordings stayed in their archives, they were lost as the long-playing record became the format of choice. Emusica bought the Fania catalog in 2005, and as they began remastering and distributing classic Fania recordings, they recognized the importance of these early Puente recordings. Fortunately, they gathered all the essential tracks and documented the collection with liner notes by Joe Conzo, giving us an important historical snapshot of early Puente. One hundred fifty six (156) tracks equals a whole lot of music, so Emusica broke the collection into 4 double CD sets; at this point, we’ve seen volumes one through three. The repertoire provides an unparalleled look at Puente’s early career, and displays several sides of his musical personality. Early versions of many well-known Puente classics show up here - “Barbarabatiri” sits on Volume 1, “El Mambo Diablo” and “Mambo Birdland” arrive in Volume 2, while “Philadelphia Mambo” and “Ran Kan Kan” can be found on Volume 3. There’s plenty of big band mambo tracks, from “Mambo Gallego” to “Mambo Rama” and “Mambo City.” The dance tracks fill a good chunk of the collections, with some fantastic vocals from Vicentico Valdes on tracks such as “Cuero Na’ Ma’,” “Ta’ Bueno Pa’ Bailar,” and “Por La Manaña.” Puente’s love for jazz blossoms on several tracks as he places several standards into an Afro-Cuban context - “I Get A Kick Out Of You,” Autumn Leaves,” and “Caravan” all make appearances. The Puente band consistently sounds fresh, inspired, professional, and running on a creative high, delivering the goods that made Puente a legend. Unfortunately, Emusica didn’t take the time to properly remaster all these tracks so the sound quality ranges from decent to downright awful - a true crime. Still, for those of us that didn’t live through that era or can’t afford to track down original 78s, these collections are an indispensable piece of history.

Dance Mania
When people discuss the big band mambo sound of the 1950s, they’re describing slamming Afro-Cuban percussion, blaring horn parts, impassioned vocals, and jazz improvisation - a sound perfectly demonstrated by Puente’s Dance Mania. The name aptly describes the music, with most tracks delivering addictive mambo dance tracks with inspired vocals by Santos Colon. So many classic Puente compositions reached the general public through this album, including popular dance tracks such as “El Cayuco,” “Mambo Gozon,” “Cuando Te Vea,” and “Saca Tu Mujer,” as well as instrumental mambos such as “Hong Kong Mambo.” Puente also arranges compositions from other musicians, infusing his characteristic sound into Francisco Aguabella’s “Complication” and “Agua Limpia Todo” as well as “3-D Mambo” by Ray Santos. The rhythm section rages forward with a youthful energy, driven by Puente on timbales, Julio Collazo and Ray Barretto on congas, Ray Conception on piano, and Bobby Rodriguez on bass. Puente uses a four trumpet and four saxophone instrumentation, delivering a big band sound that sends the arrangements through the roof. This was a common instrumentation at the time found in the Machito band as well; it’s a credit to Puente’s arranging skills that he was able to create such a huge big band sound without trombones. Dance Mania presents an outstanding example of the Puente band during the Palladium era, sitting on the cutting edge of a sound that defined a generation of Latin music and planted the seeds for today’s thriving Latin Jazz scene.

5. Top Percussion
Puente recorded Dance Mania in three sessions during November and December of 1957; earlier in the year, he took a completely different approach, focusing upon the music’s Cuban roots with Top Percussion. Where Dance Mania represented Puente’s significance on the Palladium big band mambo scene, Top Percussion places him among the most knowledgeable Afro-Cuban percussionists of the 1950s. The album took several of the generation’s top percussionists and put them in the same room to record Afro-Cuban folklore and some straight-up percussion descargas. The performers read like a who’s-who list of percussion legends, including Puente, Francisco Aguabella, Mongo Santamaria, Willie Bobo, and Julio Collazo. They take turns singing, holding down rhythms, and playing lead drum on several folkloric pieces such as “Eleguara,” “Bragada,” “Oguere Madeo” and “Obaricoso.” Santamaria cuts loose with a smoking conga solo over a charging comparsa rhythm on “Conga Alegre” showcasing the chops and phrasing that made him a legend. Puente balances the folkloric tracks with a number of burning descargas, adding only a bass player into the percussion mix. “Four By Two, Part 1″ and Four By Two, Part 2″ serve as a showcase for Puente, who takes no prisoners and demonstrates why he justifiably earned the reputation as “El Rey.” “Hot Timbales” allows Puente to solo furiously over a maddening pace while “Mon-Ti” puts his improvisatory skills in a more moderate son montuno, held down by Mongo Santamaria. The classic “Ti-Mon-Bo” rides over a catchy cha cha cha bass line, providing opportunities for Puente, Santamaria, and Bobo to all make percussive statements. At a time when Latin dance music thrived in the commercial world, Top Percussion was a daring statement that proved Puente stood upon solid roots.

