A MAN AND HIS MUSIC – EL VIRTUOSO

Chris Coyne

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A MAN AND HIS MUSIC – EL VIRTUOSO



Because of his eccentric vision, jarring aesthetic choices and a weakness for overwhelming sonic excess, Eddie Palmieri fits the definition of idiosyncratic genius better than any other artist in the landscape of Afro-Caribbean music. Palmieri is a salsa magician, the man who broke all the rules and lived to tell about it.

A destroyer of conventions and conjurer of a million moods. This compilation of classic tunes from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s only begins to skim the surface of Palmieri’s prodigious output. It is meant to act as a comprehensive introduction, a motivation to do yourself a favor and look for every record that the Nuyorican keyboardist has ever released. Indeed, when you take a look at his prolific discography in the salsa and Latin jazz genres, it is hard to believe that a single man is responsible for such a kaleidoscopic wealth of quality material. The younger brother of another genial performer, the late pianist and bandleader Charlie Palmieri, Eddie began his musical training as a timbalero, before switching to piano and developing his trademark sound: furious, percussive and dissonant. “My mother came to New York from Puerto Rico in 1925, and my father followed her in 1926,”

Palmieri told me a few years ago while smoking one of his trademark cigars. “My mother was a seamstress, and my father was a genius with anything that had to do with electrical equipment, radio and television. My brother was born in 1927, and I came to this world in 1936. I didn’t have any other siblings, so Charlie was a total guide and inspiration to me.” “When I was five years old, I would sing and Charlie would accompany me on the piano. My father would take me to this place in Manhattan where you could make your own record and bring it home with you. Then there were my uncles, who spent their time at home singing tangos and playing the guitar. One of my uncles formed his own group: Chino y su Alma Tropical. I played the timbales with him.” Were you a good timbalero, Eddie? “I loved the timbales,” he laughs. “Tito Puente was my idol. I would listen to his records and memorize his solos. But I got tired of carrying the drums around, so I switched to piano. To this day, I’m still struggling, still trying to learn how to play the piano.” “I started playing professionally with the late Vicentico Valdés. It was then that I learned all about Cuban musical structures, and discovered all those records that I didn’t know existed. The albums by the orchestras coming out of Cuba were my school and library. I listened to the Sonora Matancera sides with Celia Cruz. Lino Frías was one of my teachers.” After a stint with the orchestra of legendary singer Tito Rodríguez, Palmieri formed the infamous trombanga (charanga with trombones) La Perfecta in 1961.

At this point, his musical ideas were somewhat restrained compared to the wild experimentation that would soon follow. From the very beginning, however, Palmieri’s take on Afro-Cuban motifs overflowed with flavor, and he quickly became a favorite among New York’s dancers, performing at the Palladium night club alongside the bands of Tito Puente, Tito Rodríguez and Machito. “When I started La Perfecta, I was my own promoter,” he recalls. “I had a lot of faith in the orchestra. I would stand across the street from the Palladium, where my brother Charlie was playing, and I would tell people: ‘don’t go there.’ The owner of the Palladium was this very nervous guy, and he didn’t know what to do with me, so he ended up hiring me. I got 90 dates, which is exactly what I was looking for: to have the orchestra playing, to have them on a payroll.” In 1965, Palmieri raised the temperature in his music with “Azúcar,” a transcendental salsa gem marked by a sinuous, electrifying piano line that simply dares you not to dance. “In those days, I would play four sets per night, 45 minutes each. Then Tito Puente would alternate, playing his own four sets. I would play the Palladium four nights a week. A total of 16 sets a week for $72. They took the taxes out, and you were left with about $58.” “I would close the night with ‘Azúcar,’ and the dancers were waiting for it. It was the African American dancers who were my greatest supporters, they turned ‘Azúcar’ into a hit before I even recorded it. That song was a hit in the streets. Everybody knew about it.” In the late ’60s, Palmieri teamed up with vibist Cal Tjader for a couple of classy albums that, to this day, remain an essential part of the Latin jazz canon.

Following a deep personal crisis, he disbanded La Perfecta in 1968. It was in the ’70s that Palmieri really blossomed as a composer and salsa anarchist. He also began infusing his music with deep sociopolitical messages. Change was in the air, and Palmieri expressed his rebellious thoughts on tunes such as “Justicia” and “Revolt/La Libertad Lógico.” This tendency was underscored by the recording of a historic, double live album at the Sing Sing correctional facility. In the mid ’70s, Palmieri unveiled his two latest discoveries: the electronic dissonance of rock’n’roll and a young, powerhouse singer by the name of Lalo Rodríguez. It was an inspired combination, and Palmieri improvised recklessly with established musical formats. This creative streak continued until the late ’80s, when the appearance of the salsa romántica fad, which Palmieri hated with a passion, forced him to retire into the safer world of Latin jazz. It was an irreparable loss for salsa, which made his return in 1998 (with the RMM album El Rumbero del Piano) all the more triumphant. Since then, he has continued to innovate and dream up new projects, including the much awaited resurrection of La Perfecta in 2002 through a couple of sessions for the Concord label.

