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.

“The term salsa is an insult to the rhythms we play; they have their proper names,” explains Palmieri. “Out of the rumba comes el guaguancó, el yambú, la columbia, danzón, la danza, el changüí, you have guajira, the bolero, the mambo, the cha cha cha. That’s why the kids don’t know how to play our genre anymore, and it’s a total disaster what you have, rhythmic disaster and harmonic disaster because the arrangements are so bland that if you’re dancing with your partner you should bring a little mini-pillow because you’re going to fall asleep on her shoulder.”

If you go back to Palmieri’s early conjunto, called La Perfecta, the track listing on their 1962 debut album categorizes each song: “Conmigo” is a pachanga, “Mi Isla Preciosa” a cha cha cha, “Mi Pollo,” a guaguancó, and so on. But despite Palmieri’s aesthetic leanings, La Perfecta was one of the bands that gave birth to what we have come to know as salsa.

While salsa is at heart a marketing term, one that doesn’t refer to a particular rhythm or style, its emergence reflected something very new in Latin music. With the end of the big-band Palladium days—Palmieri says his band closed the club in 1966—came smaller bands that featured an instrument that gave Afro-Cuban music a new attitude: the trombone.

After seeing an Anglo-American trombone player named Barry Rogers playing with John Coltrane at Birdland, and then again in a Latin dance club in the Bronx called Triton’s, Palmieri knew what his new sound would be. “Nobody had ever seen two trombones up front,” he recalled. “Trombones were certainly in the orchestras, but only in a section, and instead of a big band we had eight men, and those eight men sounded like 16 when we came barreling down like a Mac truck from the bandstand.”

Rogers and Brazilian born José Rodrigues formed the two-trombone team that gave the music a sour, edgy sound that distinguished it from the relatively genteel mambo and danzón outfits that attracted ethnically mixed crowds and celebrities like Marlon Brando and Kim Novak to the Palladium.

Inspired by La Perfecta, younger players like Willie Colón, mixed in jazz, rock, and R&B influences, appealing to the children of the mambo-niks taking over the uptown ‘hoods, a stripped-down sound called salsa. The mixing of musicians from different Latin American countries, as well as African- and Anglo-American musicians, was essential to creating the new sound.

Meanwhile, Palmieri became one of the stars of the dance scene with albums like “Mozambique,” “Justicia,” his classic “Live at Sing Sing” albums recorded at the infamous New York prison with the R&B group Harlem River Drive, and my favorite, “The Sun of Latin Music,” recorded in 1973. Then, beginning with 1982’s “Sueño,” his recordings became more jazz-oriented, and like the percussionist Ray Barretto, he became one of the cornerstones of what would become Latin jazz.

These days Palmieri is playing with a dance-oriented band that plays hits like “La Malanga,” “Azúcar,” “La Libertad,” “Muñeca,” and “Yambú.” “It was Afro-Cuban, then it became Afro-Caribbean and now it’s Afro-World,” said Palmieri, acknowledging the demographic shifts of his fanbase.

But Palmieri isn’t feeling the love from his hometown, which he describes as “an old Western town that has been deserted; there’s no work.” Like other old-schoolers, Palmieri attributes the sad state of affairs to a commercializing trend that began in the 1980s called salsa romántica. Ironically the vocalist featured in the “Sun of Latin Music,” Lalo Rodríguez, became one of the biggest stars of the new, lighter genre, with one of his hits, “Devórame Otra Vez,” epitomizing it.

The state of salsa today is a mixed bag, driven by various trends like salsa-reggaetón fusion, like Victor Manuelle’s 2012 hit “Ella Lo Que Quiere Es Salsa,” with Voltio and Jowell y Randy, or the latest timba variations from Cuba, like Manolín, Bamboleo, or Isaac Delgado. In New York, groups lead by Jimmy Bosch and Jimmy Delgado represent a roots trend, and the younger players of Our Latin Thing do an excellent Fania All Stars Tribute.

In some ways the strongest force in the genre are dance conventions and the lively debate on whether it’s best to step first “on 2” (on the second beat) or “on 1.” Many new groups, as well as obscure classics guaranteed to make you a bonafide salsa snob can be found at the astonishingly comprehensive site Descarga http://www.descarga.com.

In New York, there is even a band called the Williamsburg Salsa Orchestra that does covers of hipster rock hits like TV on the Radio’s “Wolf Like Me” and Arcade Fire’s “Keep the Car Running.” But in Puerto Rico, there are some interesting and progressive fusions going on between salsa and roots music like bomba and plena. Last year’s “Sono Sono,” a tribute to songwriter Tite Curet Alonso, featured the likes of Calle 13, world beat artist Seun Kuti, reggaetón MC Tego Calderón, reggae band Cultura Profética, neo-salsa band La PVC and postmodern pleneros Viento de Agua with old school guys like Roberto Roena, Danny Rivera, and Andy Montañez.

But Palmieri is not exactly sitting still creatively--one of his latest projects include performing music for the soundtrack of “Doin’ It in the Park,” a new documentary produced by hiphop DJ Bobbito García about the history of street basketball in NYC (check here for screenigns). The music, which suggests the ways in which Latin, R&B, and jazz all flow together on the streets of NY from Harlem to Spanish Harlem, will be released as an album in the coming year.

“Ever since I started in the Bronx, African-Americans have always supported me,” says Palmieri. “They used to say, c’mon Eddie, whip some azúcar on us!”

He happily obliged, as they, and the rest of the world, listened in.

Eddie Palmieri will be performing at the Hollywood Bowl with Ruben Blades on August 15 and the 12th Annual New York Salsa Congress on September 2. For all of his tour dates, go here

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