NJPAC Sounds of the City showcases Latin Jazz Legend Eddie Palmieri

BY lyanne


This year NJPAC brought a phenomenal performer to the “Sounds of the City” weekly series.  You might ask so what makes this performer stand out.  I asked some of the young patrons whether they heard of Eddie Palmieri or his brother Charlie Palmieri, most replied ecstatically no.  When I explained who he was, many replied back, “Oh thats why there is so many old people here”.  Its amazing that this new generation has forgotten or for that matter never knew of the great performers of the latin music to some the Fania years.


Eddie Palmieri, wearing a Rutgers University baseball cap, embraces the NJPAC audience and informed the crowd”I am glad to be a new resident of New Jersey “.  He also introduced, vocalist world renown, Herman Olivera, a local talent born and raised on Newark’s Dayton Street public housing.  Mr. Palmieri cultivated the future of his music by blazing a distinctive musical path to the delight of fans across the globe.  His avant garde style and unorthodox piano technique developed while playing with a number of bands during the 1950’s and such notables such as Tito Rodriquez, while his brother Charlie is considered to be more of a jazz artist.  He has one of the most actively touring Salsa and Latin Jazz orchestras to date, tours of which have taken him to Europe, Asia, Australia, Latin America, North Africa and throughout the Caribbean. A true powerhouse of brilliance known for his astute arranging skills and historic compositions, Mr. Palmieri has shown that time is infinite with respect to his repertoire as he continues to thrill audiences with his legendary style.

Eddie Palmieri, known for his charismatic power and bold innovative drive, has a musical career started at the age of 8, and has  spans over 70 years. With a discography that includes 36 titles, Mr. Palmieri has been awarded nine Grammy Awards. Born in Spanish Harlem in 1936, Eddie began piano studies at an early age, as did his celebrated older brother, the late Salsa legend and pianist, Charlie Palmieri. For Latin New Yorkers of Eddie’s generation, music was a vehicle out of El Barrio. At age 11, he auditioned at Weil Recital Hall, which is next door to Carnegie Hall, a venue as far from the Bronx as he could imagine. Possessed by a desire to play the drums, Palmieri joined his uncle’s orchestra at age 13, where he played timbales. Says Palmieri, “By 15, it was good-bye timbales and back to the piano until this day.  He jokes that he switched back to the piano, which he had studied as a child, only because he got tired of hauling percussion gear around and wanted to save money by playing an instrument that club owners had to provide.I’m a frustrated percussionist, so I take it out on the piano.”  


He has been  inducted by the National Endowment for the Arts, as a “jazz master,” putting him in the company of keyboard luminaries like Count Basie, Dave Brubeck and Herbie Hancock.  “It’s about time,” said Robert Farris Thompson, the Yale cultural historian whose latest book, “Aesthetic of the Cool: Afro-Atlantic Art and Music,” includes an essay on Mr. Palmieri. “We’re talking about one of the great figures in American vernacular music, a multifaceted world-class musician who blends and zigzags between cultures, between the modern and the ancient, going past all boundaries.”

“When I was growing up, I knew nothing about jazz, really, and I didn’t like it because I didn’t comprehend it,” he said last week. “My whole life was dedicated to Latin music.” Even now, he added: “I play jazz and use jazz structures and harmony. But I’m not really a jazz pianist, which makes this induction unique.”

To both jazz and Latin music fans, Mr. Palmieri’s unusual style is instantly recognizable. His songs often feature angular melodies and modal passages, and he plays emphatically, almost like a percussionist, with lots of chord clusters, some containing hints of dissonance. On the mambo circuit, he recalls, he attacked the piano with such force that he was given the nickname Pancho Rompetecla, or Pancho the Keyboard Breaker.

The first of the many ensembles Mr. Palmieri has led was La Perfecta, founded in 1961. It immediately drew attention because it took charanga, a traditional Cuban style focused on violins and flute, and made it bold and brassy by substituting a pair of trombones for the strings. That sound, with the trombonist Barry Rogers taking a leading role, came to be known as “the roaring elephants,” andMr. Palmieri further intensified his music’s rhythmic drive by recruiting top percussionists like Manny Oquendo.  “Salsa is a misnomer, and a high degree of lack of respect for rhythmic and sacred religious patterns that all have their proper names,” he said. “You start with rumba, and then you have mambo, cha cha cha, guaracha, changüí, danzón, bolero. All that came from Cuba, and to lump it under the word salsa and claim it came out of here, New York, that is” ridiculous, he said.

After La Perfecta dissolved, in 1968, Mr. Palmieri’s music, while retaining its swing, took on a more overtly political coloration. He read the work of the radical 19th-century economist Henry George; played benefits for César Chávez and the farm workers’ union; performed at prisons like Sing Sing, Attica and Rikers Island; and recorded songs with titles like “Justicia” or “Revolt/La Libertad Logico.”

“Eddie revolutionized Latin music, and had a huge impacton musicians, especiallyme,” said the pianist Larry Harlow (who also performed  at NJPAC Sounds of the City) , who helped create the Fania salsa sound of the 1960s and ’70s as a bandleader, producer and arranger. “He took these very tropical Cuban rhythms and added this new harmonic thing, modern jazz chords in a Latin context. Other players were good, but not dynamic like Eddie, who stood out as an innovator.”

All the while, Mr. Palmieri had been listening intently to jazz players like Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and John Coltrane, whose original quartet he first saw at Birdland, just down the block from the Palladium, in the intervals between his own sets. He and his brother Charlie incorporated those influences, along with soul, funk and blues elements, into a new ensemble called Harlem River Drive, creating the expanded template that marked most of his best work throughout the 1970s, like “Vamonos Pa’l Monte” and “Adoración.”

In recent years Mr. Palmieri, who has won nine Grammy Awards, has recorded several CDs in a Latin jazz style. He has also led a band called La Perfecta II, bringing his career full circle.  Bringing a world renown performer such as Eddie hopefully might bridges the generation gap, and exposed the young one to an extraordinary performance.  For Rumberos and Salseros, the event was a special treat, for over 60 years, Maestro Palmier has been performing around the world, with his percussionist  arrangements on the piano.


Eddie Palmieri piano


Herman Olivera vocals


Joseph Gonzalez vocals


Jimmy Bosch trombone


Nelson Gonzalez guitar, trés, vocals

Luques Curtis bass

Anthony Carrillo bongos

Vicente Rivero congas





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