Salsa and Latin jazz suffered a tremendous loss when, on May 31, 2000, Tito Puente died at the age of 77. Thankfully, the influential percussionist/bandleader left behind a huge catalog; one certainly cannot complain that El Rey wasn't well documented during his long career (which spanned more than half a century). And for his hardcore fans, it is good to know that previously unreleased Puente recordings will no doubt continue to surface posthumously. This album was recorded at the Playboy Jazz Festival (which is held annually at the Hollywood Bowl in Hollywood, CA) in 1994; however, the recording remained in the can for eight years and didn't come out on CD until 2002. Puente was a master of both vocal-oriented salsa and instrumental Latin jazz, and Live at the Playboy Jazz Festival is devoted to the latter. When Poncho Sanchez appears at the Playboy Festival, he typically performs a set that is about 80 percent Latin jazz and 20 percent salsa -- Puente's set, however, is 100 percent Latin jazz, and the timbalero oversees a rock-solid band that includes saxman Mario Rivera, trumpeter Charlie Sepulveda, flutist Dave Valentin, bassist Andy Gonzales (as in Manny Oquendo and Libre), pianist Hilton Ruiz, drummer Ignacio Berroa, and conga player Giovanni Hidalgo. Nothing groundbreaking occurs, but the all-star lineup is inspired and hard-swinging on Freddie Hubbard's "Little Sunflower" and Duke Jordan's "Flight to Jordan," as well as Mongo Santamaria's "Afro Blue" (which boasts a guest appearance by Santamaria himself). Live at the Playboy Jazz Festival falls short of essential, but it's a solid, pleasing disc that Puente's die-hard fans should be aware of.
AllMusic Review by Alex Henderson