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Tito Puente and his Latin Ensemble: Mambo Diablo on Vinyl

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Tito Puente
The King of Latin Music: Tito Puente

There is a reason why Tito Puente is, often, referred to as “El Rey” [The King]. Notice how that epithet stops short of defining the boundaries of his musical kingdom, which one might – in a rather restrictive way – speculate is Latin American Music, or as we now say: “Afro-Cuban” or “Afro-Caribbean” Music. Truth be told, his kingdom is music, one where he ruled with the greatest of creators in the art of contemporary music.  

Mr Puente’s rule emanated out of El Barrio – Spanish Harlem – in New York City and began in earnest in the 1950s with a dynamism of his rhythms and stage presence that set dance halls aflame. Some of those were captured on record by RCA Victor [now merged into Sony Music Latin]. Arguably some of the best of these were Cuban Carnival [1956], Night Beat [1957] and Dance Mania [1958]. Those were halcyon days and the heady music – some may suggest – lost its sting in the 1960s with the advent of discotheque, strobe lights and a monotonous musical rhythm beat that many might characterize as hypnotic.

Hostos Center Presents Mambo Diablo: Honoring Tito Puente

In 1974 Mr Puente recorded an album – Revolving Bandstand – the wisdom of which had many critics scratching their heads. On this album – which featured his orchestra playing alongside that of Buddy Morrow’s Orchestra – El Rey attempted to play popular standards with a view to facilitating a collision of sorts between his Afro-Cuban music and the kind of dance music made popular by big bands playing what was characterized as “swing”, [which was] in fact a pale imitation of the kind of genuine bluesy swing of the great dance bands of Duke Ellington, Count Basie and others. The verdict, at that time and after, was: The reign of El Rey was over.

But then in 1985 when all seemed lost [to every naysayer but El Rey himself] the great composer and percussionist extracted his brand of musical justice with Mambo Diablo, an album with his iconic Latin Ensemble – once again playing popular jazz standards including the great charts: Take Five by Paul Desmond and made world famous by the Dave Brubeck Quartet, Lush Life by the incomparable Billy Strayhorn and Lullaby of Birdland, by the legendary English composer George Shearing, featuring Mr Shearing on piano. The album not only served notice that El Rey had never abdicated his throne, but with this repertoire he introduced himself and that mesmerising Afro-Cuban dance form – Mambo – to a legion of new fans.

Tito Puente: Mambo Diablo on Vinyl
Tito Puente: Mambo Diablo on Vinyl

The ’A’ side of the album gets off to a flying start with the title song, one of Mr Puente’s most iconic compositions. The chart showcases Mr Puente’s vibraphone chops. Not for him an empty display of pyrotechnics or sentimental indulgence. Mambo Diablo is rigorous and driven by architectural activity. While Mr Puente may have arranged and directed the music here, the stars in his orchestra – pianist Sonny Bravo, conguero José Madera, bongosero Johnny “Dandy” Rodriguez and bassist Bobby Rodriguez – shine bright. But none brighter than the inimitable saxophonist Mario Rivera, whose playing sets alight this and every other chart that follows.

On Lush Life Mr Puente “tricks” listeners into thinking he’s going to turn Lush Life, Mr Strayhorn’s highly emotional piece into a mushy bolero, only to rock the cha-cha rhythm in the second half of the piece. Side ‘B’ brings the listener an embarrassment of riches beginning with Lullaby of Birdland, a song that flows like liquid gold in a simmering river of fire. And like the songs that begin with a deceptively slow, meditative – often faux-predictable manner – Mr Puente soon injects his unique brand of rhythmic dynamism into each work provoking a volta face and forcing the heavyweight performers in his Latin Ensemble into a tumbling rhythmic groove. This is the mood throughout the album. It’s no wonder that the elegant and effervescent music of Mambo Diablo not only holds up today but sings sweetly as its mambo [and other] rhythms take us on a rollicking ride of our collective lifetime even today, decades after its original release – and why the reign of El Rey may not be ending any time soon.

Deo gratis…

Music – Side A – 1: Mambo Diablo; 2: Take Five; 3: Lush Life; 4: Pick Yourself Up. Side B – 1: Lullaby of Birdland; 2: No Pienses Asi; 3: China; 4: Eastern Joy Dance.

Musicians – Tito Puente: timbales, vibraphone and percussion; Sonny Bravo: piano; Jimmy Frisaura: valve trombone, trumpet and flugelhorn; Ray Gonzalez: trumpet and flugelhorn; José Madera: congas and percussion; Mario Rivera: tenor and soprano saxophones and flute; Bobby Rodriguez: bass; Johnny “Dandy” Rodriguez: bongos and percussion. Special Guest – George Shearing: piano on Lullaby of Birdland.

Released – 1985/2023
Label – Concord Picante/Craft Recordings
Runtime – Side A: 21:16 Side B: 19:15

Based in Milton, Ontario, Canada, Raul is a poet, musician and an accomplished critic whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep understanding of music, technically as well as historically.

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