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Latin Jazz Conversations: Eddie Palmieri (Part 3)

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Pianist Eddie Palmieri took shifted his direction in the nineties, building upon the sound that he'd spent his career creating and pushing it in a jazz direction. Inspired by his brother Charlie, a busy pianist in New York's Latin music scene, Palmieri immersed himself in the Latin dance music world as a child. The draw of Machito, Tito Puente, and Tito Rodriguez led him to the piano, and after some hard study, Palmieri leaped into the professional world. Still a young man, Palmieri found work with trumpet player Eddie Forester, bassist Johnny Següi, and vocalist Vicentico Valdes before hitting the Palladium with Rodriguez. Two years later, Palmieri decided to form his own band and began to experiment with different musical ideas. After meeting trombonist Barry Rogers, Palmieri found the impetus to form La Perfecta, an exciting band that inserted the aesthetics of jazz into Latin dance structures. The group's explosive performances and memorable recordings forged a place in Latin music history and changed the shape of the music scene for years to come. Rogers went his own way in 1969, so Palmieri replaced him with legendary trumpet player Chocolate Armenteros and tried other ideas. Albums such as Superimposition, Vamonos Pa'l Monte, and Harlem River Driveengaged Palmieri's creative spirit and helped him expand his musical concept. After years fully involved in the salsa world, Palmieri saw the winds of change in the nineties, led by a watered down version of the dance music. He shifted his direction, hiring trumpet player Brian Lynch, saxophonist Donald Harrison, and trombonist Conrad Herwig to round out a Latin Jazz project. Their first album, Palmas, was a bold statement, taking the best of Palmieri's intense dance music groove and far reaching jazz changes. The album paved the way for Palmieri into jazz clubs around the world, where he found a jazz audience waiting with open arms. Palmieri recorded two more albums with his new band—Areteand Vortex—before making a move back to the salsa world. He revisited earlier compositions with a group aptly named La Perfecta II, introducing a new audience to some of the most important songs in Latin music history. With an open artistic plate and an audience eager to hear him, Palmieri continues to perform both Latin Jazz and salsa around the world. Now an established name in both the Latin dance and Latin Jazz worlds, Palmieri looks back upon fifty years in the music business with a long and illustrious track record.

Palmieri will be celebrating his fifty years in the music business with a DVD that contains footage of a big band concert looking back upon his career. Those fifty years were well spent, consistently pushing musical boundaries—a fact that will be evident on the upcoming DVD. In Part One of our interview with Palmieri, we looked back upon the influence of New York's lively Latin music scene during his youth, the impact of his brother Charlie, and his first professional gigs. Part Two of the interview dug into the creation of La Perfecta, the band's evolution, and some of Palmieri's iconic seventies albums. Today, we conclude our interview with a discussion about Palmieri's move towards Latin Jazz, some of his recent projects, and his thoughts on the future.

LATIN JAZZ CORNER: I wanted to jump ahead to the Latin Jazz group that you put together in 1994 with Brian Lynch, Conrad Herwig, and Donald Harrison.

EDDIE PALMIERI: That's when we did Palmas. And Palmas, in my opinion, was an extremely incredible recording. Donald Harrison and Brian Lynch played with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. Donald—he's the big chief, from New Orleans. Conrad Herwig we knew because he had played with the band in Puerto Rico, he's one of the greatest trombonists that ever played that instrument. Between those three—Conrad, Brian, and Donald—I was just so fortunate to be able to use the three of them. We did three CDs. One for Epic, and the other two were for Ralph Mercado Management (RMM).

LJC: That was a really big switch from what you'd been doing in the eighties, on say, La Verdadfor example.

EP: That was the dance orchestra. That was the genre of dance; this group went into the Latin Jazz genre.

LJC: Was that something that you'd been wanting to do for a while?

EP: Yea, and at the same time, it was like the writing on the wall. The salsa thing was changing a lot. What they called hard-core salsa wasn't being played anymore. It was now the watered down version of Latin Jazz—salsa romantica and all that. So we went right into Latin Jazz and the Latin Jazz has been very, very kind to me. I've been able to travel all over the world under the Latin Jazz genre.

LJC: When those three guys jumped in—Brian, Conrad, and Donald—they already had serious jazz credentials. Was there any type of adjustment period for them to find their way in your sound?

EP: No, no, no. It was really geared for them. I had jazz compositions and then in the middle of the compositions, it simplified the chords so that we could have the structure that works in Latin music to come to a great climax. Then that's when you hear the drum solos, the conga solo, and bongo solos. Then it has what they call a moña and then the full tutti with the three horns playing a mambo, which brings it to that climax. Then we play the coda and we go out. All of it was structured like Latin Jazz and dance music.

LJC: That was the time that your reputation spread outside of the dance world and you really became well known in the jazz world. How did that open up? Was the jazz world accepting or standoffish?

EP: I was already known and accepting in the jazz world because of the way I was recording from 1965—the time of “Azucar." That was a complete straight-ahead Latin dance composition, typical and with Latin Jazz overtones in it for sure. The blacks, for example, loved that composition. All the jazz players too; they were like, “Oh man, that's Eddie Palmieri with Azucar . . ." They were hearing it constantly on the Symphony Sid show which all the jazz musicians were listening to constantly. That's where they heard their music being played. So I was certainly known, but I was known as the leader of a dance orchestra in the Latin field. When we started to do the Latin Jazz, those three CDs put us on another level, and in another light certainly.

