Family resemblance


Tito Puente Jr. walks into a recording studio in North Miami flashing his father's famous rascally grin, and a time warp bends the room back to the '50s. Wearing a loose linen shirt and trousers and a helmet of thick black hair, the son of the timbales king puts on a CD and starts bobbing to the Latin music legend's classic song ''Cayuco.'' Except for the tattoos lining both of his forearms, Puente Jr. looks almost identical to photos of his father at the time he recorded the song for Dancemania, the groundbreaking record that's been called the best dance album ever made.

The family resemblance might not be so worthy of note if it weren't for the fact that the younger Puente, now 33, didn't always look so much like his father. At the time of his 1996 debut Latin house CD, Guarachando, Puente Jr. sported slicked-back hair and hip-hop attitude and answered to the nickname ''Prince of the Night.'' His stage show featured acrobatic dancers, pyrotechnics, and the Nasty Boys, a pair of professional strippers in G-strings.

In both his look and sound, the young Puente came off as a sort of Latin-tinged MC Hammer, often sporting bright satin blazers and what he once described as ''a lot of plastic.'' Puente Jr.'s hyper blend of tropical rhythms and electronic beats sounds dated now, but it was pretty fresh for its time, a frivolous dancefloor fiesta falling somewhere between DLG's seductive barrio groove and Ricky Martin's Latin lover pop. Before Martin ushered in the so-called Latin boom of the late '90s, Puente had a club hit with a remix of his dad's enduring crossover hit ``Oye Como Va.''

Today, the synthetic fashions have been sent to their eternal fate as landfill (the classically tailored tropical outfit Puente wears today is from the J.C. Penney Havanera clothing line he's now endorsing) and the synthesized music has, at least for the moment, gone by the wayside as well. The version of ''Cayuco'' playing in the studio might at first be mistaken for the original, but it's faster, and, as Puente points out, ''modern, because I'm doing it.'' It's one of ten well-known Tito Puente songs that he recorded here with the Tito Puente Jr. Orchestra, with whom he'll play this Friday at PURE in downtown Miami.

''It's the son performing the music of my late father the best way I know how,'' says Puente Jr., who's come up with a fitting title for his upcoming CD, to be released this spring: En los zapatos de mi padre/In My Father's Shoes. He explains that he had the idea for the album after his father died in 2000.

''I said `I need to step back and think about what I'm doing','' he recalls. ``And I just thought it was time [to do something with my father's music]. I see it as my destiny to let kids know who the leaders of Latin music were, that it didn't all start with Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez. I don't want my father to just be a name in a book. He was always an ambassador for Latin music and we have to keep this music alive.''

So Puente Jr. got out some old videos of his father playing and practiced the timbales (''I watched his technique, but I'm not copying it: there is no replacing the king,'' he cautions.) He recruited musical director Marlow Rosado and called up some seasoned musicians from the Tito Puente Orchestra, like sax man Mario Rivera, who played with Puente for thirty years, then added a core of younger musicians from various backgrounds.

''It was recorded here, but it's got the New York feel,'' he says of the new album. ``It's authentic Puente.''

Puente Jr. says he's updated his father's old hits including ''Ran Kan Kan'' and ''Complicación'' to appeal to today's radio programmers and also to CD buyers in this attention-deficit era. Each song is only about three minutes long. 'On my dad's records, it's like `Oh my God, that guy's taking a solo for years.' That's good live, but on the album its should be very quick.''

Aware that In My Father's Shoes could provoke more comparisons -- positive and negative -- to his father than he's experienced before. Puente says he also looks to his father for inspiration in dealing with criticism.

''My dad was almost like [mafia boss John] Gotti -- he was like Teflon. You could say something bad about Tito Puente, but the reality was that the genius, the musical legacy, was so much bigger than anything you could say about one person,'' he says. 'Some people may say, `He's only in it 'cause he's Tito Puente Jr.' Well, tough. I can't get away from that identity so I might as well embrace it. The music is what really counts.''

Tito Puente Jr. and his orchestra perform at 11:30 p.m. and 1:30 a.m. Friday, April 2, at PURE, 66 SW Sixth St., Downtown Miami. Pop artist Rico also performs. Tickets are $15 in advance, $20 at the door. For more info, call 305-579-0974.