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Tito Puente, Royal T CD
Tito Puente, Night Beat & Mucho Puente, Plus CD

Review: In Review: The Many Shades Of Tito Puente

by Alfredo Cruz

Tito Puente. The mere mention of the name conjures up a whole universe of timeless musical expressions. The music of Tito Puente rings as genuinely true, moving, and creatively stimulating today as it did thirty or forty years ago. With well over 100 releases to his credit, Puente continues to crank ‘em out at a furious pace with no intention or indication of slowing down. His latest Concorde Picante release Royal T, is complemented by a simultaneous German release on Bear Family Records of two classic Puente big band recordings from the 1950’s, Night Beat and Mucho Puente, Plus. Both releases are a testament to Tito’s prowess for dynamic ‘jazz Latino’, and excellent examples of both vehicles for his music - the big band and the ensemble.

On Royal T, Tito continues to affirm his undisputed reign as “The King of Latin Music”. His combination of standards, originals, and new compositions are always great choices and provide an excellent vehicle for his instrument’s (his ensemble’s) expression. As a famous big-time jazz drummer friend of mine said, “, Puente cannot make a bad record.”

Puente’s inclusion on Royal T of the Charlie Parker classic "Donna Lee" kicks off the release with a furious intensity and drive that leaves the listener exhausted. Tito’s long known admiration for the compositions of pianist Horace Silver is once again stated with the interpretation of two Silver classics, Tokyo Blues and Virgo. Both are given an original and unique Puente treatment with the horn arrangements making the small ensemble sound like a big band — and both swing with a serious jazz groove. Tito has always been known to breathe new life into often overlooked jazz standards. Such is the case with his treatment of Charles Mingus’ "Moanin'". This Sam Burtis arrangement is a great vehicle for Bobby Porcelli’s baritone sax. Another classic given that Puente stamp of distinction is "Stompin' at the Savoy," which recalls the old ballroom era of the 1930’s in a distinct 90’s Latino fashion. The beautiful Eddy Martinez bolero "Encuentro" is followed by two Puente originals, "Mambo Gallego" and the title track followed by a tune by San Francisco Bay area pianist/composer Rebeca Mauleon called "Second Wind." The release closes out with a hard swinging composition and arrangements by the late Louie Ramirez called "Slam Bam."

One of the things that sets Puente’s music aside and gives it that originality and unique sound is the arrangements. Puente has successfully made that powerful musical transition of expression to his sidemen. Just like the greats (Duke, Basie, Macho, etc.) managed to maintain their musical identity through the arrangements of their musicians, as “chief arranger” on this recording, Tito has maintained total control of his sound and got exactly what he was looking for from his arrangers. Those contributing to this recording include: Michael Turre, Sonny Bravo, Marty Sheller, Eddy Martinez, Rebeca Mauleon, Louie Ramirez and, of course, Tito himself. All in all, Royal T is another tremendous effort by Tito and his ensemble.

Just as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Machito, Stan Kenton and others personalized the big band setting, Puente went beyond that single format to do the same with the small ensemble as well. While most musicians struggle their entire careers to master one style of music or another, Puente has, through the decades, easily vacillated back and forth with a seemingly effortless command.

While Duke, the Count, Machito and Kenton were perfecting the big band sound, a young Puente was absorbing it all and incorporating it into his own style and repertoire. What took the masters decades to perfect, Tito, at a relatively young age, quickly adapted into his own unique musical expressions.

For fans of classic Puente, Night Beat and Mucho Puente, Plus is a necessity, a must have, an indispensable commodity that chronicles a very important period in Tito’s career. Most of the recordings contained in this CD have been unavailable for many years, and some have never been released until now. Big band Latin Jazz classics like "Night Ritual," "Malibu Beat," "The Late, Late Scene," and "Mambo Beat" - with Puente doing an absolutely amazing solo on timbales are coupled on this reissue with previously unheard gems like the beautifully crafted saxophone feature "The Floozie" and the newly rediscovered "Noche de Ronda." The rest of the selections from the Mucho Puente release feature a somewhat lighter side of Puente’s musical experiments of the late 50’s. With much more marimba and vibraphone, these recordings with his orchestra explore a side of Tito which most people would not associate with him - strings. These lush and beautiful pieces show a sensitive side of Puente contrasting the hard-driving straight ahead big band horn charts of the Night Beat recordings. Throughout these recordings, Tito was surrounded by musical giants like Mongo Santamaria, Bobby Rodríguez, and future household names like a young trumpet wiz: “Doc” Severinson. All of the recordings contained in this collection recall an innovative and energetic period in American music. Shades of the 50’s and a time gone by are nonetheless sounding as fresh and innovative as they did then. This music, while recalling a bygone era, does not sound dated at all. On the contrary, like all classic music, it sounds better with time as our appreciation for it grows. Night Beat, Mucho Puente, Plus and Royal T are fabulous new additions and re-additions to a tremendous Puente catalog of music and necessary inclusions to the libraries of Tito fans everywhere.

For information junkies like myself, this reissue of Night beat, Mucho Puente, Plus gets an A+ for packaging. In this day and age of massive reissuing, the biggest problem I have is that most companies don’t go to the trouble of including liner notes, or even at least copying the original information off the album covers to include with the CDs. Many times you’ll get a disc with just a front and back cover with nothing inside. No problem with Night Beat - Mucho Puente, Plus. The 16-page booklet is filled with full-page black and white photos of Tito in the recording studio, playing, listening, laughing and smiling. The liner notes are as extensive as they come with complete personal listings, session dates and production info, composer/arranger credits, original release issue numbers, etc., etc. Puente even talks about his feelings towards these recordings after 35 years, saying “I couldn’t forget those albums even if I wanted to”. Thanks to Bear Family Records, now we won’t either. For fans who remember the original releases, this collection is a welcomed refresher. For those who are unfamiliar with this segment of Puente’s career, this collection is a compulsory installment in Latin music and jazz history. Night Beat and Mucho Puente, Plus is indeed a rediscovered musical treasure.

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