Tito Puente's Self-Titled Masterwork Examined The Latin percussionist's classic 1972 album captures one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century at his peak. Bobby Sanabria, himself an award-winning bandleader, discusses the music and career of "El Rey del Timbal," Tito Puente.

Tito Puente's Self-Titled Masterwork Examined

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/93891036/93906615" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Tito Puente turned out 118 records, more than 2,000 musical arrangements, and more than 10,000 live performances. It's a career that started when he was just a high school student in Spanish Harlem, or El Barrio, as it was and still is known.

Tito Puente lived it up. He played it loud during the big-band heydays of the last century. When rock n' roll seduced the jazz audience, Tito Puente formed smaller jazz ensembles. He continued to garner awards and acclaim, including Grammy Awards in the '70s and '80s. Late in life, the king of Latin music even played himself, playing percussion on "The Simpsons."


SIMON: Tito Puente died eight years ago this past June at the age of 77. Joining us from New York to talk about Tito Puente is another distinguished percussionist and bandleader, Bobby Sanabria. Recently, Bobby's big band won a Jazz Journalist Association award for their latest album, "Big Band Urban Folktales." Bobby, nice to talk to you again.

SIMON: Great being here, Scott. Hello to everyone listening.

SIMON: What made Tito Puente the king of Latin music?

SIMON: Well, I mean, Tito Puente's one of the most important musicians in any genre in the 20th century. I would put him up there with Stravinsky, Leonard Bernstein, Jimi Hendrix, etc., etc. Not only was he an incredible percussionist, but he was a fabulous composer and arranger. I don't think people realize the depth of this man's musicianship. Ninety percent of what you would hear being played by his big band was either written by him and/or arranged by him.

SIMON: The album we're talking about today is a self-titled record, "Tito Puente and his Concert Orchestra." Let's talk about the first cut on this album, "El Rey del Timbal." This is quite a boast to make, isn't it?

SIMON: To say that and to prove that and demonstrate it was a really phenomenal thing. This is a...

SIMON: I am the king of the Timbal.

SIMON: Exactly.

SIMON: I am the law, he said, right?


SIMON: Yo soy la ley, yeah.


SIMON: But I understand, to use an old Latin-American expression, the "chutzpah" involved in I'm the king of the Timbal, is I am the law. The percussionist in most jazz bands is way in the back.

SIMON: Right. The drummer is usually in the back of a big band, but what Tito did with his orchestra is he put the percussion up front, the conga, the bongo and himself on the timbales in the front. Now, that served a dual purpose. He could cue the orchestra, and it also served as a symbol that he was the leader of the band to the audience and that he was the law, as far as it was concerned.

SIMON: Little background on Tito Puente. He was essentially a professional musician when he was in high school, wasn't he?

SIMON: Right, right. He was working locally with very small groups, etc. And then his first break was with the Jose Curbelo Orchestra when he was a young kid.

SIMON: Essentially dropped out of high school, played with Machito's band, World War II came along. He was drafted, served in the Navy. And then after the war, went to Juilliard.

SIMON: He studied piano for about eight years when he was a kid. And he studied drum set with a Mr. Williams, African-American show drummer in Harlem. Then later on, he started studying clarinet and saxophone, and he went to the Navy School of Music. People don't know this but he was in the Battle of Midway, the Battle of Guadalcanal. So he's part of American history, as far as World War II is concerned.

SIMON: Forgive me, he just wasn't playing the timbal at Midway, was he?

SIMON: No. He was, in those days, on all the battleships and on all the aircraft carriers, they would have musicians to keep morale up on the ship. He also played piano during mess hall, and he was the ship's bugler. A very funny story once, he was warming up and he didn't know that the microphone was on, and he started playing "General Quarters," which means battlestations, just to warm up. And all of a sudden, he looks around and the whole ship is going into a frenzy. And the captain, all of a sudden, goes on the loudspeaker, "Puente, get down here," you know.


