Eddie Palmieri is a legend. It’s not a mild proclamation but a bona fide fact. While anyone with even a passing knowledge of Latin jazz will acknowledge this, he’s largely unknown to mainstream music fans. Which is really criminal given that his musical legacy puts him alongside more well-known greats like Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, Bob Marley and Billie Holiday.
The Puerto Rican pianist’s musical origins can be traced back to following in his late brother Charlie’s footsteps and playing on the same storied circuit that found bandleaders like Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez, Machito, Mongo Santamaría, Mario Bauza and Pérez Prado led orchestras at The Palladium and throughout the Borscht Belt. A Grammy Award-winning pianist, composer and bandleader, the 81-year-old Palmieri shows no signs of slowing down, having released his most recent project entitled Sabiduría/Wisdom in 2017.
What started out as part of a score for Doin’ It In the Park: Pick-Up Basketball, NYC, a 2012 documentary about street ball spearheaded by radio DJ/author Robert “Bobbito Garcia, evolved into this project. It was a progression Palmieri was eager to follow with help from his son and manager Eddie Palmieri II.
“It all happened when I was living in Las Vegas and Eddie came with an assignment from Bobbito [Garcia] the radio DJ and that’s how the album started. But it became so intense that we decided to keep recording because I was writing and it was very creative,” Palmieri explained. “We had the great Mr. Joe Locke on vibes. You name them—we had Marcus Miller, Bernard Purdie, Donald Harrison…Dave Spinozza on guitar. These are namesakes on their own and my son was able to put them together because they said they’d love to record with me. They are great soloists and [this project] turned out to be something very special and it will be here forever. I could never equal or surpass this CD. For that reason, I will not record any more Latin jazz.”
In the meantime, music lovers are advised to wholeheartedly dive into what is essentially a creative travelogue of the octogenarian composer’s life. There is an elegant resurrection of “Samba Do Suenho,” a classic number Palmieri originally recorded with Cal Tjader for 1967’s Bamboléate while saxophonist and frequent touring companion Donald Harrison takes the lead on “The Uprising,” a reworking of Palmieri’s “Revolt/La Libertad Logico” from Palmieri’s 1971 classic Vamonos Pa’l Monte that’s given an infusion of Wild Tchoupitoulas-flavored rhythmic spice. Elsewhere, the mercurial maestro opens the proceedings with “Cuerdas y Tumbao,” which features longtime violinist Alfredo de la Fe being overdubbed four times to present an attack that is perfectly counterbalanced by an infectious attack of Afro-Caribbean rhythms and Palmieri’s ever-present piano runs. Equally impressive is a title cut that is a fusion-kissed nugget featuring the talents of the aforementioned Miller, Purdie and Spinozza. Wrapping it up is the closing cut “Jibarita Y Su Son,” a mid-tempo son that finds Palmieri’s fingers dancing across his keyboard while maintaining a balance between technical virtuosity and a simpatico coexistence with his accompanists. It all adds up to a high water mark few artists achieve, much less this late in life.
Delightfully effervescent in conversation, Palmieri is as sharp with his memory as he is with his musical skills. The New York City native’s passion bubbles over whether he’s talking about the kind of ubiquity that came during the Afro-Cuban music scene of an earlier time (“You’ve got to go to the 1950s. I’m playing stickball and all the bodegas have radios on with commercial playing Machito, Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez, which is unheard of now. What we have now, Latin pop, is a disaster.”), the economic philosophy of Georgism (“My teacher Bob Bianco taught us about the political economics of Henry George and a book he wrote called Progress and Poverty”) and his love for Sabiduría/Wisdom (“It’s the greatest Latin jazz CD that’s danceable that’s ever been recorded and has the greatest musicians on the planet from different areas.”)
Even as Palmieri enters his eighth decade, he shows absolutely no signs of slowing down. Currently teaching piano master classes at Rutgers University, he is working on presenting his work in a collaboration with the Symphonic Orchestra of Rutgers University that will be held at Carnegie Hall in about three years time. In undertaking this project, Palmieri is preparing to study with another piano instructor, resulting in the teacher once again becoming the student.
“I’m hitting the piano now because I’m thinking of getting a classical pianist teacher and I want him or her to work with me on the classical repertoire, so I can be ready in three years,” he explained. “There is a lot of studying and wonderful work to do, but that’s what keeps me alive.”
The Eddie Palmieri Salsa Orchestra will be appearing on Dec. 28 at B.B. King Blues Club and Grill, 237 West 42nd St. NYC. For more information, visit
www.bbkingblues.com or call 212-997-4144.