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 , Night Beat  and Dance Mania . 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.
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.
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.
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
In Conversation with Trombonist, Composer, Arranger Papo Vázquez
Miguel de Armas: Miguel de Armas and The Ottawa Latin Jazz Orchestra
Django Festival Allstars with special guest Edmar Castañeda Featuring Dorado Schmitt and sons Samson & Amati
Christian McBride’s New Jawn at Koerner Hall: Concert Review
Papo Vázquez Holiday Jazz & Latin Jazz Parranda with The Mighty Pirates Troubadours
Donald Vega: As I Travel
“They Shot The Piano Player” Screening At The Village East in New York And The Royal in Los Angeles
Una Navidad Nuyorkina: Celebrating 40 Years of Los Pleneros de la 21
The Latin Side of Jazz Episode 35
Sebastian Schunke: Existential Intensities
NPR’s A Jazz Piano Christmas with Melvis Santa, Alfredo Rodríguez and Hilario Durán
Gonzalo Rubalcaba: Borrowed Roses
Juan García-Herreros – The Snow Owl: Normas
Raphael Cruz Reaffirms His Commitment To Latin Jazz!
Edy Martínez, the Music Architect Behind the Piano
Rubén Blades con Roberto Delgado & Orquesta · Son de Panamá
Celebrating Emiliano Salvador and his Musical Legacy
Cubano Be, Cubano Bop: A Memorable Night in Toronto with Poncho Sánchez
A Conversation with Percussionist, Bandleader Poncho Sanchez
The Odyssey of Anat Cohen
Paquito D’Rivera & Quinteto Cimarrón: Aires Tropicales
Have You Seen My Nana? The Enduring Genius of Moacir Santos
Enrique Rodríguez: Enriquito – Me Quito El Sombrero
Roberto López Afro-Colombian Jazz Orchestra: Azul
Most Read in 2023
Featured Albums9 months ago
Aymée Nuviola feat. Kemuel Roig: Havana Nocturne
News10 months ago
Wilson “Chembo” Corniel Releases New Album: “Artistas, Músicos y Poetas”
News10 months ago
Aymée Nuviola To Release New Latin Jazz Album: “Havana Nocturne”
Events8 months ago
Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez Centennial Celebration