Old School, New School

The stylistic umbrella that links all genres of music casually referred to as “Latin jazz” is vast indeed. Yet, as the five current releases in our survey confirm, artists linked to this tradition are always in search of distinctive ways to put their own spin on timeless traditions.Tito Puente---Quatro: The Definitive Collection (Sony Music Latin) is not the first set to celebrate the Mambo King’s artistry, but it is unique in its packaging and in the works of the late Nuyorican maestro chosen for inclusion. The boxed collection, available in either CD or audiophile 180 gram LP formats, could have been called Cinco, as it includes a fifth disc that contains bonus tracks, alternative takes, new liner notes and rare photos---the kind of esoteric frills that will particularly excite Puente devotees and serious collectors.The vintage albums capture this genius of tropical dance music and Latin jazz during the peak of his pre-salsa days. They include Cuban Carnival (1956), a seminal session that features the first version of “Para Los Rumberos,” a hit for Carlos Santana 16 years later; Night Beat (1957), a forerunner of Puente’s 1980s brand of Latin jazz; and Dance Mania (1958), named by The New York Times as one of the 25 most significant albums of the 20th Century. Also included is the seldom heard Revolving Bandstand (1960), collaboration with trombonist Buddy Morrow’s big band. The two orchestras play side-by-side, switching effortlessly from Latin to swing. The limited edition release is an absolute must for any serious fan of El Rey.If Puente’s sound celebrates the music’s past, fast-rising Cuban composer and pianist Roberto Fonseca opens the door to the genre’s future in robust, truly riveting fashion on Yo (Concord Records). This visionary young artist honed his skills with the Buena Vista Social Club, learning traditional Cuban styles from those storied veterans. Today, it’s a more global and contemporary sound that has captured his attention. On Yo, Fonseca partners with such African musicians as Malian vocalist Fatoumata Diawara and fashions a hybrid of Latin and World Music influences that weaves strands of electronica, hip-hop and North African folk idioms into one invigorating new stylistic blend. Hypnotic rhythms interlock with his technically-precise, probing pianistics, the twang of traditional string instruments and African chants. Yo is something special.A true romantic who charts his own stylistic course with little concern for the conventions of the day, Costa Rican multi-instrumentalist and composer Luis Muñoz creates a dreamy world of exquisite, intellectually inquisitive music on Luz (Pelin Music). Always slightly under the radar screen of the music establishment, Muñoz dares to take a truly different path, focusing on serene themes and sparse arrangements featuring such unconventional instruments to the style as a pedal steel guitar, violin, muted cornet and marimba. Although he’s a top-flight percussionist, he keeps the rhythmic heat on a low simmer, allowing the lustrous melodies to disarm the listener with their inherent charm. At times Luz has an almost folksy quality. Those thirsting for something new can’t miss with this latest masterwork from Muñoz.Two Los Angeles-based groups have emerged as certified “Keepers of the Flame” -- bands and their leaders who refuse to give up on a great sound and keep finding ways to rejuvenate it. Timbalero Bobby Matos, a mover in the development of bugalú and salsa in New York in the 1960s, is still producing hot, swinging and danceable Latin jazz. On Mambo Jazz Dance (Lifeforce Jazz), the tireless Matos and his Afro Latin Jazz Ensemble are captured at their scintillating best on this live recording that features tunes from the Tito Rodriguez glory days to contemporary works that reflect a serious respect for the hallmarks of the tradition.Radio personality and producer José Rizo created an all-star band called Mongorama to perpetuate the classic charanga (flute and violin voiced) style popularized by the late Cuban conga player Mongo Santamaria in the 1960s. On Baila Que Baila (Saungú), with veterans like woodwind artist Justo Almario, pianist Oscar Hernandez and conguero Poncho Sanchez, the group sizzles. Tracks like the title tune, a ‘70s salsa dura standard, and an inventive remake of the Latin rock hit “Suavecito” make the date one not to miss.Mark Holston