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Tito Puente: Quatro: The Definitive Collection

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By the time of his death on June 1, 2000, at age 77, Ernesto Antonio “Tito” Puente Jr. was an iconic figure in American culture. But showmanship and celebrity might have obscured the fact that, like Armstrong and Dizzy, Puente was the transcendent artist disguised as entertainer.

Quatro: The Definitive Collection, impeccably packaged as a five-CD set, five LPs or digital download, is a reminder of Puente’s musical talent and his contributions to American music.

An extraordinary percussionist, arranger and bandleader, Puente stayed close to the roots while being an innovator. But onstage and on record, he also knew how to play to his audience in el barrio and the dancers at the Palladium, then turn around and invite along an intrigued but uninformed mainstream public. That’s quite a trick in any musical language. For Afro-Caribbean Latin music, it was invaluable.

Released to coincide with would have been his 90th birthday, Quatro draws from one of Puente’s most creative and productive periods. It includes Cuban Carnival (1956), Night Beat (1957), Dance Mania (1958) and the seemingly cursed Revolving Bandstand (1960). The set also includes a bonus disc featuring Puente’s early hit “Ran Kan Kan” (1949); alternate takes and extra tracks from the Revolving Bandstand sessions; and outtakes of “Pa’Los Rumberos,” a burner from Cuban Carnival rediscovered decades later by rock fans through Santana.

On Cuban Carnival Puente sets the tone with the opening “Eleguá Changó,” a brassy, orchestral take on ritual music from the Afro-Cuban Orisha religion (also known as Santería), blending creative risk taking and tradition, sophisticated big-band writing with earthy, muscular drumming. The percussion section here, comprising Mongo Santamaría, Carlos “Patato” Valdés, Willie Bobo, Cándido Camero and, of course, Puente, can put people to dance and raise the dead while at it. More than 50 years later, Cuban Carnival and the superb Dance Mania, a Whitman’s Sampler of Afro-Cuban dance rhythms including mambo, cha cha chá, son montuno and guaguancó, remain state-of-the-art Latin dance music.

On Night Beat, a follow-up to Puente Goes Jazz (1956), Puente, who grew up in Spanish Harlem listening to Latin music and jazz, claims his right to visit the other side of the street without apologies or special dispensations. “For a long time American bands have been playing Latin music. Now, we as a Latin band want to play jazz,” Puente says in the original liner notes. “But play it so jazz comes first with the Latin additions just that-additions.” With that in mind, he not only calls on arrangers A.K. Salim, Marty Holmes and Gene Roland but also assembles a rhythm section that includes Bobo, Mongo and Julito Collazo as well as drummer Jimmy Cobb and guitarist Barry Galbraith.

Revolving Bandstand, featuring both Puente’s and trombonist Buddy Morrow’s orchestras, will be for many the revelation of this set. It’s a daring collaboration featuring two big bands of different musical styles playing side by side. Well thought out and impeccably executed, the music here, including readings of “Autumn Leaves,” “Blue Moon” and “Harlem Nocturne,” moves fluidly from swing to Latin grooves and back. Unfortunately, caught in the internal politics of the label at the time, the album died in the cutout bins before getting a fair hearing by the public. (It was rereleased decades later as part of RCA’s Tropical Series.) The outtakes of “Pa’Los Rumberos” on the bonus CD offer an illuminating glimpse of Puente at work.

Tito Puente knew how to play it up as a showman and celebrity. But as Quatro: The Definitive Collection reminds us, his music was, and remains, serious business.

Originally Published