El Inolvidable (Fania)
By Fernando Gonzalez
The Golden Age of Latin music in New York, centered around the Palladium Ballroom, was largely defined by three orchestras: Machito and His Afro Cubans, led by Frank “Machito” Grillo, and the groups of timbalero Tito Puente, and singer and multi-instrumentalist Tito Rodriguez. Each had a distinctive sound. All offered a rare mix of finesse, power and sabor (swing?) that remains the high watermark for large Latin jazz ensembles.
But of the three, The Big Three as they came to be known, Pablo Rodriguez Lozada, best known as Tito Rodríguez, is the least known to general audiences. El Inolvidable, a two-disc retrospective of his 60s recordings, should serve as a hell of a party starter – and a reminder of his contributions.
Rodriguez had impeccable musical schooling off and on the bandstand, monster hits, produced his own TV show and headlined at top spots. But as Ned Sublette and Harry Sepúlveda point out in their informative booklet notes, the lack of appreciation for Rodriguez has had more to do with his short career (Rodriguez died of leukemia on February 28, 1973 at age 50) and the vagaries of his record companies’ promotional efforts than with band or his own work. As they put it “Not only was Rodriguez’s band generally considered the most danceable of the three, it was, player for player,…probably the greatest collection of Latin musicians ever assembled in one regular working dance orchestra.”
And the fact that musicians such as bassist Israel Lopez “Cachao,” pianist and arranger René Hernandez, trumpeter Victor Paz, pianist Eddie Palmieri, saxophonists Mario Rivera, Ray Santos ( also an exceptional arranger) and Bobby Porcelli, were at one time or another members of his band makes their point amply. You can actually hear a lineup of the band as Rodriguez calls up their names, one by one, in his spoken intro to “Esta es mi Orquesta,” which by the time it was released, in 1968, was outdated. (It would have been a great contribution to fans and students to note the players and arrangers on these tracks.)
There are no fillers in the collection and some delightful surprises (Cachao’s “Descarga Cachao” basically a tight, swinging Cuban jam). And, although some hits have not been included (most notably “Inolvidable,” and “En La Soledad”), this is a very satisfying collection.
The set shows Rodríguez as a singer who can move from the sonero tradition, skating gracefully over the dance grooves (check “Yambú,” presented here live), to the easy swing in the Venezuelan-llanera music-classic-turned-guaracha “Alma Llanera,” his signature “Mama Guela,” or Chano Pozo’s “Blen, Blen, Blen.”) to smooth crooner (“Cuando Ya No Me Quieras,” “Si Te Contara,” or “ Cara de Payaso,”) and back with ease.
But not everything was sweetness and light – thankfully.
Rodríguez developed contentious relationships with fellow bandleaders, especially Tito Puente and Johnny Pacheco (by all accounts some for show and marketing, some real), and took them public, writing pieces about it, tweaking them, mocking them and generally showing his disdain, predating rappers by, oh, twenty something years. Check “Avísale a Mi Contrario,” (Warn My Rival) a direct shot at Puente. And listen closely to “El Que se Fué,” (The One Who Left) in which he sweetly sings “The one who left doesn’t matter, who matters is who’s coming in,” and in the refrain, still over a killer dance groove, adds “I don’t care about you or twenty like you, I keep swinging. You were not the one with the groove,” all allegedly directed at Pacheco.
Romantic? Elegant? Smooth? Oh sure, but he could also bring it if needed. And his audience heard it too. It was the barrio gone uptown – but still the barrio.
That tension was there, in the implacable grooves pushing forward under his exact phrasing, and the smart, sharp arrangements. And that’s just one reason why Rodriguez is inolvidable. Unforgettable.