Eddie Palmieri and Pancho Sanchez: A Night of Latin Jazz at the Kimmel Center

Victor L. Schermer By

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The dominant players in the Palmieri group were the horns. Their improvisations were infused with African-American, mainstream, and modern jazz traditions.
Eddie Palmieri and Pancho Sanchez Bands
Mellon Jazz Fridays, Verizon Hall
The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Friday, March 2, 2007

"Latin jazz is a very popular genre today. But exactly what is it? Like other current music idioms, it can be hard to pin down, but you could say that the term encompasses any music with a Latin rhythm that also includes significant jazz elements, whether syncopation, blues, extended solo improvisations, jazz-associated melodies, and other features drawn from the jazz mainstream—from its origins in New Orleans to the present-day international scene. A Latin band also typically includes a full percussion section: congas, bongos, klaves, maracas, etc., along with the standard jazz drum set.

Initially, the stream of Latin jazz into this country was a narrow estuary, starting out with Latin dance rhythms of the swing era, and eventuating in the bossa nova craze and then salsa music. Some years ago, before my knees gave out, I enjoyed jogging along the Delaware River on Saturday mornings listening on my Walkman radio to the salsa show on WRTI. But one barely heard a peep of such music during the rest of the week on RTI, the main jazz station in Philadelphia. Nowadays, you can practically count on hearing some Latin jazz selections on all their jazz programs, 24/7. Latin is an integral part of the current jazz scene—reflective of the frequent commingling of jazz and Latin musicians in the Carribean, South America, and elsewhere (for example, Paquito d'Rivera's extended tour with Dizzy Gillespie) as well as the expanding numbers of Latinos now making their home in the U.S.

The problem of musical styles and definition was recently illustrated by the double bill appearance of the Sancho Panchez and Eddie Palmieri bands at the Kimmel Center. Here we had two popular ensembles that superficially sounded similar, with their respecctive rhythm sections pounding out body-stimulating Latin beats and the piano, winds, and bass taking solos with the inflections and chord changes of jazz. The music heated up, with the volume extinguishing a few kilohertz from my high range of hearing(!), and the audience wanting to stand up and dance, clap, and shout, which some folks actually began to do. On a surface level, a listener might be hard- pressed to distinguish between these two very exciting, energizing groups, but upon closer listening, the differences were telling.

Sanchez' group, first on the bill, reflected the natural way he came up as a musician. A populist, fully immersed in Latino culture, he was born in Texas in 1951 into a large Mexican-American family and then grew up in the Los Angeles area, where he was exposed to a broad range of Latin and non-Latin popular music. Inspired by the conga playing of Cuban great Mongo Santamaria, he honed his skills as a percussionist and broke into the limelight at the age of 23 when he joined vibraphonist Cal Tjader's famed Latin jazz ensemble in 1975. Over the years, Sanchez has hand-picked guest artists who have had a special role in shaping his growth as a musician, from trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and saxophonist Eddie Harris, to Latin-jazz patriarch Tito Puente, conga legend Santamaria, and the late Ray Charles. Sanchez's music, deeply rooted in Latin and popular music traditions, only gradually grafted on mainstream jazz influences.

Accordingly, true to his roots, his band played in a predominantly Latin style, with jazz, rock, and funk added for a more complex flavor. Sanchez, a big hulk of a man with a strong persona, was the dominant force throughout, up front on the stage with two large conga drums which he popped relentlessly in frenetic rhythm. From the start, a composition entitled "Talking Blues from Sanchez' new CD Do It!, the Latin rhythms took command and dominated throughout. It wasn't until another few numbers that saxophonist Javier Vergara and trombonist David Torres had a chance to shine in Torres' piece, "Tito in the City, dedicated to Tito Puentes. The soloing of both players, though equally full and rich, had little of the African-American tonalities, blues scales and quarter tones that jazz fans are used to.