“When I’m playing live, I’m not thinking at all,” Palmieri concludes. “Estoy entregado. I’m completely surrendered. It’s a unity of minds with the other players, a synchronization. Es el mazacote. I’ve had problems with sound engineers at the small clubs, the needles on their equipment are about to blow up. Pero así se toca. That’s the way this music is meant to be played. My mission is to make the dancer happy. I’m always thinking of him, you know.” He smiles. “Onstage, I’m a warrior. And the dancer is my best enemy.” ** THE EDDIE PALMIERI SONGBOOK Tema La Perfecta (from La Perfecta, 1961) This endearing danzón-cha sums up the innocence of Palmieri’s debut with La Perfecta. Still, the dream team that would make salsa history is already in place: Ismael Quintana on vocals, Barry Rogers on trombone and Manny Oquendo on timbales. From the very beginning, Palmieri understood the importance of surrounding himself with empathetic collaborators. Lázaro y su Micrófono (from El Molestoso, 1962) Palmieri has always been a disciplined student of the specific dynamics that make an Afro-Cuban tune swing. “Lázaro” exploits these musical principles to maximum effect. “That urge to dance is not a coincidence,” he told me when he re-recorded this tune for the 2003 album Ritmo Caliente. “Throughout my career, I have studied the scientific principles that make people react to the crescendo generated by the brass and the rhythm section. If this stuff doesn’t make you get up and dance, nothing else will.” Sólo Pensar En Ti (from Azúcar Pa’Ti, 1965) Only an artist whose entire career is based on shattering preconceptions would be devilish enough to open a record of so called “dance music” with a steamy bolero that appears to glide in slow motion. This slow burning fire, of course, would only enhance the sheer danceability of the tracks that followed. Azúcar (from Azúcar Pa’Ti, 1965) An anthem of anthems, “Azúcar” is arguably the quintessential song of the entire salsa genre. Nine and a half minutes of sugary bliss, with a reckless Quintana on vocals, the rock solid beat of Manny Oquendo on timbales, and the epic trombone roars of Barry Rogers. Should we mention that spidery piano solo by Palmieri, remarkably restrained and yet bursting with flavor and imagination? Of course we should. Oyelo Que Te Conviene (from Azúcar Pa’Ti, 1965) Wonderfully rough around the edges, and boasting an ever present clave beat, this is the closing track of Palmieri’s genre defying LP. It remains a concert favorite to this day. We’ve Loved Before (from Bamboléate, 1967) This lesser known cover of a Henry Mancini track is seeped in a dreamy atmosphere of cool jazz and sweet nostalgia. Bamboléate was the second of two classic Latin jazz sessions that Palmieri recorded together with bandleader Cal Tjader. Resemblance (from Bamboléate, 1967) Palmieri has always considered himself a bandleader of Afro-Caribbean dance music, but his passionate love for jazz is ever present in his work. This sophisticated composition echoes the moods of mainstream American jazz from the ’60s, building up to an unforgettable crescendo.

Ay Que Rico (from Champagne, 1968) ¿Cómo? ¿Palmieri boogaloo? It makes sense that when he finally decided to succumb to the inevitable trend of the moment, Palmieri would end up creating the most sumptuous record of the entire boogaloo era. And how could he not with such an illustrious guest list: Cheo Feliciano and Ismael Quintana on vocals; Cachao on bass and Chocolate Armenteros on trumpet. Gotta love those wispy female vocals, too. La Malanga (from Superimposition, 1970) Afro-Cuban splendor at the speed of light– no hostages taken. Pa’Huelé (from Superimposition, 1970) Covering Arsenio Rodríguez standards became a salsa cliché as early as the ’70s, but this is one of those rare cases where the new version outdoes the original in the sheer audacity of its vision. Palmieri was at his prime here, and his dissonant piano solo splits the track in the middle with its savage intensity. Elsewhere, his tumbao is mathematically precise, creating the perfect framework for Quintana’s soneos and a veritable orgy of wailing brass. Chocolate Ice Cream (from Superimposition, 1970) Throughout his career, Palmieri has recorded more than his share of sensuous Latin jazz instrumentals.

This expertly calibrated gem is probably the best. Vámonos Pa’l Monte (from Vámonos Pa’l Monte, 1971) Together with “Azúcar,” this is the definitive Eddie Palmieri moment. Who can forget those propulsive conga beats at the beginning, followed by that sinuous organ line that creeps under your skin, courtesy of Charlie Palmieri? Adding to the musical complexity at hand, the song is enriched by its sociopolitical message of resistance and renewal: let us abandon the injustices of life in the big urban centers, Palmieri proposes, and go back to a more organic existence in the countryside. Nada De Ti (from The Sun Of Latin Music, 1975) A renewed Palmieri returns on a new label (Coco) and with a revamped orchestra that includes the lush arrangements of René Hernández and the fiery vocals of a 16 year old kid by the name of Lalo Rodríguez. There are tinges of rock’n’roll in Alfredo De La Fe’s electrifying violin solo. Palmieri was rewarded with a Grammy award for this album– the first of many. Una Rosa Española (from The Sun Of Latin Music, 1975) Watch and celebrate as the mischievous Mr. Palmieri proceeds to demolish our expectations of what tropical music is supposed to sound like.

An exquisite combination of Afro-Caribbean dynamics with a nod to mainstream pop, “Una Rosa” is the track that best exemplifies the man’s iconoclastic tendencies. One moment, he’s the elegant classicist, caressing our ears with the formal beauty of a danzón. Then again, he quotes the Beatles and grabs you by the throat with a couple of psychedelic chords. Priceless. El Día Que Me Quieras (from Eddie Palmieri, 1981) Some Palmieri aficionados think of the infamous “White Album” as the keyboardist’s most complete recording– and they have a point. It shows Palmieri at his most apocalyptic, giving free reign to his improvisational ambitions and delivering an earth shattering salsa version of the classic Argentine tango “El Día Que Me Quieras,” with none other than Cheo Feliciano on vocals. The energy here is electrifying.

Written by Ernesto Lechner