Feisty innovators rarely age gracefully into honored masters, but in a career spanning 50 years, Nuyorican pianist, composer and bandleader Eddie Palmieri has seen his once-radical ideas shape the sound of Afro-Caribbean, Latin jazz and Latin dance music.
In January, he became an official Jazz Master when the National Endowment for the Arts presented him with the nation’s highest honor in the field for his “lifetime achievements and significant contributions to the development and performance of jazz.”
Still, Palmieri, 76, who performs Saturday with his jazz ensemble at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, doesn’t see himself as a jazz pianist but “a Latin jazz pianist. I say that because to be a jazz pianist you have to know the repertoire, the standards, and what I play is my compositions,” he says in his trademark rasp.
When asked about his jazz influences, Palmieri rattles off a pantheon of pianists including Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea.
“All those are tremendous pianists. But McCoy Tyner is first in the list, especially because I got to meet him,” he says in a telephone interview from New York City.
“And he was the one who presented me at the NEA [awards ceremony]. And I told him that he was my mentor and that I had never seen any pianist play in person like when I saw him with John Coltrane’s original quartet at Birdland.”
At that time, Palmieri recalls, he was playing with his groundbreaking eight-piece band La Perfecta at the nearby Palladium Ballroom. “It has to be 1965-66, and McCoy’s piano solo was more than 20 minutes long — and I was fascinated.”
The NEA award, he says, is “the greatest honor I’ve ever received. I mean, these are the greatest players in jazz. And they have heard my work and the harmonies I bring to my music and my piano playing and they have given me the highest respect.”
Since 1982, the NEA Jazz Masters program has honored 128 people, from musicians and scholars to club owners. Palmieri was just the fourth Latino on that honor roll, joining reed player Paquito D´Rivera, and percussionists Ray Barretto and Cándido Camero.
Born into a musical Puerto Rican family in New York’s Spanish Harlem, Palmieri says his major early influence was his late brother Charlie, nine years older and a terrific pianist and bandleader in his own right. Initially, the younger Palmieri wanted to be a drummer, and he began his career at age 13 playing timbale in an uncle’s band.
He also took piano lessons, and at 15 he switched. “I’m a frustrated percussionist,” he says. “Perhaps that’s why people like [saxophonist] Donald Harrison tell me that when I play a piano solo he hears a drummer. And of course, the piano is a percussion instrument.”
In 1956, Palmieri joined the band of popular Cuban singer Vicentico Valdés, and two years later began a two-year stint with Puerto Rican singer Tito Rodríguez, who then led one the best Latin orchestras in New York.
The apprenticeship paid off in the 1960s when Palmieri shook up the New York Latin music scene with La Perfecta. Using a front line of two trombones and flute, he reshaped the sound of the conjunto, the typical small Latin ensemble, giving it a tarter, grittier sound.
By the 1970s, as salsa was becoming formulaic, Palmieri became a one-man vanguard, staying true to the dancers on the dance floor while also pushing the genre forward, stretching the song forms and taking greater risks rhythmically and harmonically, most notably by drawing from jazz.
It was just a short dance step from that salsa sound to Latin jazz.
“The center of [Palmieri’s] idiom is the salsa band, and the Latin jazz idiom is something that spun off organically from the salsa band,” says trumpeter Brian Lynch, a mainstay in Palmieri’s bands since 1987 and a professor at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music. “And that speaks of how much creativity and improvisational stretching there is in his salsa band.”
“I think all good salsa has jazz in it, anyhow,” says Lynch, whose credits include long stints with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, the Horace Silver Quintet and the late salsa singer Hector Lavoe. He collaborated with Palmieri on the Grammy-winning Simpatico (2006).
Palmieri, he says, “has taken it a step further. And if you look at his bands, he’s always had key members that have been jazz musicians, from [trombonist] Barry Rogers to [conguero and trumpeter] Jerry Gonzalez to me and Donald Harrison. … When Eddie started playing jazz clubs, he really played the music he’s played all along — without vocals.”
In fact, Palmieri, an avant-gardist with a traditionalist’s heart, sees his work in jazz as a natural extension of the classic Latin orchestras of the mambo era.
“When I play Latin jazz it is also danceable, because I’ve kept the idea of ‘instrumental mambos,’” he says.
“That’s how it was called back in the days of Machito and Tito Puente. They played mambos instrumentales, so it had no vocals but the arrangements were still very hot, always thinking in the dancers — and I kept that.”
Mario Bauzá, the musical director of Machito and his Afro-Cubans and a key figure in the development of Latin jazz, liked to say that all the great Latin bandleaders —Machito, Puente, Rodríguez — had such extraordinary rhythmic sense in part because they were excellent dancers.
Not Palmieri — but still.
“Oh no. I can’t dance. I have two left feet,” he says with a chuckle. “Tito Puente told me I was horrible dancer.” He pauses for effect. “But I know how to put you to dance.”