Reminiscing with Latin-jazz legend Eddie Palmieri

The hugely influential pianist and bandleader reflects on his essential recordings

Photo of Eddie Palmieri

It’s Memorial Day in Manhattan, and Eddie Palmieri and his band are holding court at Subrosa, the since-shuttered underground Latin club in the increasingly chic Meatpacking District. From mid-April until its June closing (the club is currently looking for a new home), the pianist led a Monday-night residency at the 120-capacity room, and for this evening he’s assembled a killer band: longtime accompanists Nicky Marrero on timbales and Little Johnny Rivero on congas, with Luques Curtis playing bass and Donald Harrison sitting in on alto saxophone. Later, trumpeter Brian Lynch and a second alto player, Louis Fouché, will join in, and for one tune Palmieri will generously turn over his piano bench to Zaccai Curtis, Luques’ brother.

The quintet is only several minutes into its opening number, jamming on a smooth groove, when a loud, piercing sound interrupts: The club’s fire alarm is going off. Harrison and the others turn to the boss for a cue. There is obviously no danger, and Palmieri, understandably, is annoyed. The band stops playing and he calls out to no one in particular, wondering who can make it stop. The sound continues for five minutes straight.

Meanwhile, Palmieri makes jokes: “Who’s got a fire extinguisher? The climate in here is so hot! This is the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to me!”

On an afternoon several days later, Palmieri is back at Subrosa—empty now except for a few employees—to talk about highlights from his massive discography. He shrugs off the disturbance. “There’s nothing you can do,” he says, “except turn it into a little humor.”

Palmieri laughs heartily, and often. At 80 he’s still enjoying himself immensely. He recently released a new album, Sabiduría/Wisdom (Ropeadope), a dozen tracks featuring most of the musicians who shared the stage on Memorial Day, plus high-profile guests like bassist Marcus Miller and drummer Bernard Purdie. “It’s the closest thing to ‘Salsa Meets Jazz’ at the Village Gate, when you had Symphony Sid and Jack Hooke running it,” he says of his gigs at Subrosa.

“Some nights,” he adds, “I’m the worst one up there.”

That quip, of course, is patently untrue. Eddie Palmieri has been acknowledged for decades as a masterful innovator in the Latin field, and his creative chops are intact. He also knows exactly where he fits into what “started as Afro-Cuban music, then became Afro-Caribbean music—the umbilical cord of our music—and is now Afro-world. I’m not a jazz artist,” he says, another statement many might dispute, “because to me, you have to know the jazz repertoire, and that’s not what I do. I write my own signature.”

Many of the players he came up with, like his brother, the bandleader and pianist Charlie Palmieri, are long gone; others are getting up there in years. Few of his remaining contemporaries maintain the type of busy schedule Palmieri does with the assistance of his son and manager, Eddie Palmieri II. But Palmieri has no thoughts of retiring, and when his time comes to check out for good, he muses, he hopes it’ll happen onstage. “But,” he qualifies, “I’d rather hear the fire alarm.”

Cover of La Perfecta album
La Perfecta album cover

EDDIE PALMIERI AND HIS CONJUNTO “LA PERFECTA”
Eddie Palmieri and His Conjunto “La Perfecta” (Alegre, 1962)
I had recorded with my brother Charlie as a young man. I always say, “My brother was a pianist; I’m a piano player.” My brother was nine years older than me and I miss him dearly. I started playing at Kutsher’s Country Club in the Catskills, in 1955, with a quintet—it was unreal what we could do with that quintet sound. I worked with Vicentico Valdés from ’56 to ’58 and Tito Rodriguez from ’58 to ’60. By 1960 I’d left to go on my own, and by 1962 I did my first recording. [The band] La Perfecta started at the end of ’61, when I met [trombonist] Barry Rogers at Tritons, a club in the Bronx. On Tuesdays they would do these jam sessions. Everybody wanted to play mambo, Latin music. He was playing with the black bands up there.

