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JAZZ REVIEW : Tito Puente Proves Latin Jazz Deserves a Lot More Respect

November 16, 1989|BILL KOHLHAASE

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — When will Latin jazz get the respect it deserves? Most mainstream jazz fans have little knowledge of the form, probably because it is largely relegated to the Sunday midnight time slot on college FM stations. The most recent jazz dictionary, the hefty, two-volume, 30-pound "Grove," carries only a small entry on the form and lists almost no contemporary practitioners of the art.

Despite more than 40 years on the scene, dozens of albums and three Grammy awards, Tito Puente is one of those musicians ignored by the folks who put the "Grove" together. His single set Tuesday at the Coach House showed just what a mistake that was.

Puente, who was a protege of the Afro-Cuban innovator Machito, has long shown his connection to the jazz tradition by performing such standards as Bud Powell's "Un Poco Loco" and Duke Ellington's "Prelude to a Kiss." This night, with his eight-member Latin Jazz All-Stars, was no different, with the timbale-playing bandleader putting his eight-member group through a number of jazz classics as well as his own rhythm-thick compositions. What sets this music apart is its infectious danza rhythms anchored by the incessant, on-the-beat clang of cowbells.

The moderate-tempo opening number, dubbed "T.P's Special" by one band member, featured a rumbling tenor sax solo from Mario Rivera and a fleet, breathy trumpet excursion from Piro Rodriguez. Both solos leaned heavily on be-bop lines and would have fit just as well played in front of post-bop groups like Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers or more recent aggregations such as Out of the Blue. Pianist Sonny Bravo established his solo with a series of dissonant block chords before moving on to a melodic satement full of bluesy swing.

Puente, moving easily between timbales, cymbal and cow bells, toyed with the beat, dropping unexpected accents and rolling hard across the changes. His vocal scat exchange with saxophonist Rivera near the end of the piece tied it all the tighter to the jazz tradition.

A slick arrangement of Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" featured Rivera's tenor sax stating the theme while trumpeters Rodriguez and Jimmy Frisaura added punctual embellishments. Puente, switching to vibraphone for "Autumn Leaves," wasted little time with the familiar melody, choosing instead to swirl through a series of lyrical lines separated by dramatic pauses and ringing, single-note pounds. The tempo given "On Broadway" alternated between an easy glide used by Rivera to show off his flute skills, and a frantic double-time with Puente's split-hair timbale work.

Puente's best known composition, "Oye Como Va" (made famous by Carlos Santana), became a vehicle for longtime Puente collaborator Bobby Rodriguez who showed his own sense of time on electric bass with a series of smooth double-stops. Near the end of the piece, the trumpets sang out with the melody of "(You've Got to Change Your) Evil Ways" while Rivera maintained the theme to "Oye" on flute.

The ensemble played fast and loose with the rhythms throughout the set, assured that the unrelenting ring of the cowbell would hold it all together. Our only complaint, and one shared by the less-than-capacity house, was the lack of an encore, due to a misunderstanding as to how many sets would be played. The solution? Bring Puente back, this time with his entire big band. I want to know if the cowbells can still be heard over all 17 pieces.

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