THE BLOG
05/28/2013 10:29 am ET | Updated Jul 25, 2013

New Set Revisits the Rise of Tito Puente

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Despite decades of success and honors, Tito Puente is, in a sense, an unknown superstar. The "King of Mambo" in the late 1950s and "El Rey" throughout the salsa era that followed, Puente barely dents the consciousness of Anglo America, especially in more recent decades when salsa developed at an arm's length from mainstream pop.

If anything, Puente suffers from what could be called Louis Armstrong Syndrome where - like Pops - his late-career avuncular persona obscured his earlier accomplishments as a musical revolutionary.

Quatro, a new handsome repackaging of four of his classic early albums (and one disc of odds and ends), shows Puente and his orchestra in their late 1950s heyday, standing at the intersection of jazz and Afro-Cuban music, wowing dancers and jazz aficionados.

Looking back at Puente's rise, it is hard to believe that the music here -- wild with percussion and shouting brass -- took place during the white-bread Eisenhower years of America. But nightly at storied clubs like the Palladium in New York, mixed-race crowds of dancers would get hot and sweaty at the feet of the mambo big bands such as that led by the Juilliard-trained Puente.

Each of the albums in Quatro shows a different facet of Puente's early work, when jazz and mambo were feeding off each other. This hardcover book-like set has plenty of old photos of Puente, a bio of his life and quotes of tribute from musicians and other celebrities. Each of the albums comes in a reproduction of the original LP album's front and back cover.

On Cuban Carnival the sounds seem fresh off the boat from the Caribbean. Puente's arrangements are as razor-sharp and angular as the Manhattan skyline, but the music pulses with the effulgent energy of African-derived beats, often led by Puente himself on timbales. This international hybrid was the height of exotica back then, but it still stands the test of time due to the exacting musicianship of Puente and his orchestra.

On 1957's Night Beat, the Puente Orchestra doesn't sound like the Puente Orchestra - - it plays mostly as a big-band jazz band, featuring an up-and-coming trumpeter Doc Severinson -- who went on to household-name status on the Tonight Show. The title song opens the album sounding like an accompaniment to a stripper routine and a few tunes have a distinct Latin flavor, but Night Beat shows Puente's love and skill as a big-band jazz player.

The classic 1958 album Dance Mania is Puente's gift to dancers -- twelve short, punchy numbers that restrain solos for rhythmic consistency, kept vibrant by orchestrated flourishes and the distinctive lead vocals of Puente's long-time singer Santitos Colon. Puente delivers dancers some clever variety in the form of the Oriental-esque "Hong Kong Mambo" and an Afro-Cuban version of "Varsity Drag."

Released in 1960, Revolving Bandstand brought together the Puente Orchestra and jazz's Buddy Morrow Orchestra, with the two groups bouncing rhythms and solos off each other in their differently nuanced styles.

The Quatro set, which is subtitled "The Definitive Collection," is less a work of scholarship and more an accessible entry point for contemporary listeners who are not thoroughly versed in Puente's music. More importantly, though, the four albums at the heart of Quatro are all great, instantly enjoyable albums in their own different ways.

"Hong Kong Mambo" from Dancemania with Puente on vibes