Latin music icon Eddie Palmieri: Don't call me a salsa or jazz artist!

PHOTO: Eddie Palmieri is among the 2013 Jazz Masters, the nation?s highest honor in the genre.

When you think of 75-year-old Eddie Palmieri, legendary Nuyorican pianist, you think about his classic salsa hits like “Azúcar,” “Justicia,” or “La Malanga.” Or maybe you remember his extensive series of Latin jazz recordings post-1980. But the enigmatic truth about Palmieri is that while he will deny being a salsero or a jazz musician, he is a consummate practitioner of both.

He’s a rhythmic machine designed to interact directly with your hip-shaking bugaloo bad self.

“I started out listening to those great Cuban orchestras and their followers in New York, the great mambo bands of Machito, Tito Puente, Tito Rodríguez,” Palmieri tells Univision News via phone, explaining the method behind his madness. “I was able to analyze and use the structures that came from those dance orchestras, intuitively and scientifically through my jazz teacher, Bob Bianco, and the music theorist Joseph Schillinger. I found that the compositions had tension and resistance, which relates to sex, and danger, love and fear. And that leads to an exciting musical climax.”

The unlikely combination of the mambo from the classic 1950s dance scene at the New York club the Palladium, and the theories of Schillinger, a mathematically inclined Ukranian composer, allowed Palmieri to make music that creates a dialog between his bands and legions of dancers, pushing each other to greater and greater heights in sweaty dance clubs around the world.

“I look at the dancers as enemies, real enemies,” says Palmieri. “Who’s going to knock who out? When I come and play ‘Azúcar,’ the word would spread: If you intend to dance this composition, wait till after the piano solo because you’ll never make it!”

Palmieri is considered to be such a virtuoso pianist that he was just selected to be one of the 2013 Jazz Masters by the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA), an honor previously bestowed on Count Basie, Art Blakey, Miles Davis, and Dizzy Gillespie. Each year since 1982, the Arts Endowment has conferred the NEA Jazz Masters Award to living legends who have made major contributions to jazz. 

The NEA will again partner with Jazz at Lincoln Center to produce an awards ceremony and concert in honor of Palmieri, along with the rest of the 2013 NEA Jazz Masters, to be webcast live on Monday, January 14, 2013 on arts.gov and jalc.org/neajazzmasters.

“Known as one of the finest Latin jazz pianists of the past 50 years, Eddie Palmieri is also known as a bandleader of both salsa and Latin jazz orchestras,” the NEA site states. “Eddie Palmieri successfully combines the sounds of his Puerto Rican heritage with the jazz music he grew up with as a first-generation American.”

But Palmieri himself doesn’t think he is a jazz pianist because “to be called a jazz pianist, you need to know the jazz repertoire and mine is Latin dance music and Latin jazz. That excludes being a jazz pianist, something I respect so highly.”

And even though he is considered one of the last remaining giants of classic salsa, along with his Fania labelmates Johnny Pacheco, Willie Colón, Rubén Blades and Larry Harlow, Palmieri isn’t interested in being tagged with that label, either.

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