Tito Puente The Complete RCA Recordings, Vol. 1 (BMG)
The Complete RCA Recordings, Vol. 1 (BMG)
Reviewed by David Lynch, Fri., Dec. 15, 2000
The Complete RCA Recordings, Vol. 1 (BMG)God's band got one helluva percussionist when Tito Puente joined the Big Stage on May 31 of this year, having graced the musical Earth for 77 years. Born in Spanish Harlem to Puerto Rican parents in 1923, Ernest Anthony "Tito" Puente Jr. dropped out of school at 16 to play professionally. One of the prime movers behind Latin music's big splash in post-WWII America, Puente went on to release more than 135 albums in his five decades of recording, picking up along the way an International Jazz Hall of Fame title, several Grammies, and innumerable fans. That said, what can this chronologically arranged 6-CD slimcase retrospective add? Puente recorded for RCA from 1949-1951 and 1955-60, and upon first glance, this collection appears to be yet another posthumous rehash to satisfy record corporation avarice. The packaging and liner notes are sparse, and the song times are short, many under four minutes. Compared with the extended salsa and mambo jazz jams that defined the Ambassador of Latin Music's recorded work in his last few decades, these short times imply a commercial song format. Wrong. Like Miles Davis' initial albums, Puente's first few records were 78s, which only captured a few minutes per side. The best musicians of this time -- like Puente -- were able to squeeze quality performance into nearly every second of the abbreviated format. As a result, the majority of songs on this collection are simply stellar. Most are horn-driven, syncopated mid-tempo instrumentals ("Dance of the Headhunters," "Witch Doctor's Nightmare" and "Eleguara" are among the best), but there are also flat-out smokers ("Mambozooka"), classics ("Tuxedo Junction" and "Take the A Train"), and cocktail party soundtracks ("Nocha de Ronda"). Above his composing, bandleading, and genre-defining roles, Puente was a champion on the timbale, the rounder, deeper sibling to the snare. Puente trades solos with the great Mongo Santamaría on "Mon Ti," creating dense polyrhythms over a leaning palm tree bassline and crackling cross beats. But Puente was more than just rhythm; he was also a distinguished vibraphonist, proved by his rendition of the classic "Autumn Leaves." While the third and the sixth discs are probably the best, great songs and performances reside on each disc, plus a few never-before-released cuts are sprinkled throughout. Taken together, this collection is a snapshot of the Mambo King in his still-developing prime. Which poses the painfully obvious question: Why weren't these songs released while Tito Puente was alive? Either way, The Complete RCA Recordings is so deep that you'll be able to mine enjoyment from it for years to come.