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Interviews

Eddie Palmieri: Latin Jazz Standard-Bearer

By Published: October 8, 2003

I'm really, essentially, a bandleader for dance orchestra. That was my forte always. Except that I love variations and extensions.

Eddie Palmieri has enjoyed a long career presenting Latin music to the United States and to the world. It's his calling, for sure, but it may be more than that.

You see, Palmieri feels that the music he brings—dance music with the excitement that comes from real Cuban-based rhythms first, and jazz or other flavors second—may be dying out. The baton for keeping that kind of music alive was passed on in the new millennium after the recording of the outstanding CD Masterpiece in 2000, on which Tito Puente and Palmieri collaborated. Just a short time after it was made, Puente passed away. Palmieri laments that what calls REAL Latin jazz is getting lost. Other forms of the music, some very popular among jazz fans and very well executed, are really 'jazz Latin,' said the bandleader/composer/arranger/pianist.

'The players that are coming up' they're more interested in Latin jazz. And the Latin jazz that they play is more jazz Latin. Then you can see how damaging that is to the hard-core salsa. Those structures have been completely altered. If you don't follow them sacredly, they just fall apart and then nobody really knows about it and it becomes extinct.'

What is he talking about? In lieu of explanation, go to the soon-to-be-released Ritmo Caliente, Palmieri's latest CD on Concord Picante, a branch of Concord Records that caters to Latin music.

The new CD, and his previous one for Concord Picante, La Perfecta II, are examples of 'hard-core salsa, the hard-core Latin jazz,' said Palmieri. The rhythms are crisp and the music shifts into different styles and tempos, but it has Palmieri written all over it. And it's eminently danceable.

'Latin jazz is when it's danceable ' the way I perform. Otherwise, the majority of Latin jazz, in my opinion, is jazz Latin. It's more jazz than Latin, when you have a trap drummer and conga player. I use the whole rhythm section, like we used to do when we used to call them 'instrumental mambos' in the mid-50s. They're danceable. There's a chart. There's a whole orchestration,' he said.

Palmieri is always a high-energy performer, and his bands of late have been augmented by the remarkable trumpet of Bryan Lynch and trombonists like Conrad Herwig, while being propelled by a full Latin rhythm section ' not just a trap set with conga drums. He talks about the form of his energetic dance music having 'tension and resistance' and resolving those musical movements and emotions, 'like sex and danger,' is one of the keys that makes that certain brand of salsa and mambo so powerful.

'I have never heard any structure as powerful and as exciting and as complicated, by holding that tension and resistance,' he boldly states.

Its absence in modern Latin music, claims Palmieri, 'has led to a disaster in our [Latin music] presentation. There's no essence of an orchestra anymore. At one time, on the radio, you knew that was the Machito Orchestra, you knew that was Tito Rodriguez' The signature of the artist. That, you can't tell anymore. The orchestrations are all bland.'

Bland is not a word that comes to mind on Ritmo Caliente. It illustrates the bandleader's point. The CD presents mostly high-energy pieces that not only express Palmieri's type of Cuban beats, but pull in influences from the jazz world, from Bach, from bolero and more. 'Instrumental mambos,' he said, are an extremely important part of the Latin music arsenal. 'That's the way for me to go, constantly. And that's what you hear on my CD.'

Born in 1936 in Spanish Harlem, he was first influenced by his brother Charlie, not only because he was a musician ' instrumental in helping Tito Puente get his start and a key part of his musical life ' but also because his brother had a collection of records from both traditional American big bands and Latin orchestras. Eddie readily took it all in. After taking piano lessons, Eddie began as a timbalero working with a group featuring two of his uncles. It wasn't long before he was leading his own group.

In the early 1950s, he joined Eddie Forrester's Orchestra as a pianist and in 1955 he joined Johnny Segui's band. He spent a year with the Tito Rodriguez Orchestra ' one of his main influences—before forming his own band, Conjunto La Perfecta, in 1961. La Perfecta featured a trombone section and demonstrated Palmieri's different style of orchestration. That style has garnered fans around the world and Palmieri feels he's delivered a product in his new CD that will be well received by anyone who loves music.

His career has never stopped, not has his energetic spirit. When Palmieri speaks about the music, he is wound up. He's eloquent. He doesn't shy from stating what he feels about his musicians, his influences and the music he has loved all his life.

