Manhattan School of Music Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra cond. by Bobby Sanabria —Tito Puente Masterworks Live!!!— Jazzheads JH1184 74:44 ****1/2:
(Bobby Sanabria – Drums, Vibes, Marimba, Timbales, and Bombo; Daniel Jamieson – Alto and Soprano Sax; Jonas Ganzemuller – Alto Sax; Alex Lopez – Tenor Sax; Benjamin Britton – Tenor Sax; Michael Sherman – Baritone Sax; Paul Stodolka – Trumpet; Blake Martin – Trumpet; Justin Walter – Trumpet; Anthony Stanco – Trumpet; Tim Vaughn – Trombone; Luke Malewicz – Trombone; Sam Bittner-Baird – Trombone; Frank Cohen – Bass Trombone; Christian Sands – Piano; Norman Edwards – Drums and Vibes; Eddy Hackett – Timpani, Bongo/cencerro, Maracas, Clave, Shekere, and Guiro Macho; Danny Robbins – Maracas, Clave, Shekere, and Gong; Obanilu Allende – Bongo/Cencerro, Congas, and Shekere; Jake Goldbas – Congas, Caja, Timbales, and Clave; Cristian Rivera – Congas, Timbales, and Bongo/Cencerro; Frank Fontaine – Wooden Terserola Flute)
“Ladies and Gentlemen, in his true genius—Maestro Tito Puente!” With these words, conductor and multi-instrumentalist, Bobby Sanabria introduces the Manhattan School of Music Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra’s tribute “Tito Puente Masterworks Live!!!” The concert recorded here, in front of a rightfully enthusiastic crowd, handles the difficult task of presenting the true scope of Puente’s genius remarkably well.
Tito Puente suffers the enviable problem of having so many talents—bandleader, composer, arranger, dancer, charismatic performer, revolutionary timbalist, multi-instrumentalist—that the few can overshadow the many. Recognizing that Tito Puente’s larger-than-life personality, on and off-stage, often receives a far greater share of the attention, Sanabria showcases Puente’s masterworks as a means to remind us just how talented a composer and arranger he really was. If this sounds overly academic or stodgy of an exercise, don’t worry—Tito Puente first and foremost understood how to bring big crowds and keep them dancing, and this is a priority that Sanabria does not forget.
The Manhattan School of Music Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra is unrecognizable as a student ensemble, except maybe in its complete harmony as a group, with no players vying for the spotlight at the expense of the whole. The soloists are of such a high level that none of them emerge as more memorable than the others, though Norman Edwards steals the show by demonstrating his virtuosity to be equally compelling on drums and vibes.
The thirteen songs played cover many, if not all sides of Puente the composer and arranger, while also proving the relevance of Latin Jazz as its own tradition—a point lost on the Grammies, who removed the category, along with many others and sparked a protest movement led in no small part by Sanabria. While Jazz fans won’t ever find themselves lost listening to this album, they will notice much that is unfamiliar about the structure of the tunes and the part melody plays.
Only two of the songs, “Autumn Leaves” and Oscar Pettiford’s “Bohemia After Dark,” are straight jazz tunes, but they are more than enough to put to rest any doubts Puente understood the language of jazz. Interestingly enough, in this setting the more traditional jazz arrangements feel like they swing less hard than the Afro-Cuban jazz represented on the rest of the tracks. The bass walks, rather than repeating its rhythmic pattern, the percussionists lay out to allow more room to state the melody, and the less complex rhythms also leave less of a groove to lock into as listeners and, presumably dancers.
“Picadillo” offers the best synthesis between the Afro-Cuban traditions and the sound and melodic approach of Jazz. Sanabria solos on vibes and also drives the orchestra well from behind them. The talented playing of the pianist Christian Sands rises more to the front, with a more familiar structure of melody followed by soloists. Daniel Jamieson’s soprano evokes shades of Shorter in orchestral settings.
“Ran Kan Kan” and “Alegre Cha-Cha-Cha” represent Puente as dancer’s best friend, while “Me Acuderdo De Ti” and the guest vocalist Rachel Perez point to his long history of working with vocalists like the legend Celia Cruz.
Ultimately, Masterworks Live!!! harkens back to the great diversity of cultures and sounds interacting in the early and mid-twentieth-century in Harlem. A person with the right ears, like Tito Puente, could learn the musical traditions from around the world without leaving New York—which is how a Puerto Rican could become the most well known presenter of Afro-Cuban music in and out of this country. It also serves as a reminder that jazz was and can still be dance music, without sacrificing its artistry.
TrackList: Intro/Elegua Changó; Picadillo; Bohemia (Birdland) After Dark; Autumn Leaves; Cuban Nightmare; Mambo Buddha; Ran Kan Kan; Alegre Cha-Cha-Cha; Ritual Fire Dance; Yambeque; Mambo Beat; Mambo Adonis
— Robin Margolis