It may be a cold, dark December, but the Sun of Latin Music ' the one and only Eddie Palmieri ' lights up the Wisconsin Union Theater on Saturday, Dec. 2, at 8 p.m. For this second of three concerts in the season's Isthmus Jazz Series, Palmieri, best known for scorching salsa, plays his mambos jazzeado. At 70, with 200 compositions, 50 recordings and eight Grammys in his kit, the fabled Nuyorican bandleader/ pianist has pretty much cashed in his dance orchestra for a seven- or eight-man combo. But no matter which mode he's in, Palmieri mixes Afro-Cuban dance rhythms with monumental American music better than anyone else on the planet.
I live to dance on clave, but let's face it ' salsa's old-school. Some of its brightest stars ' Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, Ray Barretto ' are gone. RubÃn Blades is Panama's tourism minister now. Willie ColÃn's gone political activist and talks of retiring his trombone. Sure, a handful of '70s salseros like Blades' piano man Oscar HernÃndez and trombone icon Jimmy Bosch are trying to rescue the genre from the chintzy late-'80s 'salsa sensual' of Marc Anthony's ilk. Even Palmieri, who's been swinging on the jazz side since the early '90s, made a short salsa comeback at the start of the millennium. Mostly, though, style trumps substance in today's highly commercialized Latin dance music. The scene's been usurped by electronics ' heavy recordings, flashy clothes, souped-up dance moves and a younger generation's beats: timba, reggaetÃn and ' the latest ' salsatÃn.
On the other hand it's an auspicious age for Latin jazz. In recent years some terrific players have come through town ' Omar Sosa, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, John Santos and Poncho SÃnchez, to name a few. But history puts Palmieri at the head of the pack.
The lineup for the WUT show includes four longtime Palmieri regulars: second-wave post-boppers Brian Lynch (from Milwaukee) on trumpet and Conrad Herwig on trombone, plus Nuyorican rhythm kings JosÃ Clausell on timbales and Little Johnny Rivero on congas; bongocero TBA. Eddie Resto, who's played with Palmieri in the past, is on bass. That's a smokin' Afro-Latin rhythm section plus personnel for modal harmonics and adventurous solos, but it's not Cubop. Don't leave your dancin' shoes home.
Palmieri ' Spanish Harlem born, South Bronx-raised ' is a direct musical descendant of the original Afro-Cuban mambo kings, Arsenio RodrÃguez, JosÃ Curbelo and Machito, who played big-band Havana dance music at Harlem clubs in the roaring '40s.
The first U.S.-born Latin music king ' the late, great Nuyorican timbalero Tito Puente ' always said if it's Latin jazz, you can dance to it. That wasn't always true, even in Puente's day. As a category, today's Latin jazz covers a lot of ground, but Palmieri shares Puente's philosophy. For him, and for players like Poncho SÃnchez or Mad City's own Tony CastaÃeda (who plays a Latin dance party for ticketholders in the UW Memorial Union Rathskeller after Palmieri's set), the partitions between Latin jazz, mambo and salsa are porous.
Palmieri was born in 1936 to working-class Puerto Rican parents. 'My dad,' he says, 'was an electrician, a radio and TV repair man. He could do anything ' he was unique. My mother was a seamstress. She loved music. I had uncles who lived in our building. They had a band that played typical Puerto Rican music.'
Palmieri was 11 when he started studying classical piano with the barrier-breaking, Juilliard-trained African American composer-pianist Margaret Bonds, at her studio in the Carnegie Hall building. Always versatile, at 13 he played timbales in his uncle's band, Chino y sus Tropicales. But the biggest influence was his older brother Charlie, who became known as 'el gigante del teclado' (the keyboard giant).
'My brother would come home with records by the big bands ' Glenn Miller, the Dorseys, Duke Ellington and the Latin orchestras of the time. The favorite was Machito, who was extraordinary, with RenÃ HernÃndez from Cuba on piano and the young Tito Puente on timbales.
'It was exciting, growing up then. It was before TV. Latin music was on the air constantly. You could hear Machito, Tito Puente and Tito RodrÃguez all day long. We don't have that kind of radio any more.'