The bandleader said he will not compromise his vision, not for record producers or club owners. He didn't seek the baton that was passed to him from Puente, but he accepts it. And that's good for music, because Palmieri has a long way to go before he's finished.

He laid things out as he spoke with All About Jazz.

All About Jazz: The new CD is with your regular group, yes?

Eddie Palmieri: That's what makes it, in my opinion, unique. It's the same personnel. We change into three different genres on the CD. Like La Perfecta II [Palmieri's previous CD]. The last two, we certainly have concentrated on the hard-core salsa, the hard-core Latin jazz. Latin jazz is when it's danceable ' the way I perform. Otherwise, the majority of Latin jazz, in my opinion, is jazz Latin. It's more jazz than Latin, when you have a trap drummer and conga player. I use the whole rhythm section, like we used to do when we used to call them 'instrumental mambos' in the mid-50s. They're danceable. There's a chart. There's a whole orchestration.

Numbers like 'Billie,' 'Leapfrog to Harlem,' and 'Grandpa Semi-tone Blues.' Along that order. Then the jazz waltz, like we did on the last one, 'Bianco's Waltz,' for my teacher Miss LaBianco, who passed away. And on this CD, Mr. Johann Sebastian Bach, 'Gigue (Bach Goes Bata),' the master. The idea behind that is what it would be like if the great composer would have known of the African rhythms 500 years ago—within the middle of that, after we finished the composition that he wrote. It's a piece that I played when I was 11 years old, with a teacher called Miss Margaret Bonds who is in the history books. I took my lesson at the building in Carnegie Hall. She had studios there and my brother was another student of hers.

I knew that some day I would be able to utilize it. I did a few charts with it ' a big band thing I did at Carnegie Hall with Tito Puente and then I had a small group arrangement of it. Then I turned that over to Mr. Bryan Lynch and he added the strings that enhanced it and did a writing from his own point of view on it and it turned out to be, in my opinion, quite an outstanding achievement. I have to thank Mr. Bryan Lynch for the work that he did. We collaborated on that one together. It's putting together the great composer with the African rhythms with the bata drums. Three bata drums, they strap them onto their legs. We added that in the middle and then we converted that into a hard-core jazz waltz. So we covered the three genres.

AAJ: Bryan's been with you for quite a while.

EP: He's really a genius, you know? He's really something. A great jazz player. A great trumpet player. Works very hard to have his trumpet happening all the time. And now he is extending himself as an arranger. We collaborated on the 'Bach Goes Bata,' but the 'Tema para Rene,' which I wrote for my oldest daughter Rene, he brought that chart in. There we did the bolero, then we go into the trio and jazz, and back to bolero. It's really like the words Dr. Joseph Schillinger used in his theory of music, which is really 'a readjuster of music.' A readjuster is he who can hear from another epic, another time, another genre, and then be able to readjust it into your genre or whatever you're looking to do with it. I enjoy doing that.

AAJ: The concept of the CD was to put out that kind of danceable feeling that you think is missing from some of the other groups.

EP: Yeah. What happened, in general, and specifically in our genre, is the compositions themselves and the arrangements of the compositions, have really been altered to remove the tension and resistance. And when you do that, you have a dull or very minimal climax. The structure that I religiously ' obligated through my soul ' constantly present are the structures that are Cuban before the doctrine changed in 1960 in Cuba.

The orchestras that existed in the '20s and '30s, and particularly the '40s, '50s and early '60s were the maximum, ever, in generating the maximum climax and most excitement in less than three minutes. Because you were only allowed to record from two minutes and 45 seconds to about two minutes and 50 seconds.

We recorded 'Azucar' in the dance genre and that went for 8:30. There had been other orchestras, like Machito, who did the Afro-jazz suites, and they were in the time intervals of jazz. But never in dance music. They always kept it at 3 minutes. That was the law, more or less. When I recorded 'Azucar' we broke that whole precedent. We extended on this CD that same structure of my Latin dance—I'm really, essentially, a bandleader for dance orchestra. That was my forte always. Except that I love variations and extensions. And that has led to different variations of recordings that I have utilized.

On this one, I believe the genre needs what they call a rhythmical, lyrical and harmonic musical oxygen cocktail. It's needed. At a time that the record industry is at its low ebb. Unfortunately, with everything that's happening, we have to present the highest degree of a product. That product comes from the preparation within the orchestra leader, whoever he may be, and whom he has associated himself with. And I make sure I associate myself with tremendous talents. Like Bryan Lynch, (trombonists) Conrad Herwig and Doug Beavers. I mentioned that to a friend of mine and he said, 'I'll tell you. It makes things easier.' [laughs].

