Live Latin Jazz at the Hollywood Bowl: The Eddie Palmieri Salsa Orchestra and Ruben Blades

By Devon Wendell

To many, it would seem to make perfect sense to have Latin jazz pioneer Eddie Palmieri and Latin pop music, movie star, and political activist Ruben Blades both on the same bill, but it proved to be an odd mish mash at The Hollywood Bowl on Wednesday night.

This was mainly due to both the extreme opposites in the energy generated by both performers and the unequal amount of time allotted to both acts.

Opening the night’s program was Eddie Palmieri and his Salsa Orchestra. Although their set was tragically too short, Palmieri and his band put on an amazingly energetic and stellar performance – one that would prove to be a hard act to follow.

Eddie Palmieri

Palmieri and company kicked off their set with “La Libertad Logica,” which had a more complex rhythm arrangement than the original 1971 version from the album Vamonos Pal Monte.  Palmieri began by playing an elegant piano solo, followed by a tornado of percussion and marvelously structured horn hooks.

Lead vocalist Herman Olivera joined the band once the groove was established.  Olivera proved to be one of the most powerful vocalists in Latin jazz today from the first verse of this Palmieri classic. Palmieri came in unexpectedly with a few of his signature cluster of chords, adding even more colorful layers to the composition.

On “Lindo Yomba”, Palmieri played more of a subordinate role as far as his piano playing goes, but his skills as a band leader shined throughout this piece. The interplay between the percussionists (Jose Clauselle: timbales, Little Johnny Rivero: congas, Joseph Gonzalez: maracas, and Orlando Vega on bongos) was flawless and hypnotic.  Olivera shared vocals with tres guitarist Nelson Gonzalez. Gonzalez soon followed with a tres solo that danced around the groove locked in by Palmieri’s piano comping and the pulsating bass line delivered by Luques Curtis.

The band’s rendition of “Pa La Ocha Tambo” rivaled the excitement of the version featured on Eddie Palmieri With  Harlem River Drive Recorded Live At Sing Sing from 1971.  This was the highlight of the entire evening.  Palmieri played one of his distinct solos filled with space, percussive surprise twists, and dynamics (ala Thelonious Monk), which lit a fire under the already charged up band. As soon as his soloing was finished, the percussionists played more aggressively and trombonist Jimmy Bosch’s fluid yet delightfully syncopated solo felt like an inspired response to what Palmieri had played. This was a conversation amongst true musicians, the kind that could only take place between jazz players – despite their cultural background.

Palmieri and his orchestra didn’t let the mood cool down, performing the classic “La Malanga.” As Olivera, Nelson Gonzalez and Joseph Gonzalez sang the chorus in unison, Palmieri played the melody line. And the percussionists and horn section wove separate counter melodies on top of Palmieri’s, creating wonderful polyrhythms.

The set closed with a new reading of one of Palmieri’s greatest masterpieces; “Azucar Pa Ti” (which was inducted into the National Recording Registry of The Library Of congress in 2009), in which Palmieri and his Orchestra displayed their unique sense of harmonic layering between the piano, horns and vocalists. This version was sophisticated in its orchestration yet loose and funky at the same time. In a moment of sheer bliss, Palmieri, ran from the piano to the timbales and played them with the same focused imagination and skilled genius of his piano style.  Each member of the horn section swapped solos. Trumpeter Brian Lynch’s Dizzy Gillespie inspired bop- chops gelled beautifully with the salsa rhythms.

Unfortunately, however, just as the band was reaching its peak, it was time for them to stop. And it was truly painful watching Palmieri and the band exit the stage so early.

After a brief intermission, Los Angeles Philharmonic music director Gustavo Dudamel introduced Latin music super star Ruben Blades. Blades was backed by Roberto Delgado and His Orchestra.

Though politically charged in his lyrics, Blades set felt stale and lackluster. The fire had been lit by the virtuosity of Palmieri and his Orchestra, but Blades’ usually charismatic stage presence seemed missing, and he unfortunately let that fire die quickly.

Ruben Blades

Blades performed many of his most popular songs — “Plastico,” “Calles,” Decisiones” and “Caina” among them. The band was tight and featured a strong horn section (Juan Carlos Lopez: trumpet, Francisco Antonio Delveccio: trombone, Idigoras Bethancourt: trombone, and Avenicio Nunez on trombone ).  But between Blades’ surprisingly monotone vocals and material that fell back on ‘80s pop synthesizer clichés (performed by keyboardist Luis Enrique Beccerra), the set mostly fell flat and lasted too long.

The few interesting and soulful moments of the set were provided by “Ojos De Perro Azul,”  (which was a soulful Salsa homage to the short stories of Gabriel Garcia Marquez), “Todos Vuelven” (which featured a slick Afro-Cuban horn arrangement), and Blades’ hit rendition of  Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s standard “Mack The Knife.” But even on these numbers, Blades seemed tired and detached from the material.

Blades’ energy did start to gain some momentum towards the end of his program, especially on “Muevette,” with Blades beginning by singing the first verse of Lionel Ritchie’s “All Night Long,” with which this piece shared some melodic similarities. The chorus was catchy and fun. Drummer Ademir Antonio Berrocal’s r&b flavored style fit the song perfectly.

The show closed with “Patria” (Fatherland), Blades’ loving anthem to his homeland of Panama – a theme that is widely considered to be a second national anthem. This was the most emotionally charged performance of the set, with Blades looking teary eyed as he sang each verse.

Eddie Palmieri and Ruben Blades are stars in the world of Latin jazz. Both artists combine salsa, Afro-Cuban rhythms, and r&b.  But at the Hollywood Bowl on Wednesday night, Palmieri proved to be the more creatively innovative and musically exciting performer (without any of the pop music trappings) of the two.  He clearly deserved much more stage time than he was given.

Eddie Palmieri photo by Juan Cruz.
To read more reviews and posts by Devon Wendell click HERE.

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