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His 'contagious' music makes audiences want to dance

Spoken-word artist Lemon called Tito Puente "the Don Corleone of Latin Jazz" when he paid tribute to the late musician in "Def Poetry Jam on Broadway."

Puente, who played a major role in popularizing Latin music, gave us sizzling mambo, flavorful Latin jazz and the hit "Oye Como Va," which helped make Carlos Santana a superstar.

Now his son, Tito Puente Jr., who will perform June 26 at Symphony Park with the Charlotte Symphony, has developed his own twist on mambo and Latin jazz rhythms, with a dash of salsa.

Although Puente said he can't dance like his father used to, his music is contagious and typically motivates many in the audience to move.

"I can't dance," Puente said. "I have two left feet, but I do enjoy watching the crowd dance to my music."

Puente, a New York City native, studied music at Five Towns College and plays the piano, bass and various percussion instruments, including timbales and congas.

Although New York City audiences are his favorite, Puente also loves playing and living in his new home of south Florida, he said.

"South Florida is a mecca for Latin music," he said. "New York will always be my home, but now that I have children in Florida, I have planted my seeds there."

Puente's father - who influenced generations of all kinds of musicians, from Dizzy Gillespie to Santana - recorded 120 albums, composed more than 450 songs and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Perhaps Tito Puente Jr. will continue along his father's trailblazing path and make Latin jazz and mambo swing around the world again. Puente's recently released album "Got Mambo" has been praised by many Latin music aficionados in Miami and New York.

"It's very well produced," said Andy Harlow, host of "Fusion Latina" on WDNA-FM in Miami. "The CD has great mixes and sounds, lots of good arrangements by Marlow Rosado and others, and Tito Jr. has surrounded himself with some outstanding vocal and instrumental talent."

The recording, which includes songs with vocalists and several fusion tunes, is "Latin jazz, straight up mambo and swinging music," said Puente.

Audience members who attend the concert at Symphony Park will undoubtedly want to hear "Oye Como Va" and more of his father's tunes, but Puente said he, his band and the Charlotte Symphony plan to play songs that will please the "symphonic crowd."

Two local Latin music bands, Ultima Nota and Orquesta Mayor, will open for Puente.

The leader of Ultima Nota, Tony Arreaza, a Venezuelan native who has lived in Charlotte for 16 years, says the opportunity to open for Tito Puente Jr. is a major accomplishment for his band.

"We all grew up listening to his father's music," he said. Arreaza, a guitar player, said Santana's version of "Oye Como Va" greatly inspired him.

"Any Latin jazz player is definitely influenced by Tito's music," said Arreaza.

Ultima Nota musicians, who come from Venezuela, Mexico and El Salvador, play tropical rhythms with Bossa Nova and rock undertones.

In 1993, when Arreaza moved to Charlotte, getting gigs was a challenge for bands that played Latin music, but things have changed, he said.

"It was really hard with no places to play Latin music," he said. Back then, not many Latinos lived in the city. "But now Charlotte has an amazing reputation of local Latin artists."