What really comes out of there is the quality of each section, the quality that comes out of the preparation of each musician. Like in the rhythm section, we have Mr. Johnny Rodriguez on conga and George Delgado. Jose Santiago on bass, who is the forerunner, in my opinion, of the bass players in my genre— and lookout in any genre. He truly is extending on his preparation, and on top of that he never left his ABCs of how to accompany the music of the early Cuban structure.

Because after 1960, Cuba went jazz. Really jazz, the majority of the orchestras and the small groups. Iakere, for example, and then Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Chucho Valdez. The two of them, I always tell them they not only frighten the piano, they frighten me. These guys can PLAY, man. But their structures and what they present, the orientation of it, is jazz. Rubalcaba hasn't really extended beyond his trio since he arrived in the United States. Their feeling is more jazz and they have certainly excelled and put their names in the annals of jazz. I'm not a jazz pianist, but I certainly comprehend the jazz harmonics and jazz feeling, from my listening to my favorite straight jazz pianists. That hasn't harmed me. That's always in me. But my structures of dance, of the hard-core salsa, I could never compromise. I just couldn't do it. I wouldn't record. If I was told, 'You know, Eddie, you'll have to'' I would say, 'Thank you very much. It's been nice.' I would say, like Sammy Davis Jr. wanted on his tombstone: 'It's been a gas.' But I wouldn't alter the structure that I know. I have never heard any structure as powerful and as exciting and as complicated, by holding that tension and resistance.

Like professor Schillinger writes. It's like sex and danger. The reaction of sex in the human organism is love. And danger brings fear. And these extremes are what you need in tension and resistance to reach that maximum climax. When we have what we call the mambo. That's when that guy is riding high. You maintain it there until you have to surrender to the gravitational pull of the earth and go to the coda. I always try to resist that, even in the codas. That's by getting what we call a balancing axis ' not to surrender. I know I have to surrender at the end, but not to surrender so meekly, so to speak. So you make the codas so exciting, which you have heard in tremendous jazz bands as well. I certainly insist in having that in all my compositions, if I'm able to insert it. It all depends on which composition, how the coda's going to end.

For example, in the first cut 'La Voz del Caribe,' the bass and I we're moving up in four harmonies, actually in minor thirds. We're moving [sings the upward line]. I try to make the coda as exciting as I possibly can. I enjoy doing that.

AAJ: Your style is different that Poncho Sanchez or Jerry Gonzales and some of the other bands that are out there.

EP: Everybody has their own characteristics of what they want to present and they have all done some wonderful work. I can't opinionate about their work, because I really haven't heard enough of their works to do that. I know Jerry Gonzales. He performed with me and my orchestra when he was a very young man. Poncho Sanchez, I just met him really. He came to say hello at the Catalina jazz supper club in Los Angeles. We said hello. And now we're in the same company, so we're talking about a few things in the future. Like when we record the Concord Picante All-Stars. That should be quite an exciting project to get into.

We said hello, we exchanged and all that. But they have their own form of their Latin jazz. Poncho uses the whole rhythm section and he's done his Latin things. And Jerry certainly knows about his rhythmical patterns because he also sits behind the conga drum. But the work that they do is really more jazz Latin, in the sense of the composition. It's more jazz Latin than what I present, Latin jazz. Because the charts tell it all. When you hear it, you hear the chart. The mambo.

I orchestra it just like if I was orchestrating for a vocal. If I was doing salsa, for example. If I had Herman Olivera singing, I would structure it the same. Background music, then piano solo, conga solo and then a mambo. Very exciting. I use that in the same form. That's why to me, it's instrumental mambos. That's the word we always treasured, from Tito Puente down to myself and all the different orchestras in between. Like Machito and Tito Rodriguez. I recorded in 1959 and album Live at the Palladium with Tito Rodriguez, one of the greatest albums that was ever recorded. You had the hard-core salsa. At that time it wasn't called salsa. But that's the idea. Latin dance music. And then Latin jazz. We had composition like 'It's a Fabulous World,' by Aaron Sachs. 'Double Talk.' 'Satin and Lace,' by Phil Sunkel, the trumpet player. Excellent work. And that was 1959. Those instrumental mambos were very important to have in your repertoire. That's the way for me to go, constantly. And that's what you hear on my CD.

