The Rough Guide to Tito Puente

Sue Steward continues rifling through the Fania back catalogue for Rough Guide; this time she brings us a fresh selection from the Mambo King himself Tito Puente. With over a hundred albums to choose from, getting down to 21 tracks is no mean feat and any selection will inevitably be partial but we are treated to a wide selection of styles and collaborators including La Lupe and Celia Cruz


Sue Stewart literally wrote the book on salsa (a term she recounts that Tito Puente recoiled from even if he occasionally took advantage of it), and on this occasion she really had the pick of the bunch to chose from as Fania had bought most of the labels Puente recorded on between 1956 and 1985. After 1985, Puente devoted more attention to sit-sown concerts and Latin jazz so it marks a tidy turning point and a natural time frame for the album.
Puente exploded onto the scene in the 50s on a wave of mambo madness started by Cubans Cachao, Machito and Mario Bauza but stoked up even further by Puente and Puerto Rican Tito Rodriguez (the other ‘Mambo King’ and rival band leader). Puente was native born to New York (to Puerto Rican parents) and also unlike most of his contemporaries he had the good fortune to get a scholarship to the Juillard Institute off the back of the GI Bill. He studied piano, sax and of course percussion but crucially, he developed his sophisticated arranging skills helping him make the leap between Cuban son and big band that would define the sound of the Latin music coming out of the US.
Although known as a timbales player, Puente was also the leading exponent of mambo vibes as demonstrated to perfection on the second cut on this album ‘Mambo tipico’. As with many of his best works, a funky bass holds everything together allowing shimmering percussive waves to float between sharp brass work giving the dancer everything they need and the listener something to delve into.
It wasn’t all mambo though. Different crazes sweep across the album and despite his loyalty to the mambo, Puente couldn’t resist showing everyone else how to do things right. Take the hypnotically catchy charanga ‘Malanga con yucca’ — brass and timbales conspire to push the tempo and the energy levels from a high start ever upwards. A simple chorus gets repeated until some devilish violin breaks in, plays off against the chorus and then steals the show, stops your heart and breaks off before you pass out.
Boogaloo gets a look in too with tracks like ‘Mas bajo’ and again it is the bass that keeps it all going while the percussion rolls, twists, pounds and enchants. If Puente was dismissive of this short-lived craze, he doesn’t let it stop him cashing in and making a few great records in the process.
Where charanga and boogaloo meet is on the tune Puente will always be known for ‘Oye como va’. Its form might well be a charanga with a wooden flute solo to boot but listen to that bass line and it is a funky hook straight off the boogaloo express.
And then there are the ladies. Celia Cruz and Puente approached each other slowly like the fox and the boy in The Little Prince, but when they recorded together in 1968 the result was instant magic and a partnership that would recur many times. The compiler limits herself to three selections form this powerhouse pairing: ‘Pachito eche’, ‘Guiro 6/8’ and my favourite ‘En el cafetal’ featuring a youthful Celia Cruz showing why Fidel Castro would never forgive her for leaving the island and taking her wonderful voice away with her.
Last word should go to La Lupe, a woman who could have lit the Eastern Seaboard if the energy in her heart could have been tapped. She kicks off the album in a playful but full-on way by belting out ‘Jugando mama, jugando’, your feet start moving, and the rest of the album carries you along on a journey celebrating the work of a true maestro.

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