By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -
Few people know the difference between mambo and salsa. Once the music starts, even fewer care.
No matter which style percussionist Tito Puente Jr. and the Grand Rapids Symphony played, the audience simply couldn’t sit still at the D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops on Thursday, Aug. 2.
I’ve been at the Picnic Pops for every year for its 24-year-history, and I don’t ever remember seeing so many people dancing at Cannonsburg.
“This is mambo mountain here tonight!” Puente Jr. told the cheering audience, and he was right.
Tito Puente Jr., son of the legendary Puerto Rican percussionist Tito Puente Sr., joined the Grand Rapids Pops for a hot and spicy evening of mambo, merengue and more made famous by the elder Puente Sr. who was known as “The King” or “El Rey.”
Whether that meant “The King of the Timbales” or “The King of Latin Jazz” or one of any number of possible titles bestowed on the elder musician from El Barrio in Spanish Harlem, Puente Sr. was a pioneering bandleader who not only bought Afro-Cuban jazz to mainstream America, he helped invent the genre.
Tito Puente Sr. died in 2000, but his music did not. Beginning with Mambo Gozon, Puente Jr. pounded out the same energetic, high-voltage entertainment from his timbales that his father once did.
Aside from a few departures, such as Cuando Calienta el Sol, made famous by Luis Miguel, the special-event concert at the D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops took audiences back to the days of the Palladium in New York City.
Associate Conductor John Varineau led the Grand Rapids Pops in more than 90 minutes of energetic music full of percussion dogfights on tunes such as Ran Kan Kan, and blazing brass and sultry saxophones, including plenty of solos in the orchestra, on tunes such as Babarabatiri, another of Puente Sr.’s biggest hits.
Back in the day, Puente Sr. had such famous Cuban singers as Lupe Victoria Yolí Raymon, better known as “La Lupe,” and Celia Cruz, the “Queen of Salsa,” on stage with him. Puente Jr. had Puerto Rican-born Melina Almodovar.
The singer known as “La Muñeca de la Salsa” or “The Doll of Salsa” was a sensation all her own, belting out Quimbara with all the fire and sass of Celia Cruz while lighting up the stage in a glamorous gown.
Oye Como Va was made famous by guitarist Carlos Santana’s 1971 recording, but Puente Sr. wrote it and recorded it a decade later. It was the final number of the night, and it brought the house down.
Puente Jr. told the audience at Cannonsburg he was inspired to carry on the work of his father who earned seven Grammy Awards, garnered 14 nominations, and played on hundreds of recordings.
Puente Sr.’s his final concert in April 2000 was with the Músicos de la Orquesta Sinfónica de Puerto Rico in San Juan just a few weeks before his death.
“I’m going to take it to the maximum level,” Puente Jr. recalled his father saying. “The symphonic level.”
That’s exactly what the Grand Rapids Symphony Picnic Pops audience got at Cannonsburg Ski Area.