[La Perfecta] started with the rhythm section, Barry [on trombone] and George Castro with the wooden flute. Then Jose Rodriguez, who was Brazilian, [was added] on trombone—Barry Rogers and Jose Rodriguez will never be equaled by two trombonists, ever. With the two trombones and the flute it was completely different. See, I had three different orchestras: conjunto just for trumpets, four trumpets and two trombones, and then one trumpet and one flute as the budget kept decreasing. We took the album cover picture under the Whitestone Bridge, with a ’36 Dodge.

Cover of Bamboleate album
Bamboleate album cover

EDDIE PALMIERI/CAL TJADER
Bamboleate (Tico, 1967)
Bamboleate was the second album I did with Cal Tjader. The first one was El Sonido Nuevo. He was West Coast and I was East Coast. He was a wonderful man, the most musical genius I ever met. He came to see me at the Palm Gardens [ballroom, in Manhattan]. I thought he wanted just me to record with him, but he wanted to record with La Perfecta. By that time I had Manuel Oquendo on timbales and bongo.

[On] neither of the two albums that we made did Cal record with me; I would give him instructions and he would come in at night, and he did it perfectly, to a T. When we made that album they wanted to gag me because I was making these [grunting sounds]. They kept looking around and they couldn’t figure out what it was, but it was me. Then the engineer [Fred Weinberg] said, “Listen, that’s how he plays,” and they didn’t bother me anymore. When I heard of Cal’s death I sat down at the piano and played “Resemblance,” which we recorded for Bamboleate.

Harlem River Drive album cover
Harlem River Drive album cover

HARLEM RIVER DRIVE
Harlem River Drive (Roulette, 1971)
This was the Aretha Franklin orchestra, with Bernard Purdie, [guitarist] Cornell Dupree and Gerald Jemmott on bass. It had Charlie [Palmieri] and it also had [saxophonist] Ronnie Cuber, [singer] Jimmy Norman and lyrics by a gentleman called Calvin Clash. Randy Brecker came in [on one track]. This record had everything that was happening at the time: soul, rock, jazz. Harlem River Drive was the past, present and future. The problem I had with Harlem River Drive was, I was on Tico [Records] and I said I wanted to do it for Roulette, who had Tommy James and the Shondells. But then I had a problem with the FBI and the CIA.

I did [an album called] Mambo Con Conga Is Mozambique, and [an anti-Castro dissident group called] Alpha 66 accused me of being a Communist. They threatened all the stations that were playing my record and said they would blow them up. I got clobbered. When I did Harlem River Drive, my main fans were the [left-wing radical group the] Weathermen—they all had my album in their cars—so now I’ve got the FBI and the CIA. They went to see [Roulette chief] Morris Levy, and he said to me, “Don’t record that shit anymore. I don’t need the FBI and CIA coming to see me for something I didn’t do.”  I said, “Clear as a bell, boss!”

The Sun of Latin Music album cover
The Sun of Latin Music album cover

EDDIE PALMIERI
The Sun of Latin Music (Coco, 1974
)
The Sun of Latin Music
is amazing because Ismael Quintana, who was the voice of La Perfecta, leaves in 1974, after we do Sentido. It turned out great for him, but when I get to Puerto Rico I don’t have a singer. I already had started the structure. Barry Rogers and I had worked on Sentido—he did the harmonic structures, the intros and all that. So now the owners of Coco bring him back, because they knew Barry. I had already started the theme.

So I got to Puerto Rico and I said that I’m looking for a young singer and they recommended Lalo Rodríguez. He came to the hotel and knocked on the door and I see that he’s 16 years old. He has a guitar. I put him in the car and we went to see [arranger] René Hernández, who was my musical godfather; he was the pianist of the Machito orchestra. I told [Rodríguez], “Sing whatever you want,” and he said, “This is a composition I wrote when I was much younger.” He was 16! He sang “Deseo Salvaje,” which is “savage desires.” I said, “Jesus Christ, when did you write that, when you were 12?” When he finished singing, it was so beautiful I told René,
“We start with this composition and give him a French horn lead.” Barry Rogers also loved engineering. I just wanted to try to play the piano.

