Eddie Palmieri - Biography

By Robert Leaver


One of the most influential and recognizable figures to emerge from Latin New York City, pianist and composer made his mark as a bandleader sculpting the shape of salsa from its birth in the ‘60s. Always an innovator, he pushed the boundaries of salsa, bridging the cultures of Black and Spanish Harlem and stretching the format in the ‘70s with longer tunes, extended solos, and improvisations, ultimately invigorating a growing Latin jazz scene. His disheveled hair (before its loss) sets an air of eccentricity around him as he appears totally absorbed in the ivories, bellowing like a bullfrog when he performs. Still performing more than fifty years after he began, Palmieri is a true legend in the realm of salsa and Latin jazz- a colorful pioneer with boundless creativity.


Born in the South Bronx in 1936 to Puerto Rican immigrants in New York City, Palmieri began playing the piano at the age of eight following in the footsteps of his older brother, Charlie Palmieri. As a youth he studied classical and jazz being influenced by the likes of Thelonious Monk and played in numerous school groups, performing in the prestigious Carnegie Hall at the age of eleven. He also played timbale drums, perhaps shaping his particularly rhythmic approach to the keyboard. In 1955 he began his professional career as the pianist with the orchestra of Johnny Segui and later joined the orchestra of the legendary Puerto Rican singer Tito Rodriguez in 1958 where he remained until 1960. His exuberance while performing and his unconventional approach made performing in a traditional Latin big band difficult, so in 1961 he formed Conjunto La Perfecta.    


Based on the Cuban style of charanga the band featured flute but also trumpets and trombone; Palmieri has said, “Cuban music provides the fundamental from which I never move. Whatever has to be built must be built from there.” Immensely popular as a dance band in New York City, their first album, titled after the group, Eddie Palmieri and his conjunto “la perfecta” (1962 Alegre) included the theme song for the band.  Among the large caste of young musicians joining him on that landmark recording are singer Ismael Quintana and trombonist/arranger Barry Rogers, both of whom would make their own mark in salsa after years with Palmieri. Although playing such standard song forms as mambo, cha cha cha, bolero, son montuño and the more contemporary pachanga (a variant of charanga), there was a freshness in their sound. Over the course of the following albums, El Molestoso (1963 Alegre), Los Que Traigo Es Sabroso (1964 Alegre) and Echando Pa’lante/Straight Ahead (1964 Tico) Palmieri innovated by adding another trombone and emphasizing the dual trombone interplay in the arrangements. The bold brass and heavy rhythm section earned them praise as “the band with the crazy roaring elephants.”


Azucar Pa’ Ti (Sugar for you) (1965 Tico) broke all convention with the track “Azúcar” clocking in at over nine minutes, yet still became one of his most popular songs. When (mambo con conga is) Mozambique (1965 Tico) came out it was clear that he had created a new template for what would later became known as salsa. His next move was a unique collaboration with vibraphonist Cal Tjader called El Sonido Nuevo (1966 Verve) which pared up the leader of the cool West coast Latin jazz sound with Palmieri’s Nuyroican tinge. The two would team up again later for an even more successful outing with Bamboleáte (1967 Tico), an up-tempo breakthrough record that has become a cornerstone of Latin jazz. That same year he put out perhaps his best record of the ‘60s in Molasses (1967 Tico), a swinging salsa romp that testifies to the tightness of the unit from rhythm to brass and vocals. With a nod to the crossover appeal of the soul-influenced boogaloo sound Palmieri released his most “pop” recording, Champagne (Tico) in 1968, but quickly returned with some serious social commentary on Justicia (1969 Tico) an album influenced by rhythm n’blues.