We also helped get the Latin Jazz category into the Grammys through NARAS. It didn't exist. When I did Palmas, they only had one category in jazz. Before we did Palmas, if you did a Latin Jazz album, they put you in the jazz category. That was an honor to be there, but there wasn't going to be any Eddie Palmieri winning a Grammy next to Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, or Bill Evans. That wasn't going to happen; it just wasn't going to happen for any Latin player, no matter who he was going to be. We needed our own category, and that's where the Latin Jazz category came in. I was a governor at NARAS, so eventually I did a thing for NARAS, showing them the importance of it. Then they established the category. The first category that we did had Palmasas a nominee, but the one who won it was Arturo Sandoval. It was really ours in my opinion though, because Palmashad no competition that year.

LJC: In 2000, you did the album Obra Maestra (Masterpiece)with Tito Puente.

EP: They had been talking about us doing an album, but we had never recorded together. All the recordings that he ever did were only with my brother Charlie, not me. Then we met in an airport and I knew that he was going to record. So we did it. He was already ill; he had a bad valve in his heart. But he certainly rose to the occasion. After the recording, we did the mixing. I was there with my wife, Tito, and his wife; we were all doing the mastering. When it was over, I gave him the first copy. He took it home to listen to it and he loved it. Then he went into the hospital to get operated on. And he never came out. That was another situation because we could have certainly traveled with Tito all over the planet to do certain concerts together.

LJC: Now you're returning to La Perfecta, which you've been doing for a few years.

EP: Well, what happened is, there's three bands—you have the Latin Jazz octet, you have the big Latin band, and then you have the music of La Perfecta II. But it's determined by whoever wants it. We've been really phasing out on La Perfecta II music. I'm really traveling more with the Latin Jazz group now. But whoever needs any of those bands, we're able to serve them.

LJC: Are you leaning more towards Latin Jazz these days then?

EP: When we go to Europe, it's always Latin Jazz lately. Then on special occasions, they want the Latin big band and we come with a vocalist. Or they want the sound of La Perfecta—two trombones, flute, and vocal also. Whatever they want, we service them.

LJC: You've got a DVD coming out that's reflecting on your fifty years in the music business—what's going to be on there?

EP: It came out very well, that DVD. It should be out shortly. We've got one more tour out in Europe and then we'll get together and do the finishing touches. It should be out, I would say, sometime this year. It's finished, and it came out very, very well. It's a nice presentation that we did in Connecticut—it's a big band with three trumpets and two trombones, and vocal. It's an exciting DVD to listen to and to watch.

LJC: Does it go back and touch on music from your whole fifty years?

EP: Yea, a majority of it. We certainly can't go back and do it all—it was only an hour concert! But the majority of the songs, the ones that were really very popular, those are on that DVD.

LJC: Who are some of the musicians involved?

EP: Conrad Herwig is on that and another gentleman named Jimmy Bosch on trombone, he's on it. Brian Lynch is on it, and two other excellent trumpet players. It's got a lot of power. It's very exciting and it's danceable. You'll see the reaction in the crowd. It's my first DVD and it celebrates fifty years of my playing on the national and international bandstand.

LJC: Looking back on fifty years at this point, what are some of the changes that you've seen in the business?

EP: If anything, I've seen the change in the recording industry. There's no more record companies and a lot of the recording studios are out of business. Now, you've got record yourself, you've got to bring the record with you, you've got to sell it yourself, you've got to promote it yourself—you've got to do everything yourself! A lot of the orchestra leaders, they don't mind; they see more money than they saw before. But in my opinion, it certainly doesn't have the prestige that it had before. You had representatives taking this music all over the world. It was another ballgame at that time. I personally miss the old time form of recording and distributing the records. In general—all the different companies that existed at that time.

LJC: Any promising young musicians or groups that you see in the Latin Jazz world?

EP: Oh yea, a lot of young players coming out. We have one on bass—Luques Curtis. He just brought a saxophonist, an alto player named Louis Fouche, another great talent. There's a lot of young players that are happening and coming into the genre. But they're all really coming into the jazz genre. These gentlemen excel because they're playing great Latin Jazz and the Latin dance genre too, you know, they're calling it salsa. But there's a lot of young, great players coming out—coming out of Puerto Rico, coming out of New York. Good talent, a lot of good talent.

LJC: Watching you play, you don't play like someone who has worked for fifty years.

EP: That's why it's confusing that they're celebrating my fifty years in the business and I'm only thirty-nine!

LJC: You sound like that!

EP: Well, you know what happens—the band rocks. When the band is rocking, there's no age barrier there. You're in there, you're playing, and you just want to get that audience to dance. When you've got them dancing, that's a stimuli to the band. It's like the old Palladium Ballroom or the old dances (at that time there were a lot of dances in New York)—when you seen great dancers, they stimulate the band because the band is stimulating them. It's a wonderful exchange.

LJC: With fifty years behind you, anything that you'd still like to do musically?

EP: Well, we're still traveling. But we're going to sit down and decide what recordings we're going to get involved in to do another salsa album or Latin Jazz CD, I don't know. We're still talking about that. The main thing is that we still have some engagements to fulfill, and that's traveling internationally. When we get back, we'll sit down and see what direction we're going to go.

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This story appears courtesy of The Latin Jazz Corner by Chip Boaz.
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