Homenaje a Beny Moré
Although his band continued to work consistently, Puente’s recorded output slowed during the mid-1970s; Homenaje a Beny Moré marked a return to the creative energy and drive that marked the early Puente work. Beny More’s repertoire makes a great launching point for Puente who infuses the well-known songs with his characteristic jazz tinge, syncopated horn parts, and tightly constructed forms. The combination of the familiar songs such as “Yiri Yiri Bon,” “Francisco Guayabal,” “Bonito Y Sabroso,” and “Baila Mi Son” with Puente’s distinctive twist make the album a simultaneously fun and exciting listen. This is a sparkling dance release with several important vocalists contributing their signature sound and personalities to Puente’s richly arranged tracks. Celia Cruz, Ismael Quintana, Cheo Feliciano, Santos Colon, and Junior Gonzalez all make appearances on the album, paying tribute to the influential Cuban vocalist. Puente’s band swings hard with a young cast of now legendary musicians including percussionist Jose Madera, saxophonist Bobby Porcelli, pianist Sonny Bravo, and saxophonist Mitch Frohman. Puente sounds in top form here, pushing the groove with a fiery passion. Just listen to his inspired riffing throughout “Que Bueno Baila Usted” - this is Puente at full throttle. The band plays with a power characteristic of 1970s salsa, but there’s something more here - they’re playing a group of songs that they love and putting their unique imprint upon them. The results are classic Puente.

Salsa Meets Jazz
Puente joined the Concord Picante label in 1982, recording a series of albums with a small Latin Jazz group, including this high energy set from 1990. Several other Puente albums explored the crossroads between Afro-Cuban rhythms and jazz harmonies, but this recording nails it on the head. Arrangements of “Corner Pocket,” “Con Alma,” and “Carioca” sound perfectly natural in this context, and Puente’s band attacks them with class and style. The salsa piece of the equation isn’t simply relegated to Afro-Cuban rhythms behind jazz standards; Puente proves that he’s the real deal with danceable versions of “Guajira Soul,” and “Salsa Caliente.” Jazz improvisation stands as a priority throughout the album, with plenty of solo space for Puente regulars saxophonist Mario Rivera and pianist Sonny Bravo; Puente himself sounds outstanding on jazz vibes, spinning lines that place him among the legendary jazz vibraphonists. Puente always carried a top-notch band full of outstanding soloists, but this recording took his performance to new level of excitement with the inclusion of alto saxophonist Phil Woods. There’s equal amounts of shimmering beauty and improvisational fire in Woods’ playing on tracks such as “Pannonica,” and “Consternation.” Woods and the Puente band both sound inspired by their collaboration, a true sign of success in this setting. Puente’s Concord Picante output generally stands at a very high level of musicianship - there’s not a bad apple in the bunch - but Salsa Meets Jazz stands apart as a highpoint of his journey on the fence between Latin and Jazz.

Obra Maestra (Masterpiece)
Puente worked with a ferocious momentum until his dying day, as evidenced on his last recording a collaboration with fellow legend pianist Eddie Palmieri on the 2000 recording Obra Maestra (Masterpiece). Both musicians share bandleader duties, composing, arranging, and leading a smoking hot big band featuring the best of New York’s Latin Jazz scene. There’s traces of big band mambo jazz, straight ahead New York salsa, Afro-Cuban folklore, and more; in every way it’s a mixture of Puente and Palmieri’s approaches. A variety of vocalists grace the album, with appearances by Jerry Medina on the jazzy “Muddy’s Club Blues In Weinhelm,” Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez on “Marchando Bien,” Oscar D’Leon on “Paris Blues,” Herman Olivera on “Yambu Pa’Inglaterra,” and so much more. The band takes the time to engage in some serious descargas as well, stretching their jazz chops on “Picadillo Jam,” and “El Puente Mundial.” The band’s fresh musicians burn with intensity, but both Puente and Palmieri stand tall among the soloists, delivering improvisations that mask their age. Best of all, there’s no careful production values or commercially tinged angles; Puente and Palmieri simply go for it, showing us that there’s no replacement for experience and passion. In every way, Obra Maestra (Masterpiece) is a fitting final statement by El Rey. There’s more to this album than mere sentimentality though, it’s a solid statement that sits among the best of Puente’s work, full of fire and musicality." (source: - "The Latin Jazz Corner" blog)

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