TITO PUENTE - TOP PERCUSSION
Every now and then in the recording industry a classic comes along, a record with such vitality and creative genius that it endures for decades to come. Recorded on July 29, 1957 in New York City, Tito Puente’s Top Percussion is one such classic.
This record was made during an Afro-Cuban musical renaissance that occurred in America roughly from the mid 1950’s to early 1960’s. Quite a few recordings were made which featured the small handful of Cuban master percussionists living in the U.S. at the time. The range of styles from this era included Afro-Cuban folkloric drumming to Latin jazz collaborations between Cuban percussionists and the leading jazz artists of the day. Unfortunately, there were also some watered-down and commercialized attempts made during this period to wed Cuban and American popular music.
Not to worry though, Top Percussion is anything but watered-down. the musicians on this record have given us a wonderful gift by showing what they are capable of doing. Because of it’s musical integrity, it’s as hip today as it ever was.
Even by today's standards, the sound clarity and high production quality of Top Percussion is note worthy. The late fifties was the era of hi-fi and the beginning of the stereophonic revolution of the LP. RCA promoted it as “Living Stereo"
New York born, Puerto Rican-American Tito Puente is at his peak here, living up to his title as “El Rey Del Timbal.” Joining him are master Cuban percussionists Mongo Santamaria, Francisco Aguabella, Julito Collazo and the late American born Willie Bobo. Each of these artists are legends in their own right. On Top Percussion they are all young, in their prime, and hot!
Puente created two distinct parts to this record. One half consists of Afro-Cuban folkloric percussion with call and response singing, and the other features the heart of the latin bands rhythm section: congas, bongos, timbales and string bass.
On the first six cuts Julito Collazo and Francisco Aguabella demonstrate their expertise in the sacred music of the Lucumi (Yoruba in Cuba). We hear Bembe, Guiro and Iyesa. Collazo plays exquisite chekere and sings the lead on "Eleguara," "Bragada," "Oguere Madeo" and "Obaricoso." Aguabella sings lead on "Obatala Yeza" and "Alaumba Chemaché." These two also took a few artistic liberties within the traditional musical forms. For instance, on "Obatala Yeza" there’s a Iyesa lead drum being played as well as a lead Bata drum(lya). Aguabella plays the Iyesa lead taking turns improvising with Collazo, who’s playing the lead Bata drum part.
"Conga Alegre" is a Comparsa. This is the music that’s played in the streets during the time of Carnaval; a sort of Cuban Samba. The smoking quinto heard on this cut is played by Mongo Santamaria.
I have to hand it to Tito Puente for giving his side-men the opportunity to shine like this. However, I’ve always felt that one of the cowbells on the Iyesas and the snare drum on Conga Alegre were a bit too high up in the mix. Could these be the instruments that Puente is playing? If so, it’s a forgivable indulgence.
"Four by Two" and "Hot Timbales" are a couple of unique compositions that feature the timbales. The intensity is almost too much to bear. "Mon Ti" is a five minute timbale solo by Puente with Mongo holding down the bottom on congas. In my opinion this is one of the greatest timbale solos of all time. I don’t seem to ever get tired of it.
"Ti Mon Bo" is a moderately slow number featuring Tito on timbales, Mongo on congas and Willie on bongos. Willie Bobo made a name for himself as a timbale player, but on this cut he shows what a gifted bongo player he is as well.
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