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.

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.
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