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Eddie Palmieri: Latin Jazz Standard-Bearer

R.J. DeLuke By

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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.


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