In '48 Puente put together his own conjunto, the Picadilly Boys, with a three-trumpet frontline and Charlie Palmieri on piano. The Picadillys soon became Tito Puente & His Orchestra and ' along with the Machito and Tito RodrÃguez orchestras ' made the Palladium Ballroom at 53rd and Broadway the epicenter of mambo and cha-cha-cha.
'The live mambo scene was really happening,' Palmieri says. 'That was the greatest dance that ever came out of Cuba. Vicentico ValdÃs was Puente's vocalist till he started his own conjunto in '54. From '56 through '58 I did summer gigs with him. We'd play the Palladium four nights a week, and in September Machito and Puente would come back from the Catskills and excite us all with the new music they'd bring back.'
Palmieri got a big break in '58, playing with Puente's main rival, Tito RodrÃguez. Eisenhower was president, Elvis was king, Dick Clark's 'American Bandstand' was at its peak, and Sam Cooke was set to release 'Everybody Loves to Cha-Cha-Cha,' which brought the dance, American-style, with the break on the wrong beat, to TV-watching teenyboppers like me.
Two years later political events put a new edge on American culture. The Cuban Revolution was fresh from triumph. Thousands of displaced Cubans flooded Miami. John F. Kennedy was elected president. Lunch-counter sit-ins kicked off civil rights activism in the South. Berry Gordy Jr. started Motown Records in Detroit. In Manhattan, the brand-new John Coltrane Quartet recorded My Favorite Things. And Eddie Palmieri forged his own edgy new band, La Perfecta, featuring a three-trombone-plus-flute frontline. He called the sound, which broke the typical trumpet-based conjunto format and added flute from Cuba's popular charanga orchestras, 'trombanga.' La Perfecta reportedly played the Palladium four sets a night, four nights a week from its inception till the famous ballroom's final night in 1966.
A mainstay of La Perfecta's shifting lineup was trombonist Barry Rogers, a Bronx-born Jew of Polish descent. Rogers was hip to straight-ahead jazz, and partly through his influence Palmieri started adding modal harmonics to what became his signature sound.
'I came to jazz late,' Palmieri says. 'I wasn't interested before 'cause I was so into the music coming out of Cuba in the '50s. But those extraordinary jazz pianists ' Thelonious Monk, Art Tatum, Bud Powell, McCoy Tyner ' they knew the piano inside out. They were great pioneers with those fingerings and harmonic structures.
'I took the structures of their chords. I'll utilize Monk's dissonance and those big McCoy Tyner fourths in a piece with vocals. It becomes quite a challenge to present those harmonic structures in my solo and keep things interesting for the rhythm section at the same time, but jazz harmonics make salsa interesting to the ear.'
'AzÃcar,' on the hard-to-find AzÃcar pa' ti (Tico, 1965), is an early example. 'We played that tune all over town. It was a hit before we recorded it. In the studio back then you had to keep your tunes to two minutes, 45 seconds, so they could put 12 on an album. The A&R man at Tico was Count Basie's manager. He said 'play it like you play it,' and we did. It went 8:38 and was released that way. It wasn't called Latin jazz, but it was free format, with vocals. That was the first time I accompanied myself, soloing freely with my right hand, playing over the chords. It became one of the biggest hits I've ever had.'
In '68, after nine albums, La Perfecta broke up, broke. In the heart of the hippie era Latin/funk fusion reigned. Palmieri recorded boogaloos and antiwar anthems with various lineups, most famously the all-star Harlem River Drive outfit, featuring Charlie Palmieri at the organ.
I admit it ' I've been in love with boogaloo since the '60s. But Latin purists hated it, at least back then. Puente said it stunk. Barretto called it a curse. Palmieri blamed isolation from Cuba for this low point in Latin music.
In the early '70s Palmieri reclaimed his mambo roots with a vengeance, putting out a series of albums with shifting big-band lineups that usually included Rogers on trombone. The Sun of Latin Music ('74) and Unfinished Masterpiece ('75) won back-to-back Grammys. There's still some funk on these discs, but mostly they're a mix of straight-up salsa spiked with Palmieri's trademark dissonance and tunes in the 'AzÃcar' mode ' jazz jams that morph into mambos like 'Un DÃa Bonito' (on Sun) and 'AdoraciÃn' (on Sentido, from '73).
