As one of the premier ambassadors of Latin music, conguero and bandleader Mongo Santamaria melded styles to arrive at an infectious fusion of hot rhythms with the improvisational energy of jazz. Although his series of albums in the '50s for Fantasy and the early '60s for Riverside established his integrity as a major artist, it would be a contract with Columbia Records in the mid '60s that brought his music to a whole new audience, thanks to the publicity engine of a major label and the crossover potential of the material that was being recorded. While some critics quipped at the idea of pop tunes getting the Latin treatment, Santamaria always maintained his integrity with fine arrangements being provided by Marty Sheller, David Rubinson, and several other strong writers. As a result, versions of tunes such as 'La Bamba,' 'Shotgun,' 'Cloud Nine,' and others of the same ilk managed an air of authenticity even if the material was of the pop variety.
Early in the Columbia series was an album that still stands as one of the finest Mongo albums ever recorded and which is conspicuous for its lack of the type of pop material that usually made up a good deal of the bandleader's other albums of the time. El Bravo is quintessential Latin fare in the Cuban tradition, with a spicy jazz element added by an unmatched ensemble that included several fine jazzmen. Trumpeter Marty Sheller not only handled the high notes with ease, but also contributed crafty arrangements, while both Hubert Laws and Bobby Capers speak on woodwinds with equal proficiency. Without one tune from the pop hit parade in evidence, this program of all originals covers a lot of ground, from montunos to boleros. The Spanish vocals on a few tracks add another level of authenticity and the ballad 'Miedo' is especially choice in this regard. Throughout, the percussion section gets a chance to strut along with jazz soloists Sheller, Capers, and Laws. Speaking of the latter, his charanga-styled flute work on 'Monica' is also an album highlight.
In the same way that classic combos led by Miles Davis and John Coltrane in the '60s allowed those leaders to reach a higher artistic peak due to a unique ensemble chemistry, the '60s band heard on El Bravo was one of Mongo's best and it played a key ingredient in the kind of success that he enjoyed during his Columbia tenure. Completely ignored on a recent 'greatest hits' reissue of Santamaria's Columbia material, El Bravo is largely unknown and unjustly ignored and deserves a reissue as one of the best Latin-jazz albums of the '60s.