Cover of Unfinished Masterpiece album
Cover of Unfinished Masterpiece album

EDDIE PALMIERI
Unfinished Masterpiece (Coco, 1975)
They purposely sent it out without me finishing it. I told them, “If you do that, I’ll never record for you again.” The album was going to be called Kinkamache, which has to do with the Santería religion. Four pieces of coconut are cut, and as you throw them, if the four white [sides] land facing up it’s called Alafia. That’s the cleanest. We already had the cover and it was gorgeous—it had the four white pieces—but I kept insisting I wanted more time. Once I’m in the studio, the problem is to get me out. It’s hard to get me in, but now I’m not gonna leave until this thing is the way it has to be. They didn’t do that. They sent it out and called it Unfinished Masterpiece. It won my second Grammy [Best Latin Recording, 1977, following The Sun of Latin Music the previous year], but to me it’s a stain on my soul. It’ll always be there but there’s nothing I can do. I never recorded for them again and they went bankrupt.

Cover of Palmas album
Cover of Palmas album

EDDIE PALMIERI
Palmas (Elektra Nonesuch, 1994)
When we walked out of the [1995] Grammys, a fellow shouted out, “Eddie, you were robbed!” The winner was an album called Danzón [by Arturo Sandoval], but Palmas is one of the greatest Latin-jazz albums. All of my Latin jazz is danceable. That’s my life, to be a dance orchestra leader. That whole CD was amazing: It had Donald Harrison, Brian Lynch and [trombonist] Conrad Herwig. [The label] wanted to do these recordings with special artists and they loved the way I played. The idea was to get the big guns of Warner Bros. behind them. But then [the executive who signed me] left and there was another gentleman in charge and I recorded Palmas for them. I had to bring in another engineer though, so I got Jon Fausty. He did the real mixing because I didn’t like the mix that I had.

Simpatico album cover
Simpatico album cover

THE BRIAN LYNCH/EDDIE PALMIERI PROJECT
Simpático (ArtistShare, 2006)
I didn’t expect to be on the cover with Brian Lynch. But it won the Grammy
[Best Latin Jazz Album, 2007], and I was very happy for Brian. He certainly deserves it and more. It was [almost entirely] Brian’s writing. He wanted to dedicate it to me. It had Donald Harrison and Phil Woods. It was a wonderful musical concept, and it turned out that he put me on the cover, which they have to pay for. So I said, “OK, I’ll tell you what you do. After you pay off the album you give the money to my son.” And that’s what they did.

Cover of Sabiduria album
Cover of Sabiduria album

EDDIE PALMIERI
Sabiduría/Wisdom (Ropeadope, 2017)
This is the greatest Latin-jazz dance album ever recorded. The greatest musicians are on this album. Again, the worst one on this album is me. It started with an album called Doin’ It in the Park [2013], for a film about basketball. We did some recordings and they put them on the album, but they were so intense that we just kept recording. We brought in Donald Harrison and Marcus Miller and Bernard Purdie and David Spinozza on guitar to do the title track, “Sabiduría,” which is wisdom. I brought in Joe Locke on vibes. We did “Samba do Suenho,” which Cal Tjader wrote and which was on Bamboleate. Plus Joe did another number called “La Cancha.” I put him together with [violinist] Alfredo de la Fé. The album also has the great Ronnie Cuber, who to me is the god of the baritone, plus Luques and Johnny Rivero and Anthony Carrillo [both on percussion]. When you have musicians like this, you give the audience excellence, which means everything to me in my recordings. I’m a student of music and I would have to say that I’ve gotten better over the years. There’s no time for ego. They asked Socrates, “Why do they call you the wisest of the wise?” He said, “Because I’m the only one that knows that I don’t know.” That’s exactly how I feel about all of my albums.