Released in 2002 as Proper Box 48, Ritmo Caliente marks an exciting high point in this label's catalog and may be the largest anthology ever devoted to Machito's Afro-Cubans. By focusing on the Caribbean dance music delivered by this band in the early ‘40s, the first of four CDs provides important background for Machito's historic collaborations with early modern jazz heroes later in the decade. In tracing his progress through the years 1947-1951, Proper illustrates how (like Tito Puente) Machito chose a more progressive path at a time when Xavier Cugat, Desi Arnaz, and Edmundo Ros each modified his act for more lucrative appeal to mainstream pop audiences. While Pablo's Mucho Macho is still the best single-disc introduction to Machito, Ritmo Caliente is recommended for those who want to delve deeper and learn more about this remarkable individual and his consistently excellent ensemble. Born in 1912 as Frank Raul Grillo in Havana, Machito sang and handled maracas from an early age. He came to New York in 1937 and made his first records singing backup for vocalist Alfredito Valdez. In 1938, he and his sister Graciela sang with the Septeto Anacaona, and he recorded with el Quarteto Caney, el Conjunto Moderno, and la Orquesta Hatuey. After serving as lead singer with bands under the leadership of Nora Morales and Augusto Coen, Machito joined forces with Mario Bauza in 1939 to form their first Afro-Cuban band. Bauza, who married Machito's sister Estella, is a figure deserving of wider recognition. In his youth he played clarinet, bass clarinet, and oboe with the Havana Philharmonic. After moving to New York at the age of 19, he blew trumpet with orchestras under the direction of Noble Sissle, Chick Webb, Don Redman, and Cab Calloway. It was Bauza who talked Cab into hiring Dizzy Gillespie, who later named Bauza as a major influence, whereas Machito drew inspiration from Webb, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie.
The Afro-Cubans were reconstituted in 1940 and settled in at the La Conga on 53rd Street near Broadway and Seventh Avenue, where they served as the house band for several years. Near the end of June 1941, the Afro-Cubans began making records for the Decca label, and 22 of these are reproduced on Disc One of the Machito Proper Box. Many of these tracks feature the singing of Cuban middleweight pugilist Miguelito Valdes who, like Machito, also worked with Xavier Cugat. Disc Two opens in February 1947 with a volley of vocals by Tito Rodriguez, backed by the Afro-Cubans with conga drummer Luciano Chano Pozo, whose contributions to modern jazz consisted of collaborations with Charlie Parker, James Moody, Dizzy Gillespie, and Machito. In 1948, unfortunately, Pozo was slain inside the Rio Bar at 111th Street and Fifth Avenue. The rest of Machito's percussionists really need to be mentioned by name, for none of this music would have worked the way it did without them. Machito's bongo man was Jose Mangual, while Tony Escollies or Ubaldo Nieto played timbales. In addition to Pozo, the congas were handled by Luis Miranda and Carlos Vidal. Late in 1947, Stan Kenton invited Machito and some of his drummers to help "exoticize" his oversized big band. According to Dizzy Gillespie, Vidal was lured away by Kenton, who decided that no orchestra could present Latin American jazz better than his own.
Meanwhile, Machito and Bauza were busily making history with the forceful combination of Afro-Cuban music and real modern jazz. Their live broadcasts from the Royal Roost, Bop City, and Birdland feature trumpeter Howard McGhee, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, and saxophonists Flip Phillips, Brew Moore, and Zoot Sims. In addition to vocals by Machito and his sister Graciela Perez, there is a surprise appearance at the end of Disc Two by Harry Belafonte, who is heard singing "Lean on Me" live at the Roost in 1949. Disc Three in the set is roughly commensurate with the Pablo collection Mucho Macho, although Proper excised a handful of jazz standards and a theme by Edvard Grieg to make room for a few sides from 1949 and 1950. Highlights include Margeuerita Lecuona's "Babalu", the nutty "U-Bla-Ba-Du" (a variant on Gillespie's "Oo-Bop-Sh'Bam"), and a sanguine, Cuban descarga called "Babarabatiri." While Mario Bauza blew oboe on "Asia Minor" and the "Cleopatra Rumba," the soloist on "Oboe Mambo" was Mitch Miller, who also played this instrument in the chamber jazz unit billed as Bird with Strings. The fourth disc opens with the famous "Afro Cuban Jazz Suite," composed, arranged, and conducted by Chico O'Farrill and featuring alto sax virtuoso Charlie Parker. The collection concludes with three hot sets recorded live at Birdland in 1951.