Hugh Hefner’s brief comments in the liner notes to Tito Puente: Live At The Playboy Jazz Festival hint at his inspiration from jazz, so much so that he helped to create the festival. And they recall his enjoyment of Puente’s music.
But sonically, the CD lets a broader audience now know why he enjoyed it. For, Puente’s hour-long performance at the Playboy Jazz Festival in 1994, which forms the basis for the album, was simply irresistible.
Recorded for radio play, René Engel’s and Larry Mantle’s introduction of the members of Puente’s Golden Latin All Stars received such a rousing response from the audience that one would think that the members of a World Cup soccer team were standing on stage to receive unrestrained adulation. With whistling, clapping, exuberant chatter, shouting and applause, the group strode on stage to heightened expectations, which performances by Pete Fountain and David Sanborn had already stoked. Primed to make their appearance an unforgettable occasion, that’s exactly what they did, and attendees still remember that evening at the Hollywood Bowl.
Starting with Hilton Ruiz’s "New Arrival," the Golden Latin All Stars didn’t hold back in releasing energy for the performance. Mario Rivera, certainly one of his generation’s most under-rated saxophonists, breaks loose with a supercharged solo, possessing infectious groove, effortless technique, squawks and aggressiveness. Once Ruiz takes command of his own tune, it becomes evident that he is one of the major contributors to the evening’s success, his Tynerish approach to the lower register pouncing upon the roots of the chords while he alternates between two-handed assertion and development of the final feel of clavé.
Freddie Hubbard’s "Little Sunflower" unfolds from Andy Gonzales’s percolating bass lines as piano and percussion embellish them. After the first statement of the theme, Dave Valentin punches up the spirit of the tune with stuttering flute lines, repeated instantly by Ruiz, as well as extroverted zooming and swing, the instrument a release for the feeling within. Rivera, once again, slays the audience with a trance-like soprano sax solo as the layers of sound build for an impression, rather than a statement.
Mongo Santamaria shows up as the special guest to perform on his own "Afro Blue," and from the circular melody evolves a swaying interpretation that leads Valentin into extended choruses of rising intensity and Ruiz into piano slamming and block-chorded drive. A purely percussive piece, "Ti-Mon-Gi," follows, the pitched instruments stripped away for a celebration involving motion, rhythm and instantaneous communication.
And then there’s Tito Puente, the leader of the group and the force behind the music, his timbales ever-present as an essential element of his music. Tito Puente: Live At The Playboy Jazz Festival serves as a reminder of the feel-good atmosphere that resulted from all of his concerts and which so many of his enthusiasts remembered after he passed in May, 2000. Unforgettable music, like that heard by the concertgoers at the Playboy Jazz Festival, keep his spirit alive.