Essential Album: Tito Puente's Dance Mania

Mainstream America’s embracement of Latin music really took hold in the latter half of the 1950s with the “mambo craze.” Despite its faddish overtones and eventual disintegration into novelty (”Mambo Italiano”), this particular craze inspired some terrific music, none better than Tito Puente’s Dance Mania, which in 2000 was named one of the 25 “most significant albums” of the 20th century by the New York Times.

Puente, a native New Yorker of Puerto Rican heritage, was a brilliant percussionist (especially on timbales), composer and arranger, all of which are on display in this two-CD expanded edition that includes the original album and 1960’s Dance Mania Vol. 2 (both with bonus tracks).

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These 45 large-ensemble tracks, many with vocals, are exuberant examples of such fundamental Afro-Cuban rhythms as mambo, cha-cha, rumba and bolero – which, collectively, serve up a variety of tempos: almost-slow, medium, fast. While there is a patina of bachelor-pad kitsch to the music, there’s nothing hokey about it. Puente, influenced heavily by Ellington and Basie, dials back the brassy shrillness that has characterized much of the salsa music of later eras. The horns have a creaminess that sits well on the ear, and adds an element of cool to the sound.

Dance Mania is not Latin jazz, most of which fails. Instrumental solos are infrequent and short. The music’s drive comes from its percolating grooves, exquisite arrangements and just the right proportion of passionate singing (all in Spanish). This stuff ranks with any feel-good music ever made – and you can dance to it.

There’s a scene early in Stripes when Bill Murray’s character, John Winger, is taking a verbal lashing by his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend. “And then you play those stupid Tito Puente albums until the morning,” she rails. Turns out that Winger had splendid taste.

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