'El Rey' Is Still on Top : Tito Puente, Due in Costa Mesa Tonight, Adds a Film Appearance, a 100th Album and Another Grammy Nomination to His Resume

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Talk about "The King," and most people think of Elvis. But mention El Rey, and there's no doubt you're referring to Tito Puente.

These are heady times for the 68-year-old bandleader, percussionist and arranger whose jazzy mix of Caribbean dance rhythms has been lifting audiences from their seats since the 1940s. Puente will soon be on view, playing himself, in the movie "The Mambo Kings," an adaptation of Oscar Hijuelos' Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love." Puente's latest album, "The Mambo King," has been nominated for a Grammy (if he wins, it will be his fifth). Last Saturday, in a concert marking "Mambo King" as his 100th album, Puente and his Latin Orchestra performed for more than 20,000 at Madison Square Garden in New York. Tonight, he'll be in Costa Mesa for a concert at Orange Coast College.

The movie, which opens Friday, follows the rise of two Cuban emigres in New York in the 1950s. Its frame is the period's burgeoning Latin music scene, in particular the mambo dance craze that revolved around the Palladium Ballroom.

"I've seen the movie twice," Puente said earlier this week by phone from his home in New York City, "and I loved it the second time. The first time I couldn't get into it. I was watching for too many details, I guess. But now I've seen it a second time, and I think it's great. And I'm going a third time once it opens--this time I'll pay for my own ticket."

Puente says the filmmakers deserve credit for keeping the movie's music authentic: "I was involved in the music of that time, and I know what happened. They let me do the right thing--play the music that was being played at the time. There's nothing commercial about it. It's the real McCoy.

"This is the same music that I play all the time. But for the movie, I went back to my roots, went back to the culture of my music, especially in the percussive end. That's where the excitement is."

Puente--who says he doesn't act in the film, that he "just plays with the band"--grew up the son of Puerto Rican immigrants in Spanish Harlem. He was at the forefront of the mambo movement in the '50s, scoring one of the first mambo crossover hits with his composition "Abaniquito." He acquired his skills playing with such legends as pianist-composer Noro Morales and Afro-Cuban jazz master Machito as well as through studies at the Juilliard School of Music. On his 1987 recording "Un Poco Loco," Puente pays tribute to Machito in his spirited composition "Machito Forever." "Machito still is and always will be my mentor," he says of the late bandleader. "He's responsible for our music today; he's responsible for me . I try to play the music he left behind."

If there is a difference between his approach today and that of 35 years ago, it's his increased use of jazz standards as vehicles for those infectious rhythms. "Out of This World," his 1991 recording, includes Thelonious Monk's "In Walked Bud," George Gershwin's " 'S Wonderful" and Benny Golson's "Along Came Betty."

"I've always been involved with non-Latin music," Puente said, "the kind of tunes loved by everybody around the whole world. Whenever they ask, 'Tito, what do you think of this new crossover you're doing?' I say 'What crossover? I'm on my way back, man.' "

Puente's bands, which over the years have included the likes of Mongo Santamaria, Willie Bobo, Charlie Palmieri and Ray Barretto, have always served as training grounds for musicians.

The current edition is no exception. The band members "are known in the profession as stars," Puente boasted. "Sonny Bravo, my pianist, saxophonist Mario Rivera--they're all tops on their instruments. I don't change that many positions--I like to keep the same men all the time."

Recently, a New York radio station honored El Rey with a daylong program of his music. While he was at the station, old friend Bill Cosby called in (the two have teamed for Coca-Cola commercials, and Puente will appear on "The Cosby Show" later this year).

"And he congratulated me for my 100th album," Puente said. "But then he said, 'You know which of your albums I like the best?" And I said, "No, Bill. Which one?" And he says, 'Number 86.' "

And how does he feel about No. 100's chances for another Grammy? "If I win, it doesn't mean anything. I've got four under my belt already. If I lose, I want to ask questions," he jokes. "Why?"

Tito Puente and his Latin Jazz Orchestra appear at 8 tonight at the Robert B. Moore Theatre, Orange Coast College, 2701 Fairview Road, Costa Mesa. Tickets: $16 at the door. Information: (714) 432-5880.

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