When the announcement was made that B.B. King Blues Club & Grill was closing its doors at the end of April after 18 years of operating, it was only fitting that the Eddie Palmieri Orchestra was added to the Gran Combo bill slated to play on April 27. As one of the last of the Latin jazz old guard whose roots date back to the mid-1950s, when he and his late brother Charlie were regular bandleaders at the late lamented Palladium, the 81-year-old legend was the perfect addition to play during the final days of the club.
In fine fettle, Palmieri took a seat at his piano stool and immediately kicked off the set with “Muñeca,” a storied cut dating back to the composer’s 1964 outing Lo Que Traigo es Sabroso and still packs a punch thanks to the counterplay between Palmieri’s skills on the 88s and the fleet-fingered phrasing of guitarist Nelson Gonzalez on tres.
From there, Palmieri tucked into the subtle cha-cha of “Lazaro y Su Microfono,” a sweet shuffle that allowed for plenty of vocal interplay between singers Herman Olivera and Joseph Gonzalez, whose chemistry was only superseded by Jeremy Bosch’s lively flute runs.
The highlight by far was the classic “Azucar,” whose insistent rhythms were punched up by a horn section led by Joseph Fiedler’s brassy trombone fills that were accentuated by trumpeters Manuel Ruiz and John Walsh. Palmieri’s fluid piano playing was mesmerizing as the rhythm section of bongo player Erik Piza, timbale player Camilo Molina and conga player Vicente “Little Johnny” Rivero ensured the dance floor was packed as concert-goers only stopped long enough to take pictures and video with their iPhones.
Despite the set only consisting of six songs, a little bit of Palmieri and his orchestra goes a long way as they played for nearly two hours. The evening found the bandleader dipping into his classic late ‘60s/’70s canon. The iconic 1969 outing Justicia and its 1970 follow-up Superimposition were represented via “Lindo Yambu” and “Bilongo” respectively. While the former is a delightful son-rumba punctuated by an abundance of call-and-response vocals, the latter is a guaracha composed by Guillermo Rodriguez Fiffe back in 1937.
The vocal and trumpet arrangements were rendered perfectly and honored the memory of two seminal Palmieri collaborators who both passed in 2016—vocalist Ismael Quintana and trumpeter Alfredo “Chocolate” Armenteros. The evening closed out with “Comparsa,” a formidable one-two punch of rhythm and brass that originated on the 1971 Harlem River Drive project, a super-group helmed by the Palmieri brothers and the inspiration for later work by War and Return to Forever.
It all wound up being the kind of send-off B.B. King Blues Club & Grill deserved and a reminder that as long as Eddie Palmieri draws breath, a musical giant continues to walk among us.