Celebrating a 50th anniversary as a bandleader, Tito Puente fronted his orchestra in a performance that soared with uncommon vigor, complemented by highly charged virtuoso solos. The 75-year-old arranger-composer-percussionist was full of energy and impish wit, transforming the music room into a swinging Latin jazz carnival.
The engagement also celebrated “Live at Birdland — Danceamania ’99”, the RMM Grammy-nominated CD that pays homage to the legendary jazz club. A second volume, dedicated to the mambo craze of the ’50s, was recorded during the band’s recent stand.
Following the brief, familiar melody of the George Shearing theme “Lullaby of Birdland,” the band bolted into “Machito Forever,” a tribute to yet another master of Latin jazz. Heightened by the gritty trombone of Reynaldo Jorge and the imaginative trumpet of Kevin Bryan, Puente framed the piece with his relentless swinging percussive support on timbales and cowbells.
Clare Fischer’s picturesque “Morning” featured a sweet jungle piccolo and alto flute intro by Mario Rivera. The piece showcased the versatility of the ensemble with turns by Mitch Brumack’s biting tenor sax, a dazzling flugelhorn statement by Raymond Vega and trombonist Lewis Kahn, who also doubled with an infectious, lumbering jazz fiddle solo.
In a tribute to the dancing days of the Palladium, Puente recalled Mario Bauza’s classic “Mambo Inn” with a gritty baritone sax solo by Pete Morando and another wailing statement by Brumack. The big band jazz mambo resonated with Birdland memories of Stan Kenton and Woody Herman, who often embraced Latin motifs and swung hard with them. Another Palladium recall was “Cayuco,” an infectious cha-cha and a Puente original.
“Babahaiati,” another foot-tapping mambo marked once again by a gutsy Morando bari solo, segued to the trademark finale, “Oye Coma Va,” a Puente classic that again showcased the skillful percussive theatrics of El Rey and justified his title as the king of Latin music. “Play that Santana tune,” fans often call out, while Puente reminds his flock, “I get the composer’s check in the mail.”
Puente and his band will perform Sept. 19 at the two-day Latin Jazz Festival being held at L.A.’s California Plaza. Bill also includes Eddie Palmieri and David Sanchez. On Sept. 18, Lalo Schifrin and his big band, Chucho Valdes Quintet, and Manny Oquendo’s Orquestra Libre will perform.