Tito Puente ‘El Rey Bravo’/’Tambo’ (Malanga) 5/5

This pairing of a supremely rare 1962 Tico LP and a heavy Afro-Cuban percussive album from 1960 on RCA makes for essential early period listening by the undisputed ‘King of the timbales’, Ernesto ‘Tito’ Puente. The recordings feature the cream of Latin musicians with Ray Barretto, Carlos ‘Potato’ Valdes (present on both) and pianist/arranger Gil López featuring among a host of others. The first album, ‘El Rey Bravo’ is notable for the inclusion of an early version of what would prove to be Tito Puente’s signature tune, ‘Oyé como va’ (Listen how it goes) which Santana re-envigorated some eight years later and, in the process, greatly aided Puente’s career at a time when the big band Latino sound had become somewhat passé for a new generation of Latin music fans. A storming rendition of ‘Málanga con Yuca’ features an incessant piano vamp and some wild flute from a then young Johnny Pacheco while the instrumental ‘Tokio de noche’ fits very much into the impressionistic attempts to depict Japan which other musicians at the time would attempt, most notably Dave Brubeck and Horace Silver. Various folkloric rhythms are showcased on the recording with the faster-paced ‘Gúaguancó’ being a steaming slice of a piano-led number while ‘Son Montuno’ is only marginally less frenetic. The second album is far more instrumental driven and could almost be described as a introduction to Afro-Cuban percussion. However, a dancer’s delight of a tune and sure to burn up the dancefloors of any era is the pacy big band plus vocals ‘Traigo el coco seco’ (literally ‘My head is dry’) while for Afro-Cuban specialists they need look no further than the repetitive yet intoxicating rhythms of ‘Africa hablá’. This is quite similar in nature to the kind of music that jazz drummer Art Blakey was making on the two ‘Holiday for Skins’ volumes with a host of Latin percussionists. A terrific duet of recordings, then, and how about pairing Puente’s extremely rare ‘Carnival in Harlem’ with his collaboration with La Lupe devoted to Puerto Rican music legend on ‘Homenaje a Rafael Hernandez’ (tribute to Rafael Hernandez)? Plenty of music still to trawl in the immense Tito Puente archives, but this latest offering will more than suffice for starters. íQue viva el rey! (Long live the King!)

Tim Stenhouse