The Complete 78s Volumes 1-4 1949-1955
Its rare that I get to review a box set that is just pure perfection. This box set is.
I like roots music, the origins of modern musical forms, oftentimes they are the profound sounds that establish a plethora of followers, although occasionally you’ll find a rut that inspires others, usually there’s something behind it. Louis Armstrong, The Beatles, Bob Wills, Jimmie Rodgers, LL Cool J, Charlie Parker, Jimi Hendrix, Robert Johnson. The early work of Tito Puente is no exception. I’ve listened to dozens of lounge and lounge mambo and 60s orchestrations of Latin music for a broad general audience, and while most of them have all the trappings of a dancehall in early 50s New York, they don’t have heart. Its like watching a bunch of marionettes all programmed with animatronics. You know someone with talent inspired it, but given the modern state of Latin roots music (good luck trying to find an authoritative Vincente Fernandez or Luiz Gonzaga compilation, although if you know a few names, you can usually buy up 5 or 10 albums that as a group will leave you feeling satisfied but kinda ripped-off because most of its like ‘what Michael Jackson is doing now instead of Thriller’), you’ll be looking for awhile before you build a satisfactory compilation of most seminal artists. That’s what photographer/record collector Joe Conzo did. He collected the complete Tico singles of Tito Puente and with FANIA records released a set of music that paints a fairly defining picture of the Puerto Rican/Cuban/Mambo/ChaChaCha music scene in New York City in the middle of last century. It is a 4 double-cd set of about 40 songs apiece sold as a 2 vol. (with 2 double-cds (also called volumes) in each set) set. Although I think it would be better served as an 8 cd box set (take a look at Billie Holiday’s Complete Verve Studio Master Takes) for about $60. Awkward packaging concept aside though, the music on these is what counts, and DAMN does it. The arrangements on these have popped up on nearly every modern-era lounge album I’ve heard, but for Tito Puente, this was original and the result of long years of study of musical forms in places as diverse as the U.S. Navy and Julliard School of Music. Picture all the street smart performance savvy of the jazz giants, combined with a formal musical education and a bunch of years knockin’ around in clubs putting it all together. The King of Latin Music indeed, but this is back when he is still building his reputation before he gets crowned. The reputation doesn’t come from building coalitions though… although… I suppose in a way it does. Musical coalitions with the like of Mongo Santamaria, Willie Bobo, Vinçente Valdes, & Charlie Palmieri. This after playing with Machito, the King Oliver of the New York Latin scene. All of those artists above could spawn their own box sets (especially Machito (who a solid box set for is long overdue)), but here they are, all playing together makin’ a beautiful ruckus that sounds like it came outta a gangster-filled lounge in the heart of the Big Apple.
Here I would normally break down the albums into constituent reviews, however, a combination of annotation that doesn’t indicate artists on each track (making it difficult to discuss individual contributions) and an underlying feeling that these singles should be taken in as whole body of work rather than a neatly segmented set of discs prevails. Essentially though, they consist of a collection of Puente-penned, Latin Standards and Jazz standards (the popular music of the day), all performed vibrantly by one of the most talented combos of the time, this is especially notable in that the time was a musical explosion when all the sounds that had been pent up in the musician’s strike of 1942-1944 were still coming to the fore. Plus a celebratory element in that the hated Democrats (A governor appointed by FDR had slaughtered 17 men, a woman, and a 7 year old girl in Ponce, Puerto Rico because he was opposed to peaceful protest of political imprisonment in 1937) were finally out of office after a 15 year long interregnum reigns. Most of all though, these are fantastically fulfilling albums, filled with the sounds of a street culture that had built a niche in New York City and America following WWII and the service and loss of its manhood, including a stint by Tito Puente on the U.S.S. Santee in the Pacific Theatre. Put your dancing shoes on, grab your lady by the cuchifritos and mambo and cha-cha-cha with her until the cock crows.