Especially on this one. We do the whole extension. When we go to 'Tema para Rene' with the four strings, two violins, viola and cello, it's absolutely wonderful. It makes the CD, in my opinion, one of tremendous variation that will hold the interest of anyone that really appreciates Latin music, Latin jazz or jazz.

AAJ: Who are some of the people, like Tito Puente, who influenced you?

EP: My brother, Charlie Palmieri, was my main inspiration, and whatever orchestras he brought home on record. At that time they were 78s. I was nine years younger than he. No other brothers or sisters. He would start with the old Glenn Miller Band, Tommy Dorsey. The Big Band era. Then you had the big bands of the Latins. Nora Morales, which was my brother's idol. A pianist. Puerto Rican. He had a big band in New York. Cuban pianist Jose Curbello. You had Miguelito Valdes, who was in 1940 and '41 with Xavier Cugat. And he had his own orchestra also at one time. Going into 1950, then it became all Cuban for me. By 1956, I was already into orchestras coming out of Cuba. They had a run of at least four more years before the doctrine changed.

In the jazz world, you start with Mr. Art Tatum, and then you must go into Bill Evans , with all the great players in between, and end up with a McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock. Keith Jarrett. I could keep mentioning names that were great pianists that I listened to. Thelonious Monk, who I heard and was able to meet. Bobby Timmons. Kenny Kirkland. All great players who were into jazz. I knew some of them. I met them I didn't hang with them, but we knew each other and had respect for each other. And they were always in awe of Latin and my style. And I was always in awe of their style. So it was a wonderful mutual, respectable exchange.

AAJ: You met a lot of these guys in the '50s when you were in New York?

EP: Yeah. Horace Silver. We met and talked. I just talked to Chick Corea, because about 10 days ago he did the Heineken Jazz Festival in Puerto Rico. He told me, 'Listen to my next CD. The Elektric Band. You're going to hear your influence on me.' And I took that as a great compliment. He was listening to a CD of mine for about five days, called Goal that was done in the '70s. I took that as an honor coming from such a great pianist. Chick Corea, his name speaks for himself for the works that he has done and the works that he will do. That kind of association, you can't pay for that.

As a matter of fact, Chick Corea gave me my first Grammy (for Son of Latin Music ). There was only one Grammy ' which is quite absurd—for all the Latin artists and all the Latin categories in 1975. Only one. And I won that. He was the one that presented it to me. I'll never forget, I was quite nervous, and he said to me, 'C'mon Eddie. What's the matter, man? You earned it.' And I accepted that in the name of all the great Latin players, plus in the name of Tito Rodriguez who had died two years earlier of leukemia.

AAJ: Tito Puente was also a big influence?

EP: For Tito, the Palmieris were like bookends for him. My brother started his orchestra when they were called the Piccadilly Boys coming into the Palladium. Then when Rueben Lopez, the pianist for Tito Puente, went to the Korean War, my brother came into the orchestra and stood a few years with Tito. They did tremendous recordings with small groups and big bands. And then my brother left and started his own quartets and trios, traveling from city to city. But he always had an enduring friendship and recorded throughout the years with Tito. They had an office together. And when my brother passed away, Tito never moved from that chair for two days, that kind of a thing.

Then, he and I were able to get together on the CD Masterpiece. I closed his career with one of the most interesting and excellent CDs that I have ever recorded. And he certainly rose to the occasion. And two weeks later he passed away. Which was the most saddening thing. We never had a chance to tour together. We never had a chance to do anything. The CD also got clobbered because the record company [RMM Records] had to claim bankruptcy, because they were being sued for something else. That made the CD suffer in its sales, but yet it sold a respectable number. I would say that we'll have to deal with that CD for the rest of this century.

The sadness in my heart was not only that the maestro passed away, but that we were never able to tour together. We were looking forward to tour a year or two years. We would have blown everybody away, in my opinion.

AAJ: Do you feel like you're carrying on that legacy?

EP: Yeah. I didn't choose it. But it was certainly handed to me by Tito as we collaborated together. As a matter of fact, I was doing an arrangement, finishing it off in the studio before the recording in the studio. It was called 'Paris Mambo.' I used a lot of dissonance, which I love. And he told me, 'You know, Eddie. It's true. You're the Latin Monk.' That was a name that Willie Bobo had superimposed on me when he was with the Tito Puente Orchestra.

