Profile: Eddie Palmieri

 Eddie’s Space

By Devon Wendell

Very few people in the history of Latin music and jazz have blended those two genres as successfully as pianist, composer, and band leader Eddie Palmieri has over the past 50 years. The New York born offspring of Puerto Rican parents, Palmieri has fearlessly broken down musical cultural barriers throughout his illustrious career.

The open, airy style that Palmieri has created in his piano playing has earned him the title of “The Latin Thelonious Monk.” Reaching across all musical genres with its respect for both sounds and silences, it’s the use of space that was present in Monk and Miles Davis, as well as James Brown and Bootsy Collins.

As a multi-instrumentalist myself, I think of Palmieri and his spaces especially when I play the bass, because, as he has demonstrated, there can be an entire universe between the notes one chooses. That’s where the true groove lives.

At times, Palmieri will create complete musical paragraphs on the piano.  Then, just as he reaches that final sentence and you think you know what he’s saying and where he’s going, he’ll hit one percussive note that changes the meaning of a phrase in an instant. And somehow it ends up making even more sense than what you had originally imagined he would say. As with Monk, the fact that it almost feels as if he’s going to miss the mark makes it all the more intriguing when he pulls it all together.

Palmieri never rushes or forces an idea. Every phrase and nuance is carefully and beautifully crafted. But it’s not enough to just listen to his classic recordings.  You should also watch the master at work in order to get the full experience. Whether you’re a musician or not, his playing will forever change your perception of both orchestrated and improvised music.

Tomorrow night at the Hollywood Bowl you can have the opportunity to hear Palmieri and his Salsa Orchestra in action, sharing a double bill with fellow Latin music star, Ruben Blades.

Born in 1936, Palmieri came to music early, soaking up not only the Latin rhythms prevalent in the South Bronx at the time, but also the powerful big Apple jazz sounds of the day.

Studying classical music, he performed his first concert at Carnegie Hall when he was only 11 years old.  But his passion for the textures, harmonies, and dynamics of American jazz pianists such as Monk, Herbie Hancock, and McCoy Tyner changed his musical approach and direction and he spent much of the ‘50s playing with a succession of local bands, including a short tenure with the great Tito Rodriguez.

By 1961, Palmieri was ready to make his first innovative musical statement as a band leader when he formed Conjunto La Perfecta, recording his debut album that year under the same name. Taking the traditionally established musical structure of charanga (one of the primary influences on Latin music at the time)  with its focus on violins and flutes, he added trombonist Barry Rogers (co-founder of Conjunto La Perfecta) and vocalist Ismael Quintana.  He also added trumpets and jazz accents to the Cuban rhythms known as Mozambique.

Over the years, Palmieri never lost sight of his traditional musical roots, merely supplementing them with his own sounds and ideas.  He continued to break ground in the ‘60s, recording  Azucar Pa Ti, which remains one of the most influential Latin jazz recordings ever made. In 2009, the album, which combined Afro-Cuban styles with jazz, was inducted into The National Recording Registry of the Library Of Congress.

Throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, Palmieri began fusing Salsa rhythms with funk, psychedelic soul, jazz, and early incarnations of fusion. This blend can be heard on Palmieri’s 1971 masterpiece Harlem River Drive, an experimental band project that is widely considered a classic. Palmieri played an electric Fender Rhodes on this recording, and the funky musical setting freed him up to emphasize his open, syncopated spaces, as well as a new array of musical tones and colors.

In 1975, Palmieri was the first artist to win the Grammy for Best Latin Recording for The Sun Of Latin Music. Here, Palmieri took salsa to new heights with massive percussion and perfectly orchestrated brass arrangements. The composition “Nada De Ti” is still recognized as one of the greatest Salsa recordings.  Over the next few decades he continued to record, appeared with the Fania All-Stars, formed a new La Perfecta II, and won a Grammy in 2007 for Best Latin Jazz recording.

He has won a total of nine Grammy awards, and is set to receive the National Endowment Of The Arts Jazz Master award in 2013.

Palmieri continues to tour and record vigorously, his right hand still on the pulse of all things new and youthful.  Most recently, he has provided music for a basketball movie, Doin’ It In the Park, by the young DJ, basketball player, and filmmaker Bobbito Garcia. At 75, Eddie Palmieri shows no signs of slowing down, still a vital force in American music.

Eddie Palmieri and Ruben Blades perform tomorrow night (Wednesday) at the Hollywood Bowl.

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