The set climaxed with a crowd-pleaser called "Raise Your Hand, with Sanchez drumming, singing, and encouraging the audience to lose it. Frankly, few serious jazz musicians, it struck me, would interact with the audience in this way. Sanchez clearly functioned as a popular entertainer at this point, and many in the audience ate it up. The set concluded in a more structured manner with a comparatively sedate salsa, re-instating the Latin "dance emphasis.

In sharp contrast with Sanchez, Eddie Palmieri grew up in Spanish Harlem, exposed early on to jazz greats like Thelonious Monk and McCoy Tyner. Palmieri's innovative spirit is unmistakably jazz-based, and yet he has continually revolutionized Latin Jazz with his deft improvisational skills, fusing salsa with R&B, pop, rock, and jazz improvisations. About a decade ago, Palmieri formed the Afro-Caribbean Jazz Octet with trumpeter Brian Lynch, trombonist Conrad Herwig, and alto saxophonist Donald Harrison—an ensemble presenting his take on instrumental Latin Jazz. With the exception of Lynch, the current group's personnel is mostly different from the Octet, but retains the rich improvisational skills of its predecessor.

Palmieri clearly sees himself as a facilitator and inspiration for the group, not as a dominant personality showcased by a supporting cast. His piano work was mostly done in the background as part of the rhythm section, although he took some impressive solos when his turn arose. Importantly, the dominant players were the horns, with Brian Lynch on trumpet, Yosvany Terry on alto sax, and Chris Washburn on trombone. Their improvisations, unlike those of the Sanchez group, were infused with African-American mainstream and modern jazz traditions, realized memorably in their Latinized rendition of Thelonius Monk's "In Walked Bud," dedicated to piano great Bud Powell. Palmieri performed an intricate piano introduction suggestive of Powell, and then the pace picked up, leading into a stunning solo by Washburn, making use of the full range of the trombone and evoking many tonal colors of the jazz trombone tradition, from Jack Teagarden and Vic Dickenson to J. J. Johnson. Washburn gets a full, rich timbre out of a trombone with a small bell that compresses the sound, giving it the solidity and penetration which Latin music requires.

But the star of the evening, at least to my ears, was trumpeter Brian Lynch, whose sound, articulation, and technique are a cut above other jazz trumpeters working today. Lynch, center stage, with his hyperactive body language and darting eyes and ears taking in the whole scene, functioned in many ways as the leader. His solos were rich in ideas and emotions. I have heard him several times before, and my sense is that, if his development and productivity continue at the present rate, he could become one of the all-time greats on the instrument. He has the musical ears of a Bix Beiderbecke, the jazz sensibilities of an Art Farmer or Freddie Hubbard, the resilience and bright sound of the best classical players. Lynch, Washburn, and Terry made my day, and only increased my appreciation of Palmieri, who has the humility and good judgment to give his musicians the room they need to shine.

Although all the musicians in both groups were consummate professionals in top form, Palmieri's group, with its more serious jazz intent and opportunities for the soloists, made the greater impression on me. All the same, Sanchez and his band are undeniably tight and spirited, and the audience, at least judging by their enthusiasm, may have preferred him over Palmieri. From a programmatic standpoint, it might have been better to have these two groups perform on two different nights, with contrasting opening acts of a vocalist or a small group. Too much of a good thing can be difficult for a musical gourmet such as myself to digest.

Pancho Sanchez Band : Pancho Sanchez, congas; David Torres, piano and musical director; George Ortiz, timbales; Joey De León, bongos and percussion; Tony Banda, bass; Javier Vergara, saxophones and flute; Ron Blake, trumpet and flugelhorn; Francisco Torres, trombone.

Eddie Palmieri Latin Jazz : Eddie Palmieri, leader, piano; Brian Lynch, trumpet; Yosvany Terry, alto saxophone, shekere; Chris Washburn, trombone; Jose Claussell, timbales; Vicente "Little Johnny" Rivero, congas; Orlando Vega, bongo; Luques Curtis, bass.

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