AAJ: What other styles of music influence you? What else do you listen to?

EP: I listen constantly to classical. Not anything else anymore, really. Naturally, I listen to my recordings when I finish them for a while. I listen to it until we get it mixed, then get the mastering, which is an art in itself.

AAJ: What do you think of the current state of Latin music in general.

EP: The removal of that tension and resistance has led to a disaster in our presentation. There's no essence of an orchestra anymore. At one time, on the radio, you knew that was the Machito Orchestra, you knew that was Tito Rodriguez, you knew that was Tito Puente, you knew that was Pacheco, you knew that was my brother, you see? The signature of the artist. That, you can't tell anymore. The orchestrations are all bland. Even the top vocalists have to succumb. Because once you sign with a major [record label] it's how many units you sell. And that's where you're going to get criticized by the same company. And that's unfortunate, because then it becomes a numbers situation and not the product for art's sake.

They tell you, you gotta be commercial. And it takes anyone away from someone who might want to take a certain direction in recording. I could never be compromised that way. But certain artists have done it. It's not exciting. You hear it, and they all sound the same. There are no orchestras. There are only musicians that go into the studio to record. The artists are young artists, vocalists. They don't have the seasoned honor of knowing all the great singers before them. Little by little, our art form, and even the dance art form, has been hurt. It's damaging, Because at this time, there's so many different tastes and variations of music.

At one time, it was everybody for Latin. When I was a young man, everybody wanted to play timbales like Tito Puente and myself. It was that kind of a thing. That doesn't exist anymore. Either they want to play basketball, baseball. There's hip-hop. Rock. There's such variation of taste all over now that it makes it very difficult to get the young players.

And then the players that are coming up, like the horn players, they're more interested in Latin jazz. And the Latin jazz that they play is more jazz Latin. Then you can see how damaging that is to the hard-core salsa. Those structures have been completely altered. If you don't follow them sacredly, they just fall apart and then nobody really knows about it and it becomes extinct.

A lot of jazz players have been released by major companies. The major companies say 'Let's take a good look at this and see who's selling and who is not.' It makes no difference what your name is, you're out. And the problem with finding another company is, there's only a few majors and if one major drops you, you haven't got that chance to negotiate with another. So that leaves you with an independent company, and there's not that many either.

That's why Concord Picante is such a unique company for me. It's the best record company I have ever, ever signed with. We certainly want to sell all the units in the world, but they certainly appreciate and have made me feel the appreciation of the musical work that I have presented to the company. That makes it work.

We're going on an extensive tour of Europe again. We're going as far as St. Petersburg in Russia. We have never had the honor of going into Russia. We're like the ambassadors of the international bandstand. Wherever we have gone, from the time we signed to do LaPerfecta II, the CD before, that CD was in Finland and Denmark and England and France. Wherever we went, the record had already been there and we had representatives of the company come to say hello at our concerts. You can't pay for that, you know?

AAJ: It sounds like the future looks good for your band and your music.

EP: The future looks very exciting, on our end, because of the CD, the tour that we're going to do now, and the extension of certain plans that we have within the company. If that comes to happen. Then it's going to be a wonderful ride with Concord Picante and us. They have tremendous artists there. Maybe even Chick Corea and I can meet there, because he has his own division out of Concord [Stretch Records].

We need more independent companies like Concord for all these great talents that have either been dropped from a label or don't have an opportunity to record, because things are very, very tough out there. A lot of tremendous musicians are not gigging. We have to strive to make it happen and to give an incentive and stimuli to see that a record company like Concord can happen and can exist. Maybe that will stimulate someone to invest money and open up a few more independent companies.

The youngster coming up really has no chance to record. And on top of that, the new order of the day ' whoever came up with this one should be put in a straight-jacket ' is that you have to record your own CD and invest your own money. How are you going to come up with the dough if you've never recorded? Then you have to go into debt or borrow money from the family, or whatever you have to do so you can then go into the studio, record your work, so you can reach out to different record companies to see if anyone would like to record the CD for you, or buy for you, or let you come back in and do it. And that's extraordinary. It never existed before and it's a disaster for the young musician coming up.

It's a terrible situation. We're hoping with our recordings, and with Concord Picante doing better and better, we can bring some excitement to other financiers to establish different independent companies and that will give everybody at least a fighting chance.


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