Affectionately known as El Maestro, it’s a title Eddie Palmieri earned a long time ago. While his name might only have passing familiarity with casual music fans, the man is a titan in the Latin jazz world. The 81-year-old composer, arranger, bandleader and pianist not only helped establish the Latin Jazz Grammy category back in 1975 when he was a governor for NARAS (and subsequently won its first award), but he’s been recognized via numerous honors. Among them are the Eubie Blake Award (1991); Most Exciting Latin Performance, presented by the BBC in London (2002); Yale University’s Chubb Fellowship, usually reserved for international heads of state, but given to Palmieri in recognition of his work building communities through music (2002); the Harlem Renaissance Award (2005) and the Jay McShann Lifetime Achievement Award (2008).
The octogenarian is fueled by boundless intellectual curiosity and a seemingly inexhaustible creative drive that yielded Full Circle, his most recent release and the follow-up to last year’s stellar Sabiduria. What started out as a number of interactive audio files available as “Palmieri Salsa Jams” in the Apple App Store instead became a full-fledged project that found Palmieri revisiting a number of his most seminal numbers dating back five decades plus.
“It started with a gentleman named Frank Abenante—he’s a tremendous flamenco pianist and he’s lived in 11 countries. My son Eddie Palmieri II went to go see him play and said I had to hear this guy. [Frank] plays all my compositions better than me. Then we met and became partners in Uprising Music,” Palmieri explained. “He’s the one who came up with the idea for the apps—I had no idea. I’m the only Latin band that’s done it. It’s basically the Eddie Palmieri Show. It’s numbers people ask me for—‘Azúcar,’‘Muñeca,’‘Vámonos Pa’l Monte’ and ‘Lindo Yambú.’”
As he holds court at his favorite Bronx eatery, Joe’s Place, the East Harlem native kids with fellow regulars, switching on and off between English and Spanish. When he’s not busy busting someone’s chops, he’ll go from recounting his early days of him and his late older brother Charlie playing the legendary Latin music venue The Palladium as sidemen for Tito Puente and Vicentico Valdés to theories on economic hardship outlined by economist and social theorist Henry George in his book Progress and Poverty.
But it’s upcoming projects that excite him most. One is a project called Mi Luz Mayor, an album in honor of his deceased wife produced by his son and manager, Eddie Palmieri II, that will feature a 20-piece orchestra and a number of notable guests including Carlos Santana and Gilberto Santa Rosa. Palmieri will also be collaborating with in-demand studio drummer Steve Jordan (Keith Richards; John Mayer) and creating a sequel to Palmieri’s 1971 underground classic album Harlem River Drive, a Latin funk milestone that also addressed social injustice faced by people of color and the people of East Harlem, El Barrio.
“I’m bringing in a gentleman named Steve Jordan and he’s going to produce it. I saw him at the Apollo and when he saw me, he got on his knees. I told him to cut it out. When I saw what he was presenting [as a musical pitch], I told him to bring me the people I need to really do the right thing,” Palmieri recalled. “The songs [will include] ‘Broken Home,’ ‘Idle Hands’ and ‘Seeds of Life’ and the ‘Theme from Harlem River Drive.’ It’s going to be killer.”
Currently teaching master classes at Rutgers University, Palmieri is also working on a symphonic pop event he plans to stage at Carnegie Hall in a couple of years with help from Professor Marc Stasio and Conrad Herwig, who head up the university’s jazz department. He plans to form a bridge between traditional European classical music and the Afro-Cuban rhythms that are such a part of his musical DNA.
“I’m going to bring bomba and plena and everything onto a stage, along with the symphonic orchestra from Rutgers,” he said. “There is a lack of rhythmic comprehension that ran through Europe, because they didn’t know about what came out of Africa—I’m uniting that. That’s quite a task, to be able to do it with the highest degree of respect. We’ll be doing ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ and Edvard Grieg, who was known as the Chopin of the North, which is something called ‘Nocturne.’ Then there is Tomaso Albinoni. He wrote before Bach something called ‘Adagio in G minor.’ I’m going to turn that into something called ‘La Sone’ and I’m going to do a condensed version. I’m using the plasticity of the temporal, which is rhythm, and uniting it with the great composers of the past and it works.”
Eddie Palmieri will be appearing on Sept. 24 at The Blue Note, 131 W. Third St., NYC. For more information, visit www.bluenotejazz.com or call 212-475-8592.