Palmieri began the ‘70s with his most adventurous project, Harlem River Drive (1970), named after the road built for commuters that bypasses East Harlem. For this project he brought in his brother Charlie and an all star Latin and soul cast in a fusion of salsa, soul, funk and jazz. In addition to the title track, “Seeds of Life” became a soul cult classic much sought by djs in the ‘80s and ‘90s before it was reissued. The following year he released Vamonos Pa’l Monte (1971 Tico), a killer salsa record whose title cut remains one of the greatest and most recognized songs of the genre. Masterful production is matched with great musicians given the space to stretch out and jam. Live at the University of Puerto Rico (1971 MP), originally released as a double album, is an historic concert that features brother Charlie on organ. The crowd responds from the first note of “Vamonos Pa’l Monte” and Palmieri and his cohorts deliver stirring versions of such classics as “Bilongo” and Arsenio Rodriguez’s “Pa ‘Huele,” along with the psychedelic experimentation of the composition “Chocolate Ice Cream,” featuring legendary Cuban trumpeter “Chocolate” Armenteros. All of those songs appear in studio versions on Superimposition (1970 Tico) an album that comfortably digs into some deep Cuban roots eschewing nostalgia for adventure.


That same year Palmieri appeared in another historical concert, this time with his brothers from the other side of Harlem, Harlem River Drive, at New York’s notorious Sing Sing prison. The salsa brass and rhythm section is joined by electric guitar and bass and spoken word by poet Felipe Luciano.  Recorded Live at Sing Sing Vol. 1 (1972 Tico) includes high-energy performances by this cast of some twenty musicians of “Pa la Ocha Tambo,” “Muñeca,” and “Azucar, Pts. 2-3.” Recorded Live at Sing Sing Vol. 2 (1972 Tico) followed several months later. On Sentido (1973 MP) Palmieri keeps up the pace while vocalist Quintana cements his stardom on the seven-minute paean to their ancestral homeland, “Puerto Rico” and the nine-minute-plus “Adoración,” on which they share composition credits. The critically acclaimed The Sun of Latin Music (1973 MP) introduced singer Lalo Rodriguez and would earn Palmieri the Grammy for Best Latin Recording in 1974, the first year for such a Grammy. On Eddie’s Concerto (1976 Tico) Palmieri reprises some earlier recordings, gets a bit experimental, but, above all, delivers an almost ten minute version of the “Pa la Ocha Tambo” that’s simply smoking.


            For his next outing he signed to a major label and enlisted the likes of Cuban drum legend Francisco Aguabella, Brazilian percussionist Dom Um Romão, trumpeters “Chocolate” Armenteros and Jon Faddis, and brother Charlie on organ. Exploring the sacred religions of Cuba, Brazil, and Haiti that were brought from Africa in the Diaspora, Lucumi, Macumba, Voodoo (1978 Epic) was too disco-filled for the folkloric enthusiasts and too experimental for the dance audience, thus destined for commercial failure. Among the tunes, one track, the ten-minute “Colombia Te Canto”  (Colombia I sing to you) stands out as one of the greatest salsa tunes he ever penned. The song opens with drums and percussion as a rumba, then the band swings in and the dynamic tension keeps rising like a train building speed until it explodes in sustained crescendo. Ismael Quintana who had left to pursue his solo career returned to sing along with the legendary Cheo Feliciano on the self-titled Eddie Palmieri (1982 Musica Latina). A big production with sophisticated arrangements emphasizing brass but employing strings as well they recorded a version of the old Carlos Gardel tango “El Día Que Me Quieras.” The album closes with two strong originals, “No Me Hagas Sufrir” and “Ven Ven,” sung by Quintana who co-wrote them with Palmieri.


His next venture, Palo Pa Rumba (1984 Musica Latina), is arguably his best salsa recording. The title track is a brilliant reworking of a rumba by Cuba’s folkloric institution Los Muñequitos de Matanzas. Accompanied by an all Puerto Rican cast he injects the folkloric bomba rhythm with a heavy dose of salsa on “Bomba de Corazon,” which African salsa phenomenon Africando borrowed for one of their popular songs in the nineties. The album also contains “Bajo con tumbao” featuring timbale drum master Nicky Marrero. Palmieri deservedly won another Grammy for this effort, this time for Best Tropical Latin Performance of 1984. In the mid-eighties a new generation of “salseros” took over with the “salsa romantica” movement and their softer, more pop sound became the rage, pushing aside the old-timers like Palmieri. He would only record two more discs that decade, Solito (1985 Musica Latina) and La Verdad/The Truth (1987 Fania), both of which would earn Grammys. Both records take their energy from a fresh cast of younger Latin hot shots, including conga sensation Giovanni Hidalgo and Anthony Carillo on bongo. With great arrangements, “La Verdad” swings and the large band stretches out over eleven minutes on “Buscandote.” Also included is a great version of a classic rumba, “Congo Yambumba,” a signature tune of Los Muñequitos de Matanzas. With singer Tony Vega fronting the band they embarked on a successful European tour.


