Eddie Palmieri and Pancho Sanchez: A Night of Latin Jazz at the Kimmel Center
In sharp contrast with Sanchez, Eddie Palmieri grew up in Spanish Harlem, exposed early on to jazz greats like Thelonious Monk and McCoy Tyner. Palmieri's innovative spirit is unmistakably jazz-based, and yet he has continually revolutionized Latin Jazz with his deft improvisational skills, fusing salsa with R&B, pop, rock, and jazz improvisations. About a decade ago, Palmieri formed the Afro-Caribbean Jazz Octet with trumpeter Brian Lynch, trombonist Conrad Herwig, and alto saxophonist Donald Harrisonan ensemble presenting his take on instrumental Latin Jazz. With the exception of Lynch, the current group's personnel is mostly different from the Octet, but retains the rich improvisational skills of its predecessor.
Palmieri clearly sees himself as a facilitator and inspiration for the group, not as a dominant personality showcased by a supporting cast. His piano work was mostly done in the background as part of the rhythm section, although he took some impressive solos when his turn arose. Importantly, the dominant players were the horns, with Brian Lynch on trumpet, Yosvany Terry on alto sax, and Chris Washburn on trombone. Their improvisations, unlike those of the Sanchez group, were infused with African-American mainstream and modern jazz traditions, realized memorably in their Latinized rendition of Thelonius Monk's "In Walked Bud," dedicated to piano great Bud Powell. Palmieri performed an intricate piano introduction suggestive of Powell, and then the pace picked up, leading into a stunning solo by Washburn, making use of the full range of the trombone and evoking many tonal colors of the jazz trombone tradition, from Jack Teagarden and Vic Dickenson to J. J. Johnson. Washburn gets a full, rich timbre out of a trombone with a small bell that compresses the sound, giving it the solidity and penetration which Latin music requires.
But the star of the evening, at least to my ears, was trumpeter Brian Lynch, whose sound, articulation, and technique are a cut above other jazz trumpeters working today. Lynch, center stage, with his hyperactive body language and darting eyes and ears taking in the whole scene, functioned in many ways as the leader. His solos were rich in ideas and emotions. I have heard him several times before, and my sense is that, if his development and productivity continue at the present rate, he could become one of the all-time greats on the instrument. He has the musical ears of a Bix Beiderbecke, the jazz sensibilities of an Art Farmer or Freddie Hubbard, the resilience and bright sound of the best classical players. Lynch, Washburn, and Terry made my day, and only increased my appreciation of Palmieri, who has the humility and good judgment to give his musicians the room they need to shine.
Although all the musicians in both groups were consummate professionals in top form, Palmieri's group, with its more serious jazz intent and opportunities for the soloists, made the greater impression on me. All the same, Sanchez and his band are undeniably tight and spirited, and the audience, at least judging by their enthusiasm, may have preferred him over Palmieri. From a programmatic standpoint, it might have been better to have these two groups perform on two different nights, with contrasting opening acts of a vocalist or a small group. Too much of a good thing can be difficult for a musical gourmet such as myself to digest.
Pancho Sanchez Band : Pancho Sanchez, congas; David Torres, piano and musical director; George Ortiz, timbales; Joey De León, bongos and percussion; Tony Banda, bass; Javier Vergara, saxophones and flute; Ron Blake, trumpet and flugelhorn; Francisco Torres, trombone.
Eddie Palmieri Latin Jazz : Eddie Palmieri, leader, piano; Brian Lynch, trumpet; Yosvany Terry, alto saxophone, shekere; Chris Washburn, trombone; Jose Claussell, timbales; Vicente "Little Johnny" Rivero, congas; Orlando Vega, bongo; Luques Curtis, bass.