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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.
Shortcomings notwithstanding, 50 Years of Swing documents Puente's far-reaching collaborations with dozens of Latin and Anglo artists, pulling together forgotten recordings and highlighting the work of disparate talents. These include the voices of Machito, La Lupe, Hector Lavoe, Cheo Feliciano, Graciela, Celia Cruz, La India, and even Abbe Lane singing a lusty "Babalu." Guest musicians range from salsa innovators Ray Barretto and Johnny Pacheco to Lionel Hampton, Woody Herman, and conga player Giovanni Hidalgo. More than an anthology, 50 Years of Swing plays like the mother of all tribute albums.
Born to Puerto Rican immigrants in 1923, Puente got his musical education as a boy in his Spanish Harlem neighborhood. "That's where you get your experience, in the street," he says. "In el barrio, as they called it, we heard jazz and Latin. I was always into jazz -- Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, Duke Ellington. And the Latin bands -- Casino de la Playa, Arsenio Rodriguez, all the way down the line. Cuban bands. I was really up to date with the Cuban bands."
Puente took piano lessons as a boy, but he really wanted to be a dancer. "I thought I was Fred Astaire with Ginger Rogers," he says, pinching his face into a prissy expression and affecting a British accent. "I did the kahn-tinental, the car-i-o-ca, the tango. My sister and I, we danced together." His career as a hoofer was cut short when he hurt his ankle in a bicycle accident, which led him to music instead. He was all of seven years old. First he began playing trap drums, then made the switch to timbales, later revolutionizing their use in Latin bands by playing them standing instead of sitting. The young percussionist played with neighborhood bands, including the orchestra led by the famed Afro-Cuban jazz pioneer Machito, with whom Puente was jamming at age thirteen. Puente formed his first band, the Picadilly Boys, in 1948.
"It made it easier for me when Dizzy Gillespie came out with 'Manteca' with Chano Pozo," he says, referring to the landmark 1947 composition that paired Gillespie with the legendary conguero in an early fusion of jazz and Afro-Cuban music. "He was always trying to make a marriage between both musics," explains Puente. "Gillespie was pretty successful, and then Machito came along with Mario Bauza. They were my mentors, and what I'm doing now is trying to continue with their tradition."
Puente attributes his success to his early cultivation of a non-Latin audience, in Manhattan and the resort towns around New York. "The truth of the matter is that when Latin bands played up in the Catskills or at the beach clubs, they were always like the relief bands," he recalls. "On Saturdays, there'd be an American band, and then during intermission a Latin band would play with maybe four, five, six pieces -- that's it. But with me, I always had the big band; I played the shows. I played the waltzes and the fox trots, or whatever had to be done.
"Then I knew how to play my nice cha-chas so people could enjoy themselves dancing," he continues. "And the mambos, the merengues, whatever I had to play. [When you have a big band] you cater to more people that understand your music. They dance and enjoy themselves better than with the little bands. The best dancers are the Jews and the Italians. I tell that to the Cubans, they want to start a war with me.
"We did have bilingual problems in those days," he adds. "You'd be singing in Spanish and they didn't know what you were saying. So I tried to play instrumentally as much as I could."
It was during those early days that Puente first came to Miami. "I opened the Deauville Hotel," he recalls. "I played the Casablanca, the Saxony, the Fontainebleau, most all of 'em. Every year I'd come here. I had a big Jewish following here."
Ironically, as Miami has increasingly become a Latin town, Puente has played here less and less. "Most of the places I play, my following is not Latin; the minority are Latins," he notes. "That's why I don't play much in Miami any more. I do concerts. I never come strictly for the Latin dances. They never pay you enough. The band's too big, and I ain't gonna cut it down now."
Last weekend Tito Puente and his band played at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale. Despite an international popularity that enables Puente to pack places like Carnegie Hall, the center's attractive 600-seat theater was only half-full. There were a couple of obvious reasons for the poor turnout. Tickets were prohibitively priced, from $50 to $100. And the box office personnel did not seem to have been told about the concert. ("Tito Plenty?" a perplexed attendant asked when New Times called to inquire about tickets. "No, I think we're having a children's event that night.") And the evening was marred by a pair of annoying, clueless emcees who could have been losers in a Star Search spokesman's competition. They repeatedly appeared on-stage -- even interrupting opener Juan Pablo Torres's set at one point -- to deliver information about Puente, such as, "Tito has been nominated for ten Grammys and he's won not one, not two, not three, but four!" and "He's played for four presidents of the United States." Puente hardly needs such validation.
The audience members who suffered through that were rewarded with an extraordinary concert. Torres demonstrated his virtuosity as both trombone player and bandleader in a rousing set of Latin jazz with his quintet. Singer Israel Kantor joined them for several numbers, including a stirring rendition of Beny More's hit ballad "Como Fue," and scatting with Torres on "Miami Blues."
Nearly an hour after they finished, Puente took the stage for what he likes to call a "sit-down concert." Through a series of Latin jazz numbers, the incredibly tight band played like a tag team, with conga, piano, bass, and bongos trading riffs with the trumpets, trombones, and sax. Percussive rumbas gave way to cha-cha-chas and brassy blues, always with Puente's characteristic fervor and passion. The outstanding musicians included conguero Jose Madera, reedsman Mario Rivera (dazzling on both sax and flute), and bassist Bobby Rodriguez, a long-time Puente musician who also played with Machito's band.
For a segment of Latin standards and mambos, Puente brought on a Dominican singer named Yolanda Duque. A voluptuous blonde packed tightly into red Lycra flares and moving with agility on giant silver platform shoes, Duque has a huge dramatic voice reminiscent of Cuban singer La Lupe. At the end of the set, Tito Puente, Jr., joined his father to sing "Oye Como Va" and showed off some smooth dance moves.
Meanwhile, Puente displayed his usual combination of creative musicianship and vaudeville showboating. At one point as the audience clapped to the clave rhythm, he shouted out, "That sounds like some Jewish clowning to me!" He was kidding again when he introduced one instrumental by announcing, "Now I'm going to play what I want to play, some sal-sa." Puente doesn't like the term, which conveniently but unfortunately pigeonholes all Latin music into one marketable category. He has other words for his music: Latin jazz. Mambo. Rhythm.
"I don't want to be known as a salsa musician, " he insists. "Salsa is a condiment for food. You know, sauce -- tomato sauce, spaghetti sauce, salsa caliente. It's not a musical term, but it's popular and everybody likes to talk about it. So I'm not going to fight it any more.
"Call it what you want." he urges. "I know what I'm playing, and that's where I'm at.