In September 1988 Palmieri was devastated by the loss of his brother Charlie to a heart attack. He continued to perform and by 1991 was featuring a powerful young woman known as “La India” on several songs. They recorded Llegó La India Via Eddie Palmieri (1992 Sony Discos) featuring the stirring title cut, “Mi Primera Rumba” and the Santería themed “Yemayá y Ochun” penned by Palmieri. At this point the band featured many of New York’s top Latin jazz musicians including David Sanchez on saxophone, Conrad Herwig on trombone, and Charlie Sepulveda on trumpet. Switching directions he plunged head first into composing instrumental Afro-Caribbean jazz releasing Palmas (1994 Elektra), Arete (1995 Sony/RMM), and Vortex (1996 RMM). Palmieri’s syncopated approach feeds off a killer rhythm section comprised of conga, timbales and bongo augmented by such serious horn men as Brian Lynch on trumpet, Conrad Herwig on trombone, and Donald Harrison on saxophone. He reveled in the role of the elder in a growing Latin jazz movement.


For his next project he returned to one sitting on his shelf since 1989, finally getting the budget to make El Rumbero del Piano (1998 RMM). Blessed with the voices of Herman Olivera and Wichy Camacho he reprises “Café” some thirty years on and gives a rousing version of Arsenio Rodriguez’ “Oiga Mi Guaguancó.” He also embraces the folklore of his ancestral home, Puerto Rico, with the bomba “El Dueño del Monte” featuring members of the Cepeda family (the first family of Puerto Rican folklore) and the plena “Dónde Está Mi Negra” recorded with Los Pleneros de la 21. One of his more successful ventures, this record satisfied both critics and old school salsa aficionados. Palmieri has great admiration for fellow Nuyorican legend Tito Puente and after years talking about it they finally got it together inaugurating the new century with the appropriately titled Masterpiece/Obra Maestra (2000 RMM). Combining personnel and with each of them bringing six arrangements to the project the result is stunning. The all- star cast of musicians includes Paquito D’Rivera on sax and Nelson González on tres guitar along with a host of percussionists and a huge brass section. Palmieri’s original compositions “Yambu Pa’ Inglaterra,” “Paris Mambo,” and “Itutu Aché” are inspired and were designed to showcase the king of timbales, Puente, in action. The recording would be among the last of Puente’s hundred plus as he passed on only several weeks before its release.


 Going back to his beginnings some forty years prior Palmieri decided to revisit his “Perfecta” period with La Perfecta II (2002 Concord Jazz). Reinvigorating some of his old classics with new arrangements sung by Herman Olivera, of Conjunto Libre fame, the recording also includes some heady Latin jazz. Palmieri brought in the third generation of lions of Latin Jazz he would work with including Cubans Dafnis Prieto on drums and Yosvanny Terry on saxophone, in addition to his long time associates Brain Lynch on trumpet and Conrad Herwig on trombone. He continued this heady mix of salsa and jazz on the next release, Ritmo Caliente (2003 Concord Jazz). Listen Here! (2005 Concord Jazz) may be his best contemporary Latin jazz recording ever as he is joined by numerous guests including Regina Carter on violin, Michael Brecker and David Sanchez on sax, Nicolas Payton on trumpet, and John Scofield on guitar. Add in a monstrous rhythm section with Horacio “El Negro”Hernández on trap drums and Giovanni Hidalgo on congas and you can’t go wrong. At the ripe age of 70 he continued his explorations in Latin jazz teaming up with trumpeter Brian Lynch on the brian lynch/eddie palmieri project – Simpatico (2006 Artist Share), which blew away the competition garnering him the Grammy for Latin Jazz Recording. With nine Grammies to his name and a vast, diverse catalogue of songs that have become standards, as well as countless solos and improvisations that continue to baffle and inspire, Eddie Palmieri has shaped and changed two genres of music- salsa and Latin jazz. His legacy is assured but he insists the best is yet to come!


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