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.