SIMON: Very interesting career he had. I mean, in the Navy, he played alto saxophone in the ship's big band and occasionally he would play drums. And he was a gunner's mate.

SIMON: I wonder if some of that Juilliard training doesn't come through in a clip we want to play now, "Ritual Fire Dance."

SIMON: Well, the great orchestral composition by Manuel de Falla. I think Tito's Juilliard training came out in all of the things that he did. This is a great example of his knowledge of Afro-Cuban rhythm and his knowledge of the orchestra.

SIMON: Let's listen to a little bit of "Ritual Fire Dance." Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.


SIMON: Now to compare and contrast, Tito Puente and his concert orchestra.


SIMON: Now, what's going on here, Bobby? What do you hear?

SIMON: Well, there's a great combination of rock happening with the drum set, and then at the same time, you hear that cowbell playing that pattern, which is a part of the carnival conga de (unintelligible) rhythm from Cuba, and then on top of that, you have the horns coming in, particularly, the trombone is muted, doing a wah-wah(ph) effect, and then the beautiful lead trumpet sound, etc. And now we're in six, eight bembe rhythm, which directly comes from West Africa.


SIMON: And now it's cha-cha-cha.

SIMON: There's a lot going on here, isn't there?

SIMON: Right, right.

SIMON: What were his live performances like?

SIMON: Well, anybody that has seen him live can attest that he was the most exciting performer on the planet. I mean, he drew you in. He was...

SIMON: That's quite a statement to make.

SIMON: Yeah. He was a showman. And if you were lucky enough to see his show, experience the show where he would play vibes and/or marimba, it was even more exciting.

SIMON: Want to finish up with a composition called "Picadillo."

SIMON: Right, right.

SIMON: One of Tito Puente's earliest compositions. Now he named it after - he had a band called The Picadillo Boys?

SIMON: The original name of Tito Puente's first group was The Picadilly Boys. A promoter kind of gave him that name to sort of cross over into the so-called Anglo-American market.


SIMON: Picadillo becomes Picadilly.

SIMON: Picadillo is actually shredded Cuban beefsteak. It's a dish.

SIMON: Yeah.

SIMON: Now, this piece was recorded in the late 1940s. And what's interesting about the piece, it uses what we call in music, voicing in fourths, there's an interval of a fourth. In the way he comes(ph) on the marimba, that interval hadn't been explored at all, really, in Latin American music, especially and particularly in Afro-Cuban music. So it's very progressive from that standpoint. So he takes this tune he wrote in the late '40s and redoes it again, and listen to the power and the majesty of it.


SIMON: Why has the song endured? It's such a standard piece now.

SIMON: Well, because it's so driving and funky. I mean, as soon as you hear it, you want to dance mambo right away. In Afro-Cuban music, we've inherited this concept of being possessed by the music on the dance floor, the same thing that happens - used to happen in jazz with the great Lindy Hop dancers that used to dance at the Savorian(ph), reacted to the music of Chic Web(ph) and Duke Ellington and all the great swinging bands back there.

But we have this concept that goes way back farther in terms of having a spiritual experience on the dance floor. And when you hear the power of this band coming at you like a tidal wave and with those rhythms, you know, percolating, and it excites the human organism to its utmost, it's like being in ecstasy. I'm not saying it's better than sex, but it's close to it.


SIMON: I think we all need to take a deep breath, and let me thank you.

SIMON: It's always a pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: Bobby Sanabria joins us from New York. He is featured in the PBS documentary, "From Mambo to Hip-Hop," a South Bronx tale that's out on DVD next month. You're pretty good yourself, Bobby.

SIMON: Thanks for the opportunity again, Scott, to share this great, majestic music, that's so much not only a part of the history of New York but the history of all of us as Americans. Long live maestro Tito Puente.

SIMON: And you can hear full songs from Tito Puente and his concert orchestra on NPR music at npr.org


SIMON: This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.