Quatro: The Definitive Collection isn’t really definitive. This boxset is fixated on just one portion of Tito Puente’s career: 1956 to 1960. Considering he had an active music career for more than 50 years, that’s nothing but a tiny sliver. It includes four albums that Puente made for RCA Victor during this time, when in reality he recorded more than twice as many records during that four-year stretch. The boxset may be named Quatro, but there’s actually cinco CDs inside. In addition to Cuban Carnival (1956), Night Beat (1957), Dance Mania (1958) and Revolving Bandstand (1960), there is an additional disc of alternate takes with the Buddy Morrow Orchestra, breakdowns/false starts and both sides of Puente’s breakthrough single, “Ran Kan Kan”, which dates back to 1950 or 1951, depending on where you get your information.
Okay, so Quatro: The Definitive Collection is not quatro and not comprehensive. But the word Definitive is the one to pay attention to. Because music scholars and completists be damned, people old enough to remember the club scenes in ’50s Harlem would probably stand behind the assertion that this four album collection, this tiny four-year sliver of Puente’s recording career, was not just a boon to RCA Victor, but to the heritage and future of Latino music and to how our country processed its big band jazz. This boxset captures a brief moment in time when Tito Puente’s musical ambitions aligned perfectly with a somewhat adventurous yet dance-hungry record-buying public. After these RCA Victor records, nothing would be the same for Puente. He fought hard to get to the top. And oddly enough, he fought even harder to stay up there.
As far as 5-CD boxsets go, Quatro: The Definitive Collection is relatively brief. With 57 tracks all clocking in under three hours, you would have no problem scrunching it all down to just three CDs (that is, if you didn’t care about things like album continuity). But old record collectors know that quantity doesn’t always equal quality. In fact, shorter running times for vinyl of all speeds meant that recording artists had to cut to the chase out of necessity. The first three albums in the box hover around the 37-minute mark or so, but Revolving Bandstand doesn’t even clear the 30-minute mark, and the bonus CD is shorter still. The Mambo King didn’t like to waste time, that’s for sure.
Quatro: The Definitive Collection comes with a Certificate of Authenticity and more than 40 pages of biographical liner notes, photographs, scanned bits of memorabilia and full credits for each of the albums. Lots of little quotations are thrown in along the way from admirers such as Andy Garcia, Marc Anthony, Tony Bennett, Ricky Martin and Orlando Cepeda. Puente wasn’t just admired for his music — he seemed to also be universally loved as a friend. He may have referred to himself as a “Little Cesar” when negotiating his creative control with the labelmen at RCA Victor, but you would never guess such a thing while reading the anecdotes of friends. After being dead for more than 10 years, it seems that many people still aren’t ready to let go of the late, great Tito Puente.
Born in Harlem, 1923, to Puerto Rican immigrants, Ernesto Antonio Puente showed a special knack for music during his formative years. Seeing the writing on the wall, his parents not only signed up little Tito for music lessons but also let him run around Manhattan during the day to soak in all of the musical and cultural changes that were happening in front of everyone’s eyes. His interest in the piano led to percussion, trap drums in particular. Actually, Puente’s interest in auxiliary percussion was much more thorough than that, but for the sake of space I will condense history down to three words: timbales in front. As jazz and big band music allowed more Latin influences to seep in, the role of the drummer became less about keeping time and more about stirring up some crazy, infectious rhythms.
By the time Puente made Cuban Carnival, he was already determined to make his own brand of Latin jazz, orchestrated the way he wanted and propelled by the rhythms of his choosing. If he wanted a big trombone section, he was allowed to have it. The “Little Cesar” had has way and made quite a noise with the public by doing so. I was not alive in 1956, so the best thing I can do is a little mild research about the era (the music, socioeconomics, and so on), close my eyes, and imagine what it felt like to hear “Pá los Rumberos (For Dancers)” with everyone else for the first time. The horns positively pop through your speakers. And “Elegua Chango” feels like an odd choice for an album opener. Its theme doesn’t make itself known right away and a tempoless breakdown a third of the way into the track just confuses things further. The song doesn’t end with a restatement of the theme, but with some mad drumming and a good, old-fashioned wail from the horn section. “Night Beat” might have been deemed too sleazy (i.e. stripper music) for some American living rooms in the ’50s and “Malibu Beat” could have served as a nice, noisy irritant for the people who thought that the western world was going to hell in a handcart during the jazz age. Revolving Bandstand, Puente’s collaboration with trombonist Buddy Morrow and his orchestra, sounds clearer than the three preceding records (did recording technology really change that much between 1958 and 1960?). This is the sound of Tito Puente taking it a little more easy with Earle Hagen’s “Harlem Nocturne” and Johnny Mercer’s “Autumn Leaves”. And the bonus CD is for anyone on your Christmas list who might be caught thinking out loud “Hey, I certainly wouldn’t mind hearing Tito Puente and his band go through 10 minutes worth of false starts and breakdown takes while trying to record ‘Pá los Rumberos (For Dancers)’!” I’m sure those people are out there.
Tito Puente came and went, leaving behind quite a heavy amount of great music in his wake. Repackaging it all into a classy, attractive book doesn’t change a thing. What it does manage to do is remind those of us who are far too young to feel the initial tidal wave of Tito Puente’s Latin goodness that this guy was a self-made star second and a forward-thinking artist first. Things like that just don’t happen very often anymore. So while people my age are grateful for Puente’s cameo on The Simpsons, we can be even more thankful for this concise package. The real deal has been passed on to us, no bull about it.