With Tito Puente's 'Quatro' collection, time for an appreciation

Tito Puente in 1992
Latin-Jazz percussionist Tito Puente plays the timbales during a concert in New York City in Feb. 1992.

The great Latin bandleader Tito Puente loved to joke with audiences about how invariably some people would approach him at concerts and say they appreciated his take on "Santana's song."

A true aficionado of Latin jazz, of course, would know that when Puente's band played "Oye Como Va," they were playing his tune.

Puente's influence on rock musicians like Carlos Santana, Latin bands throughout the hemisphere -- and on jazz artists -- was perhaps unmatched.

Indeed, when musicians compile the biggest names of all time in jazz and Latin music, Puente would most certainly make both lists. Long before his death more than a decade ago, he also set the standard for Latin jazz. A new collection explores a pivotal period in his work, from 1949 to 1960.

Anthony Gonzalez, an executive for Sony Music Latin, captures Puente's early success on a newly released collection called "Quatro." It includes the albums Cuban Carnival, Dance Mania, Night Beat and Revolving Bandstand.

Gonzalez discovered a treasure trove of Puente's early work when he worked for the BMG label that once was the old RCA company. But with an artist of Puente's stature, Gonzalez had no wish to produce a greatest hits album or a best-of collection.

"You're telling somebody this is the best of," Gonzalez said of that approach. "You're telling them that everything else you shouldn't listen to. That's not what I wanted to do, and there were so many other pieces out there already."

Tito Puente: Quatro
Tito Puente, "Quatro." The Definitive Collection.
Courtesy photo

For Gonzalez, a new approach was needed to pay tribute to Puente's contributions to Latin jazz, given his crucial role in its development.

Born to Puerto Rican parents in New York's Spanish Harlem, the impeccably trained musician was a remarkable showman who moved the timbales to the front of the orchestra and made music that made people want to dance. He showed how at its best, Latin jazz fuses two remarkable traditions: the polyrhythmic sounds of Afro-Cuban music and big band jazz from North America.

Like the singer Celia Cruz, long a close friend of Puente, Gonzalez said the bandleader became a guardian of Afro-Cuban music in the United States after the island's 1959 revolution led to severed ties between the two countries.

"I want to say that he was responsible for keeping the essence of Afro-Cuban music not only alive but allowing it to survive and evolve," Gonzalez said. "He didn't like the term salsa. He knew. He clearly identified the different styles whether a song was a guaguanco or if it was a son or clearly a bolero or guaracha and he would always make sure to educate the person on the other side where the roots or where the root of that song or that piece came from.

Latin-Jazz percussionist and bandleader Tito Puente leads his Orchestra at a JVC Jazz Festival performance at Carnegie Hall in New York City on June 23, 1991.

"It's ironic that it wasn't a Cuban but actually someone of Puerto Rican descent and that grew up in the U.S. But he had a great love for that music. Absolutely."

Puente's work was ground breaking. He was among the first to influse dance music with the drumming rituals of Afro-Cuban religious music, as he did on the song "Elegua Chango," from the album "Cuban Carnival."

"You hear the great influence there of the Afro-Cuban ritual, ritualistic sounds, the drums and the timing too there at the beginning and ...the combination of the harmonies that you hear traditionally in American jazz and even some Eastern European music as well combined with, with him, his percussion and everything else that he was doing at the time," Gonzalez said. "The band is having fun playing the piece."

On Revolving Bandstand, Puente's orchestra was in the recording studio at the same time as bandleader Buddy Morrow's, an innovative technique for the time.

"Puente] would put the emphasis, for example, on the mambo side of the track and if it was a little bit more swing, Buddy Morrow's orchestra would carry over," Gonzalez said. "But they would be both playing at the same time and it was a very unique situation at the time to have both orchestras playing face to face."

As important as the four recordings are, Gonzalez doesn't want anyone to think that they defined Puente's career. Indeed, by the end of his life, Puente had recorded well over 100 albums. He also was the first musician to play the vibes in Latin music.

"Tito did great works after these four albums too," Gonzalez said. "I always point that out whenever I speak to someone about this collection here. I don't want it to seem that these were the four albums and then everything else, you know, blah. Absolutely not. He kept on evolving and there were really great stuff that he did later on in his career.

"He set a standard, really, for all the others that followed."

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