Latin jazz a match made in Havana

TALK to Eddie Palmieri about the influences on his music and the conversation will roam from jazz to Cuba to the arrival of the Moors in Spain—as Andra Jackson reports in The Australian.

From the heady days of the mambo dance craze in the 1950s and 60s, the pianist has been at the forefront of the major developments of Latin jazz for half a century. And while Palmieri is often referred to as a salsa bandleader, he has no time for that particular term.

“It (salsa) is certainly a misnomer and (shows) a lack of respect for sacred, rhythmical patterns in the genre,” he says. “They put them into one category. The mambo, the cha cha cha, the marcha, the rumba, the damson, the wahine: all these have proper names but it makes it easier for the masses to call it salsa music.”

A bandleader, composer, arranger and performer, Palmieri’s Latin jazz innovations have included giving trombones prominence in his orchestras to incorporating rhythm and blues and soul influences for his ground-breaking Harlem River Drive album in 1970. Now 75, the nine-time Grammy winner, with 36 albums to his name, is celebrating 50 years as a bandleader with the release of his first DVD and a busy touring schedule that brings him to Australia next month.

Speaking from his home in Los Angeles, he is eager to acknowledge that Cuban music, with its distinctive polyrhythms, remains “the source” of his music.

Of Puerto Rican background, Palmieri grew up in the Bronx in the 1940s. It was a time when Cuban orchestras held sway in New York’s dancehalls, among them the famed Machito Afro Cuban Orchestra and Xavier Cugat’s orchestra.

Everything came out of Cuba and influenced the whole world, he says. His passion is evident as he charts its history.

“If you want to talk about Cuban music, you have to relate it to Spain. Spain brought the rumba flamenco to Cuba,” he says.

Those sounds then became the dance music of Cuba from the 20s to the 40s.

“It was the Moors . . . that brought in drums so the drums were allowed in Cuba,” he says. In contrast, “in the United States and the New World, they were not allowed for fear of communication and revolt”. Whereas in Cuba, “these great rhythmical patterns and the drums evolved”.

The young Palmieri studied classical piano, giving his first recital at 11 to acclaim. By 13, he was so enamored of the timbales, the Cuban percussion instruments, that he swapped to them.

He spent two years mastering the timbales until the task of hauling such unwieldy instruments around persuaded him to return to the piano. He says his earlier feel for the timbales left

its influence on his percussive piano style.

During the mambo era in the 50s and 60s, local Latin orchestras emerged in New York such as the Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez orchestras. They mostly emulated the instrumentation of Cuba-based bands such as the one led by Benny More, with their full rhythm sections of timbales, congas and bata, plus five saxophones and four trumpets. By 1956, Palmieri was playing in a band with singer Vincentico Valdes until he formed the ground-breaking group Conjuncto La Perfecta in 1961.

“It was one of the ones that changed everything around because I came out with two trombones and a wooden flute, which was very common in Cuba with the charanga band,” he says.

Palmieri’s orchestra played at New York’s fabled Palladium Ballroom on 53rd Street (“the mecca of dancing in the world”), and attracted professional dancers. “There was an exchange between the orchestra and the dancers,” he explains. “If you didn’t excite those dancers at the Palladium ballroom, you never came back again.”

His band came back for two years, challenging dancers with fiery improvisations. It also recorded the hit tune Azucar Pa Ti (Sugar For You). That recording ran beyond the 3 1/2 minute limit common for popular music at the time, running at 8 1/2 minutes.

The ballroom was located in New York beside Birdland, which Palmieri describes as the “jazz centre of the world”. The setting was appropriate, with Palmieri tracing a jazz element in his music back to the influence of his older brother, Charlie, also a pianist, who introduced him to the likes of Glenn Miller and the Dorseys. As well as listening to Cuban pianists, Palmieri paid attention to jazz pianists such as Art Tatum, Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk.

“There was an exchange of music and cultures between the jazz musicians and the Latin musicians,” he says.

Palmieri was inspired to take jazz harmony lessons with teacher Bobby Bianco. “Between the two genres, I’ve been able to establish my own style,” he says.

Characteristically, he remains open to exploring musical boundaries. When the idea came to him in the early 70s to make a “crossover” album, Harlem River Drive, he mustered a line-up of great jazz and rhythm and blues musicians, including baritone saxophonist Ronnie Cuber, musicians from Aretha Franklin’s band including guitarist Cornell Dupree, and Palmieri’s brother Charlie.

“It turned out to be one of the most exciting, different CDs that I have ever recorded,” he says. Another innovative collaboration was forged in 1997 when New York DJ Little Louie Vega approached him to record Nuyorican Soul. It was a big hit on the house and underground music scene with dancers. “I always find it interesting to push the envelope a little bit,” Palmieri says.

Despite his appetite for branching out into different genres, Palmieri is never far from his Latin jazz roots. It’s why he is indignant at the controversial removal from this month’s Grammy awards of the Latin jazz category. Palmieri was the recipient in 1975 of the first Latin music award but successfully lobbied for a separate Latin jazz in 1994.

“It is really a musical sin,” he says, and one he claims has done tremendous harm to young, up and coming players.

For his Australian tour, he is bringing timbales player Jose Claussell, trumpeter Brian Lynch, alto saxophonist Louis Fouche, bassist Luques Curtis and Little Johnny Rivero on congas. “We’re going to excite you,” he says. “I’m going to get you up on your feet.”

The Eddie Palmieri Sextet performs at the Perth International Arts Festival on Wednesday, Adelaide Festival on Friday and Melbourne’s Hi-Fi Bar on Saturday

For the original report go to

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