Latin Jazz Legend Plays St. Ambrose Print
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Tuesday, 15 March 2005 18:00
Even though he has played the piano professionally for five decades – and is a Latin jazz and salsa legend because of it – Eddie Palmieri concedes that his first love was the drums. “I wanted to be my brother’s drummer,” Palmieri said, referring to the also-legendary pianist Charlie Palmieri (who died in 1988).

His mother eventually wore him down, though, noting that unlike Charlie – who didn’t have to carry his piano, obviously – Eddie would have to haul around his instrument everywhere he performed. The pianist, she argued, looked better entering a room. And so Eddie abandoned percussion for the ivories.

The Puerto Rico-born Palmieri, a seven-time Grammy winner, will perform on Saturday as part of a septet at Galvin Fine Arts Center at St. Ambrose University. In an interview with the River Cities’ Reader, he talked about everything from his beginnings to his upcoming CD, which finds him in a jazzier mood.

“Eddie Palmieri is one of the foremost Latin jazz pianists of the last half of the 20th Century,” the All Music Guide says, “blessed with a technique that fuses such ubiquitous jazz influences as the styles of Herbie Hancock, Thelonious Monk, and McCoy Tyner into a Latin context.”

Now, though, Palmieri is something even more. With the death of Tito Puente in 2000, he is the de facto face of Latin jazz in the world, a title he takes only hesitantly. “He was his own icon,” Palmieri said of Puente. The pianist-composer sounded proud when mentioning that he collaborated with the timbales legend and Latin-jazz ambassador on his final recording, Por Fin. The two had planned to tour together after the CD was released.

Even though he traded in his drums for the keyboard, Palmieri noted that being a drummer as a youth had a profound impact on his distinctive style. “The love for drums has given me the percussive style of piano,” he said, along with making it easy and natural to have the hands operating independently on the keyboard.

Palmieri started playing the piano at age eight and was classically trained. He made his professional debut in 1955 and started getting recognition in Tito Rodriguez’s band. Following that, he formed La Pefecta, an influential outfit that in 1964 released what the All Music Guide called “one of the best albums released by one of Palmieri’s best bands.”

La Perfecta was distinguished by its unique flute-and-two-trombone sound. The group disbanded in 1968, and Palmieri said he wouldn’t perform that music again. But when he was presented with transcriptions of the original material, he had a change of heart and revisited much of the music in 2002 with La Perfecta II.

The music couldn’t be replicated, Palmieri said, but it still had the magic. “Watching the faces of the audience … ,” he said. “Not only that, but they knew the compositions.”

Starting in the mid-1970s, Palmieri had an amazing string of Grammy nominations. He won the first Latin-music Grammy with 1973’s The Sun of Latin Music, and his next six albums (through 1987) received nominations.

Palmieri’s new CD, Listen Here! , is due in June on the Concord Picante label and features smaller ensembles than Palmieri has worked with in the past. Some tracks don’t employ the full rhythm section, he said, and “it’s a different taste to it.” The CD is also more “jazz Latin” than Latin jazz, he added. For the CD, Palmieri arranged four classics and composed six tracks of his own and employed a who’s who of guest soloists, including Michael Brecker, Regina Carter, Christian McBride, Nicholas Payton, David Sanchez, and John Scofield. The recording promises to be a touchstone for Palmieri, melding contemporary jazz with his classic salsa rhythms.

Palmieri recognizes that his best sales days are behind him, but he doesn’t sound bothered by it. The radio landscape has changed so much, he said, that it’s difficult for him – or anybody else in his idiom – to get much airplay. “The sales have dropped for everyone,” he said. “It’s another ballgame now.”

The pianist sounded content with that turn of events, saying he wants to make music now that will be appreciated by musicians and younger students of salsa and Latin jazz. And he has no intention of chasing trends: “It’s very difficult to change.”

Palmieri said the musicians he tours with help keep him young. Plus, he added, a friend told him that “you start counting again at 50. So I’m 18 going on 19.”

And so long as he has parsley and watercress salads to keep him going, Palmieri said he has no plans to retire from performing. “Retire to what?” he said. “I still have a good 20 years to go.”

Eddie Palmieri will perform at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 19, at St. Ambrose University’s Galvin Fine Arts Center. Adult tickets are $18. For tickets, call (563)333-6251.