Those recordings blasted Mad City into the salsa age. In August of '75 Ricardo Gonzalez, who'd recently opened the Cardinal Bar, kicked off its first-ever Latin dance night with 'Puerto Rico,' off Sentido. In December of that year he launched 'La Junta' on fledgling WORT radio. On his first playlist were 'Puerto Rico' and the beautifully bailable 'Kinkamache' from Unfinished Masterpiece.
By the end of the 1970s, Dominican merengue had replaced Cuban-based salsa as New York's favorite Latin dance beat. But if salsa was going down, it went in style. In '81 Palmieri put out a self-titled album with a big, rich orchestral sound. Everything sizzles. In particular, 'Ritmo Alegre' is the nostalgic motif of my many noches latinas at the Cardinal Bar.
For Palmieri the next decade was mixed. He picked up a couple of Grammys but lost both his brother and Barry Rogers. He reworked some earlier hits. In '93 he came roaring back, invigorated, with Palmas, the first of a breakway, small-format, instrumental trilogy that includes Arete ('95) and Vortex ('96). Lynch, Herwig annd Clausell, at the heart Palmieri's Latin jazz combo, have been with him ever since.
The 'new' sound is really the old setup, mellower and minus vocals. 'I know how to take an instrumental mambo and make it jazz,' Palmieri says. 'We do the top of the composition so the rhythm underneath's more danceable. That makes it exciting for us to play, and no matter how free-form we start out, we always end with a compelling mambo coda.'
The trilogy's danceable, dissonant recordings gleam with Palmieri's nuanced solo piano and high-end brass. On Palmas in particular there's a touch of Art Tatum in Palmieri's right hand; Lynch sounds like a Latin Lee Morgan.
There's a pair of drop-dead-gorgeous cuts ' 'DoÃa Tere' and 'Iriaida' ' on Vortex, dedicated to Oya, orisha of angry winds. Of the two, I love the latter. Palmieri hits some gospel chords. There's a hint of synth, making the piano sound like an organ at a black Baptist Sunday service. He plays a run of casual riffs like a classical pianist improvising, tickling out a few blue notes with his right hand. The bass comes in slow and takes over the theme. Palmieri punctuates on piano, building suspensefully toward a three-chord guajeo. The percussion kicks over, the sax slips in, the bass goes funky and oh, baby, it's boogaloo cha!
Palmieri's latest CD, Listen Here, Best Latin Jazz Grammy winner this year, features illustrious guest soloists. Conguero Giovanni Hidalgo brings out the hidden clave in Eddie Harris' original '68 hard-bop boogaloo of the album's title cut; Regina Carter's violin adds a charanga charge to Horace Silver's 'Nica's Dream'; Donald Harrison's alto sax swings on Palmieri's 'EP Blues.' Palmieri's signature cadence on piano gives Cubop standard 'Tin Tin Deo' a whole new life. It's a good album, but it's no Vortex.
Palmieri still takes trips on the salsa side. El Rumbero del Piano ('99), with Herman Olivera on vocals, is pure sabor. La Perfecta II ('02), again with Olivera, brings back the trombanga sound and revisits some vintage tracks. From '02 there's also Obra Maestra, the only work Palmieri and Puente recorded together. Puente died shortly thereafter. Palmieri released one more salsa disc, Ritmo Caliente, in '03.
'For me it's a complete responsibility to keep the music going in Tito's direction, with a Latin orchestra and vocalists,' Palmieri says. 'But it's hard to keep it up. There's not the audience there used to be. Clubs like the Palladium don't exist, and the ones that do hire young bands. The genre's reggaetÃn.'
Plus it's just too expensive to travel with a full orchestra. 'I'm always on the road,' Palmieri says. 'I was in South America this month, and we're going to the West Coast after Wisconsin. The band stays employed that way. We've been very well accepted in jazz festivals all over the world. Latin jazz is the fusion of the 21st century.'
Expect Palmieri to be in Palmas mode Saturday night. The style's a balancing act onstage, says the Sun of Latin Music. 'People yell requests ' 'VÃmonos pa'l monte!' 'AdoraciÃn!' I have to stop and explain, this is jazz! We don't have a vocalist!'