Tito Puente

El Rey

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This session, originally released in 1984 in a garish, psychedelic cover that's too bizarre for words, marks Tito Puente's temporary return to the small-combo sound that originally made his name, after several years at the head of various big bands. (Of course, in Puente terms, ten pieces qualify as a small combo.) The set list is a nice mix of Puente originals and jazz standards, with a powerhouse, frenzied version of John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" and a slinky, swaggering reworking of Puente's signature song, "Oye Como Va" (with some amazing, full-bodied flute work courtesy of Mario Rivera) among the highlights. The salsa and jazz combo is at their most explicit in an extended, rump-shaking medley of the standard "Stella by Starlight" and Puente's own "Delirio." Unfortunately, only that tune and a hypnotic, conga-driven take on the oldie "Equinox" break the five-minute barrier, which means that the players don't have the room to stretch out that the best salsa albums provide. That quibble aside, El Rey proves only that several decades into his career, Tito Puente still deserves his title.

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