Thelonious Monk once said, "Jazz is New York. You can feel it in the air." This is an observation that can be easily recast to produce another truism: "Salsa is New York. You can feel it in the streets." Both musics are integral to NYC culture and come together no more eloquently than they do in the musical persona of Latin jazz pianist Eddie Palmieri. NYC born and raised, Eddie comes from a musical family and seems to have been predestined to serve as the nexus for a synergistic meeting of established forms. His late brother, the highly influential pianist Charlie Palmieri, and traditional Puerto Rican and Cuban orchestras of the '40s and '50s all clearly impacted Eddie's style. But so did Monk's exquisite use of dissonance and McCoy Tyner's chordal genius.
In the '50s, the Palladium Ballroom at West 53rd Street and Broadway was the mecca of Latin dance music. Home to top musical acts like Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez and the Machito Orchestra, legendary dancers with names like Cuban Pete and Killer Joe Piro held sway. The Palladium was the epicenter of the national mambo and cha cha cha craze and it seemed that everyone in the whole country was dancing Latin. The ballroom's proximity to 52nd Street also made it natural that top jazz musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and Cal Tjader would sit in with the bands and pick up on the rhythms. Eddie became a member of the Tito Rodriguez band appearing on the LP Live at the Palladium (United Artists, 1960) and he remembers the diverse crowds and celebrities, "On Wednesdays you had mostly a Jewish crowd in the Palladium and celebrities...Marlon Brando would be there...Kim Novak...to see the Mambo show...Fridays you had the 'fast lane' Hispanics...gamblers, sharp dressers and the great dancers...Saturday was the working class Puerto Rican...they worked from 9 til 5 all week and on Saturdays would pack the Palladium...Sunday was all Black...it was extraordinary that you were playing for all these different crowds."
It was not long however, before Eddie made his own mark. In the early '60s, with his band Conjunto La Perfecta, Eddie Palmieri essentially redefined Latin music. He did so, along with band member and trombonist Barry Rogers, by constructing singular arrangements that creatively used brass voicings and flute to up the ante on the genre's musical proficiency. The resultant sound has come to represent the gold standard of Latin dance music.
As a piano stylist though, Eddie Palmieri is unique in Latin Music. He combines a jazzer's sense of adventure with an untainted respect for the complex and varied rhythmic cores of the complete range of Latin musical dance styles. His corpus of work in effect define a "Latin jazz" that can still be called "Latin" without apology to what came before while allowing plenty of room for the improvisation and risk taking inherent in jazz. Referred to as the Latin Monk, Eddie still vibrantly continues to raise the bar of musical expertise within the Latin Jazz genre as he celebrates 50 years in the music business. On his recently released Listen Here! (Concord, 2005), Palmieri and his band that deliver extraordinarily exciting rhythms are joined with such jazz luminaries as violinist Regina Carter, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, guitarist John Scofield, bassist Christian McBride and alto man Donald Harrison for a cross genre musical triumph. Eddie reflected on the process of creating music for such a session, "How was I going to be able to satisfy those jazz musicians AND the percussion players? If you listen carefully to the Latin jazz that I write... I was able to work it out...you hear the jazz players taking their solos with the chordal structure and then you'll have a piano solo following the chord structures or I change immediately and bring it to my dance form orchestra...where we feature the rhythm section and their playing desires are satisfied... then into a mambo and then the coda which I always try to make as exciting as I can."
Very cognizant of the history of both jazz and Latin, Eddie discussed the genesis of the conjunto band, a line up that resulted in the pianist's augmented role "...a conjunto...didn't have saxophones. So the removal of the saxophone gave that whole pressure to the pianist. Now the pianist had to play all the vamps that the saxophones would play...the chords on top between him and the bassist, so the role of the pianist within a Latin orchestra is vital. The vamps that he must use to accompany the soloing of the percussionist...because you know a solo by a percussionist like Tito Puente could drive a pianist up the wall." With the passing of Tito Puente, the mantle of "Godfather" rests squarely on Eddie's shoulders.