Essential Eddie Palmieri

Five albums that define the NEA Jazz Master

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Eddie Palmieri in the '70s (Photo courtesy of Eddie Palmieri)
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Azucar Pa’ Ti by Eddie Palmieri
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La Perfecta by Eddie Palmieri
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Palmas by Eddie Palmieri
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Unfinished Masterpiece by Eddie Palmieri
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Vamonos Pa’l Monte by Eddie Palmieri

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La Perfecta (Alegre, 1962)
Early on, Palmieri was enamored equally of Bach’s counterpoint and the work of Arsenio Rodriguez, a Cuban bandleader known for “re-Africanizing” the island’s music in the first half of the 20th century with crisscrossing rhythms. Both those influences are at the core of Palmieri’s debut album, but ultimately this scans like a pop record. All the tracks are compact, danceable gems, and none wander far from the three-minute mark. La Perfecta belongs alongside Meet the Beatles! and James Brown’s Live at the Apollo: It synthesized a musical lineage and pointed to a way forward in an era when commercial viability was now beholden to the delights of young listeners.

Azucar Pa’ Ti (Tico, 1965)
By 1965, Palmieri’s band La Perfecta was the insurgent favorite at the Palladium Ballroom. With an unlikely instrumentation centered on two trombones, a flute and Palmieri’s piano, the octet drew together two Cuban frameworks: the polyrhythmic son conjunto, with punchy trumpets and Afro-Cuban cadences (it was popularized by Arsenio Rodriguez), and the older charanga orchestra, whose romantic lilt centered on the flute, violin and piano. Of the six albums that La Perfecta recorded, Azucar Pa’ Ti gives the best glimpse of its orbital power and Herculean improvisers.

Vamonos Pa’l Monte (Tico, 1971)
Vamonos Pa’l Monte fuses Latin, jazz and funk, but—unlike Harlem River Drive, which Palmieri released earlier that year—reserves a central role for the Cuban clave rhythm. It’s got more layers than Harlem River Drive, too: a worldly swagger and an urgency unleavened by the album’s psychedelic escapism. Not to mention the seething trumpets, or Ronnie Cuber’s baritone saxophone, or the dueling billows of Eddie and Charlie Palmieri—who takes some winging solos on organ.

Unfinished Masterpiece (Coco, 1975)
By the time Palmieri quit this project in protest against his label, he’d already finished most of it and had mapped out much of the rest. The Sun of Latin Music, released the year before, represented a move toward concision after Palmieri’s early ’70s excursions; he’d been following a lot of crossing vectors, often successfully, but in 1974 he started to draw them together. On the Grammy-winning Unfinished Masterpiece, the large band adheres completely around soaring tempos and equally high energy.

Palmas (Elektra/Nonesuch, 1994)
After more than a decade of difficulty, Palmieri’s career was back on track by the mid-’90s. Surer footing gave him the traction he needed to move into new territory; Palmas is Palmieri’s opening volley in thoroughbred Latin jazz. His arrangements surge, with Ellingtonian gusts in the horn section over a barbed landscape of Afro-Cuban percussion. As usual, Palmieri’s piano seems to be everywhere.

For more about Eddie Palmieri, read Giovanni Russonello's story in the Jan./Feb. 2013 issue of JazzTimes.

Originally published in January/February 2013

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