Afro-Caribbean rhythms are so deeply woven into the fabric of contemporary jazz that the catch-all category known as Latin jazz has taken on an almost nostalgic air. And no living musician has done more to pave the way for the proliferation of brilliant Latin American musicians who’ve transformed every corner of the jazz scene than pianist, composer and bandleader Eddie Palmieri.
His genius has been to combine the pliable West African polyrhythms that evolved in Cuba with the harmonic language of modern jazz. In the process, he helped set in motion a musical wave that “started off Afro-Cuban, became Afro-Caribbean, and now it’s Afro–world,” he told me in an interview several years ago.
Hailed for decades as the “Sun of Latin Music,” the 80-year-old Palmieri makes his Freight & Salvage debut Tuesday (and plays the Mondavi Center in Davis on Wednesday) with a sextet made up of players from his latest album Sabiduría (Ropeadope). It’s his first full album in a decade, since 2007’s Grammy Award-winning collaboration with his longtime trumpeter Brian Lynch Simpático (ArtistShare).
Though his discography as a bandleader features more than four-dozen albums, Palmieri has often been ill-served by record labels. While he’s been a creative force ever since leaving Tito Rodriguez’s orchestra in 1960 to found his own band, La Perfecta, his albums have often gone out of print when record labels folded or were bought by companies clueless about what to do with his music. An NEA Jazz Master with 10 Grammy Awards isn’t exactly unappreciated, but he never quite crossed over.
He missed yet another opportunity to crossover into popular consciousness when his 2000 collaboration with Tito Puente, Masterpiece/Obra maestra (RMM/Universal), got caught up in the bankruptcy of Latin music impresario Ralph Mercado. The album, one of Puente’s last, not only fulfilled a longtime dream of Palmieri’s, it served as a perfect conclusion to Puente’s career.
The great timbalero hired Charlie Palmieri, Eddie’s older brother, in 1950 as one of the first pianists for his band. With Masterpiece, Puente passed the torch to just the only bandleader capable of producing both potent Latin jazz and blazing salsa at the same consistently creative level. “He knew there was no one else left,” Palmieri said. “We were the last of the Mohicans, so to speak, in this dance genre. It was like a bookend with the Palmieris, he started with my brother and he ended with me.”
The band he’s touring with distills the concept he introduced on his 1994 album Palmas (Elektra Nonesuch) melding jazz horn players and Latin percussionists. The group features the great conguero Vicente “Little Johnny” Rivero, Camilo Molina on timbales, and Palmieri’s longtime bassist Luques Curtis with trumpeter Jonathan Powell and alto saxophonist Louis Fouche (who also happens to hold degrees in physics and chemical engineering from MIT). Somehow it’s not surprising to find Fouche in Palmieri’s band.
Born in Spanish Harlem to Puerto Rican parents, Palmieri was raised in a highly musical family. Something of a keyboard prodigy — he made his Carnegie Hall debut playing classical music at age 11— Palmieri always wanted to be a drummer. To this day he explains his highly percussive keyboard style by describing himself as a “frustrated percussionist.” Even before his brother joined Puente’s band, Palmieri studied El Rey’s moves. “I always wanted to play the timbales,” Palmieri said. “We all wanted be Tito Puente.”
By the time he was in his mid-teens Palmieri was already a working musician, gaining essential experience by filling in for his brother when Charlie couldn’t make a gig. It was a glorious era for Latin dance orchestras, playing ballrooms packed with eager dancers every weekend. Palmieri worked in many of the top bands, including Johnny Seguí, Vincentico Valdés, and most importantly Tito Rodriguez, with whom he played from 1958-1960 and recorded the classic album Live at the Palladium.
When he left to launch his own band, rather than following the other dance orchestras, Palmieri put his own spin on the music, replacing the traditional trumpet–laden horn section with two trombones and flute. “It happened accidentally, and it was an economic situation too,” Palmieri recalled. “I wanted a conjunto with a minimum of three trumpets, but they were difficult to find unless you hired the American players and they only worked for [union] scale. And it was very hard to book them, because the players I wanted were doing Broadway shows.”
Palmieri began recruiting trombonists, and soon met Barry Rogers at a jam session. Later he recruited Jose Rodrigues, and these two prodigious players provided the foundation for La Perfecta, a band with a sound that can still be heard in Latin jazz today. It was the last great Latin dance band to find a home at the Palladium Ballroom, “the Mecca, where the greatest dancers came to challenge the greatest orchestras,” Palmieri said. “You had to play there. The scale was $18 a night. You played 16 shows for $72 a week there. And they took out taxes. But the money was the least important thing, because you were booked, and if someone else wanted to hire you, they had to pay much more.”
The Palladium was also where Palmieri cemented his reputation as the wild man of Latin music, though his defiant streak was always more crazy-like-a-fox than reckless. Initially unable to convince the Palladium’s manager to hire his band, Palmieri proceeded to poach the ballroom’s customers by renting the Terrace Riviera down the block on Wednesday nights for his band.
“I was like the barker on the street, ‘Over here folks!’ and eventually they had to negotiate and bring me in there,” Palmieri said with a sly chuckle. “I ended up doing 90 dates there, a really good run from 1964 to 1966, when the Palladium closed.”
Though his music was making a deep impression on young Latin jazz musicians, Palmieri didn’t really take an interest in jazz itself until the mid-1960s, when he was deeply influenced by Thelonious Monk, McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock. He credits tenor saxophonist Benny Golson’s arrangements on Art Blakey’s seminal Blue Note album Moanin’ for opening his ears.
When it comes to finding and nurturing young talent, Palmieri came to play a Blakeyish role himself, polishing and promoting budding musicians who go on to make major contributions of their own. In recent decades his bands have featured definitive improvisers such as drummer Dafnis Prieto, altoist Miguel Zenón, trombonist Conrad Herwig, and SFJAZZ Collective tenor saxophonist David Sanchez.
“I didn’t comprehend jazz,” Palmieri said, “but little by little I started to realize the wonderful harmonic structures and harmonies in jazz and began utilizing them with my Latin phrasings. I believe I have come up with my own signature, and I’m quite proud of that.”
Recommended gigs: Allison Au / Monduland
Jazz’s international reach is on display this weekend at the California Jazz Conservatory. Toronto-raised saxoophonist/composer Allison Au, who earned Canada’s equivalent of a Grammy Award last year for her self-produced album Forest Grove, performs Saturday with her quartet featuring pianist Todd Pentney, bassist Jon Maharaj, and drummer Fabio Ragnelli. And on Sunday afternoon, Brazilian percussionist Tulio Araujo, a master of the frame drum pandeiro, presents his band Monduland featuring saxophonist/flutist Jorge Continentino, pianist Igor Neves, guitarist Felipe Vilas Boas, and seven-string guitarist Lucas Telles.