Tito's Top Percussion

The second-floor nightclub at Yuca restaurant on Lincoln Road is no ballroom; it's more of a low-ceilinged cocktail lounge. When Tito Puente and his big band played a brief set there last Thursday, the thirteen band members were tightly packed on the small stage. The brass section had little elbow room behind their music stands, and six-foot-five-inch piano player Sonny Bravo (who grew up in Miami) sat hunched over an electronic keyboard instead of his usual baby grand. The phalanx of guests in front of the stage swayed back and forth, separated from the band by a wall of television cameramen. Even the most adventurous in the crowd marked their dance steps in place. No one dared attempt a dip or a twirl. But those closest to the music raised their hands in the air to salute the mambo king.

For all the cramped quarters mattered to the band's swinging performance, they might have been back in the heyday of New York City's Palladium, the mambo palace where Puente headlined in the Fifties along with Machito and Tito Rodriguez. At Yuca the musicians launched into a number from that era -- Francisco Aguabella's saucy "Complicacion," with Puente's characteristic big sound and nervous percussive electricity -- followed with the popping cha-cha-cha "El Cayuco." Frankie Morales, a Puerto Rican sonero who has recently joined the band, took the vocal, and local trombonist Juan Pablo Torres stepped in for a solo that quoted the hook from the Puente classic "Oye Como Va." Then Celia Cruz and Oscar D'Leon came up to join Puente, laughing and improvising the lyrics of a tribute to the timbalero in honor of the 50th anniversary of his recording career.

Puente, as always, stood up front, wildly pounding the skins and clacking the sides of his timbales, circling his head with the sticks before crashing them down on the cymbals. While playing, he mugged like a rubber-faced borscht-belt comic, eyes popping, tongue lolling out of his open mouth. Cocking his hip, he bent and theatrically kissed Cruz's hand.

The next morning in his suite at the Ritz Plaza Hotel on South Beach, Puente says, "You need a big personality on-stage. You can hear something good, but now it's real important what you show." His amiable dresser Ruthie, charged with styling Cruz's many wigs as well as Puente's own crimped white hair, helps him try on a suit for a taping of Sabado Gigante in the afternoon. (He has already wreaked havoc with the producers of the television show by insisting on playing live instead of performing to a pre-recorded track.) The bandleader, who turns 74 this month, slides into a chair in his shirt sleeves, letting his suspenders hang loose at his side. "I've been playing so many years, I've played everything," he continues. "So you put the showmanship on top of that and it gets to the people."

He frowns as he reflects on the crowd at the previous night's event, a release party for Tito Puente: 50 Years of Swing, a three-disc collection on RMM Records. "Them people ain't so hip to my music," he contends. "They didn't feel it." Surrounded by cameras and lights, Puente probably couldn't see the ecstatic fan waving an old LP copy of Pachanga con Puente, or an older Jewish man -- a follower from the Palladium days -- snapping frantically with a disposable camera. Still, one well-dressed, well-oiled couple spotted stumbling down the stairs on the way out gave credence to Puente's theory that a lot of the guests were more interested in the open bar than the music.

"I'm not afraid to tell 'em any more now -- I don't care," Puente asserts in a gruff voice that reflects his Spanish Harlem roots. "If you're out there in the audience, you better educate yourself to my music. When you hear me, you've got to feel the rhythm and the beat, the rhythm and the excitement of the Palladium era. I still maintain that excitement in the music." He sits back, smiles, and shrugs. "I couldn't change now; it's too late."

For half a century Puente has been one of the most widely recognized artists in the world, and arguably the one musician whose career has been most influential in expanding the popularity -- and the very definition -- of Latin music in the U.S. On tracks included in the new retrospective, culled from Puente's more than 100 albums, he explores Afro-Cuban percussion ("Ti Mon Bo" with Mongo Santamaria and Willie Bobo, from the great 1957 recording Top Percussion), jazz (1973's "Tanga" with Cal Tjader and Charlie Palmieri), pop (a cover of Tommy James's "Crystal Blue Persuasion"), and revamped Cuban classics ("El Manicero," "Guantanamera"), while always remaining true to the credo of his beloved mambo era: Play music that makes people want to dance.

50 Years of Swing is a delightful collection, and it captures the sound of the golden era of Latin ballroom dancing. Even so, the track selection seems a bit haphazard. While the first disc includes popular songs from the Forties through Sixties and flows with some chronological cohesion, the remaining discs are scattered affairs that jump randomly from year to year. Disc two leans toward Latin jazz ("Lullaby of Birdland," "Machito Forever") but also includes out-of-place mambos and obscure (though not uninteresting) selections such as Stevie Wonder's "Don't You Worry 'bout a Thing." The third disc is similarly eclectic, a mix of instrumentals and vocals of various periods, held together mostly by Puente's tireless energy. Mark Holston's liner notes are serviceable, with a thumbnail biography and a brief summation of Puente's importance and impact. What's sorely missing, though, is an interview with the exuberant bandleader, who has many a tale to tell. Despite its bulk, the set is closer to being a sampler than a comprehensive study of the artist's career, or even a portion of it.

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