As far as the pop mainstream goes, Tito Puente was a misunderstood man.
Chances are that most casual music fans saw the bandleader and percussionist, who died Wednesday at age 77, as the stereotypic Latin entertainer--a flamboyant performer who would dazzle you with his eccentric grimaces, hyperactive stage presence and pyrotechnic timbale solos.
And it’s true that Puente aimed to be a consummate entertainer.
But he was also much more.
Behind the exaggerated stage presence and comedic banter, Puente was a brilliant artist with a voracious hunger for experimentation. He was also a composer whose work had moments of rare grace, and an arranger who enjoyed manipulating timbre and texture to create unusual, seductive moods.
Puente was the first musician to stress the importance of the timbales in a Latin orchestra. He also brought a variety of Afro-Caribbean rhythms to the pop mainstream, transmitting his Cuban-inflected sounds to every corner of the world.
Ironically, Puente’s most recognizable tune, the catchy “Oye Como Va,” which Santana turned into a rock classic in 1971, is one of his lesser compositions.
Puente was born in New York, where his parents had moved from Puerto Rico, and he came of age during the mambo craze of the ‘50s. But he wasn’t a Perez Prado, who turned the mambo into a gimmick--a concept you could package and sell to American listeners with a taste for the exotic. Instead, Puente used the mambo as a foundation as he explored and mastered all Cuban dances, from the cha cha cha and the bolero to the guaracha and the guaguanco. In the last half-century, Puente recorded more than 100 albums showcasing his multiple musical interests. There was the rumba priest, the experimental jazzman, the mambo master and the joyous salsero. He always employed the most interesting vocalists of various eras, from Celia Cruz and La Lupe to Santitos Colon on up through current diva India.
It was in the ‘50s and early ‘60s that Puente released some of the most imaginative Latin music ever put to record.
To this day, 1957’s “Dancemania” embodies the ideal of what a commercial Afro-Cuban album should sound like. An exquisite combination of populist material and sophisticated craftsmanship, the record presented a dizzying variety of Cuba-based dances and rhythms, enhanced by the polished shine of American big-band aesthetics. Virtually every track from that collection is considered a standard, from the elegant son montuno “El Cayuco” to the volcanic “Mambo Gozon.”
Three years later, Puente recorded what purists consider his best effort ever, a hypnotic album called “Tambo.” Pushing the envelope of what commercial Latin music was supposed to sound like, he created a number of sumptuous vignettes that resonated with an almost religious vibration. Some of the tunes re-created the rumba, the most African of all Cuban subgenres, while others combined those African roots with a European melodic sense for the creation of majestic, alluring soundscapes.
Although his subsequent output didn’t quite match the sheer grandeur of those recordings, the percussionist always continued his search for new ideas. His latest album, which is due later this year, finds him collaborating for the first time with pianist Eddie Palmieri, another Afro-Cuban pioneer. Puente also harbored the dream of recording a session pairing a jazz group and a salsa orchestra.
Like many veteran artists, Puente in recent years was regarded by some as a shadow of his once-great self. But his performances belied that view.
At a sold-out performance at the Conga Room in February 1999, Puente demonstrated that he was still a dynamic and exciting figure.
The opening number that night, his composition “Machito Forever,” was a symphony of syncopated timbales and violent brass riffs, displaying the same bravado that stunned audiences in the New York Palladium in the ‘50s.
Until the very end, Puente still behaved like the king he was--on stage and off.
Even in interviews, he tried to tickle you with colorful tales about life in the spotlight. I met with Puente around the time of the Conga Room show, and he spent almost two hours repeating, word for word, every single story he tells at every one of his shows.
Yet there were moments when you got glimpses of Puente the musician and man, not just Puente the showman. For all his acclaim and success, he spoke about the years he spent struggling to get recognition in the wider pop world--recognition for himself and, one sensed, the Latin rhythms and big-band jazz he so dearly loved.
* An ambassador of Latin music is lost. See main news section.