The world has long admired the Harlem-born, seven-time GRAMMY® Award-winning Eddie Palmieri as one of the foremost Latin pianists of the last half-century. His ability to fuse the rhythms of his Hispanic, Puerto Rican heritage with the jazz influences of Thelonius Monk and McCoy Tyner made him an immediate hit when he played New York 's Palladium Ballroom in the 1950s and '60s. He has continued to roll on with stylistic innovations over the years, creating classic Tico albums and later mixing salsa with R&B, pop, rock, Spanish vocals and more jazz improvisation. Now 68, Palmieri, who in 2005 celebrates an amazing 50-year career as a professional musician, simply revolutionized the sound of Latin music, an accomplishment that alone would ensure his place in the music pantheon.
On his first two recordings for Concord Picante (La Perfecta II and Ritmo Caliente), the famously cigar-smoking pianist explored, from a fresh perspective, those salsa hits that launched his career a half century ago. However, Palmieri has always embodied the jazz spirit of improvisation-doing things differently each time, never staying in the same place, and surrounding himself with unique personalities to perform his innovative, sui generis music. That inclination served Palmieri well a decade ago, when, sensing "the writing on the wall in the Latin dance genre," he formed the Afro-Caribbean Jazz Octet with trumpeter Brian Lynch, trombonist Conrad Herwig, and alto saxophonist Donald Harrison, and presented his take on instrumental Latin Jazz, first documented on the GRAMMY-winning album Palmas, followed by Arete and Vortex.
On Listen Here! the maestro takes his jazz involvement to another level. Along with co-producer Richard Seidel, he assembles an all-star jazz cohort of guest soloists Michael Brecker , Regina Carter, Christian McBride, David Sanchez, and John Scofield and propels them with bassist John Benitez, Cuban traps wizard Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez, and master conguero Giovanni Hidalgo, all veterans of various Palmieri ensembles. Together, they perform six original Palmieri compositions and four jazz classics "Nica's Dream," "In Walked Bud," "Tin Tin Deo" and the title track-arranged by Palmieri in his inimitable manner. Following the pianist's logic, the players immediately enter his world and produce a magical recital that tackles jazz on its own terms and bears Palmieri's unmistakable tonal imprint.
"I've never recorded compositions by jazz artists before, because I'm not so familiar with jazz repertoire," admits Palmieri, whose sole previous documented encounter with the idiom is a performance of John Coltrane's "Africa" on Conrad Herwig's The Latin Side Of John Coltrane. "I actually wasn't into jazz until [trombonist] Barry Rogers joined my band in the '60s. He brought me to Birdland on a Sunday, and I saw the original John Coltrane quartet. Barry also made me aware of Monk. We used to exchange LPs, and he brought me Criss-Cross, where Monk plays "Tea For Two," in exchange for one by Celia Cruz and Sonora Matancera. He also brought me Kind of Blue, for which I think I gave him a record by [legendary Cuban trumpeter] Chappotin."
Once dubbed "the Latin Monk" by timbalero Willie Bobo for the dissonance he customarily deploys in his solos, on Listen Here! Palmieri selects his namesake's "In Walked Bud" as a showcase for the ACJO front line. They envelop the music like a custom suit. The leader imparts a mambo flavor, following the horn statements with a trademark declamation, tossing off relentless left-hand montunos that propel the solo with the visceral rumble of a Mack truck. Palmieri is quick to credit his band as the inspiration for his new compositional direction. "The challenge," he states, "was to satisfy the personal harmonic desires of the jazz players and to satisfy my own rhythm section desire, which is more Latin and has less chordal changes within the same composition."
Grappling with jazz also impelled Palmieri, famed for his long, abstract introductions on past masterpieces like The Verdict On Judge Street and Adoracion, to adjust his technique. "In Latin, you play the full octave, which locks the hand," he explains. "The harmonic extensions are minimal, you wind up on tonic and dominant. There was no amplification early in my career, and lining it up that way-when you hit four C's, for example-gave it a lot of power. But it isn't the way you would finger for jazz. I had to do basic fundamental exercises-thirds, minor thirds, sixths, and double note techniques-in order to play the different styles. While working on the fingering, I wrote ballads like "Bolero Dos" [Palmas] and "Tema Para Reneé" [Ritmo Caliente], and that-along with the experience of comping for Brian, Conrad and Donald on the earlier CDs-helped me take a more piano-oriented approach."
As he demonstrated last year on a memorable duo engagement with Dávid Sanchez at Manhattan's Le Jazz Au Bar, Palmieri's hard work now allows him to break down his charts from their functional salsa context into a kind of Latin Chamber Jazz. On Listen Here!, consider the bolero ballad, "Tema Para Eydie," written for his second-oldest daughter. Playing duo with John Benitez, Palmieri improvises with a composer's attitude towards shape and texture, crafting unerringly articulated single note lines juxtaposed with explosive clusters. He commands the time, and his left hand is a thing of wonder.
Palmieri also eschews the drums on "La Gitana," a flamenco-blues played in trio with John Scofield (acoustic guitar) and Benitez that he interprets with exquisite nuance, and on "Mira Flores," an extravagantly beautiful waltz on which he comps eloquently for Michael Brecker and Christian McBride. The latter are in magnificent form on both this and on the title track, an Eddie Harris composition that made a splash in the 1960s. "I met Michael many years ago, when he played with Barry Rogers in Dreams, but he never recorded with me," Palmieri says. "And everyone knows what Christian does in jazz, but he can ride a Latin tumbao, too. His father played with Latin bands; Christian told me, 'My Dad will be jealous that I recorded with you and not him.'"
After a dramatic opening, "Vals Con Bata," which features Scofield on electric guitar, an ascendant tenor solo by Dávid Sanchez, and Giovanni Hidalgo on bata drums, resolves to a surging swing. Palmieri also features Sanchez, who took his first major league job with the bandleader in 1990, on a richly harmonized mambo arrangement of Dizzy Gillespie's "Tin Tin Deo." Palmieri dates his involvement with "Nica's Dream," the Horace Silver classic, to a chance encounter with the composer in the '60s on Broadway, not far from the Palladium, the dance hall where Palmieri developed the two-trombone sound that catapulted his reputation. "I told Horace how much I admired him," says Palmieri. "I'll never forget that he asked me if I was hip to 'Nica's Dream.'" Palmieri reharmonizes the melody, violinist Regina Carter transitions from trés-like pizzicato to stirring arco swing in her solo, and trumpeter Nicholas Payton blows with characteristic audacious authority.
Hints of Silver, Gillespie and Duke Ellington crop up on "In-Flight," the stirring opener for Listen Here!. Regina Carter takes charge with a rousing melody statement and blistering solo. "I wasn't aware that Regina had played Latin music with charanga bands," Palmieri says. "She blew the piece away." So do Lynch and Harrison, who ratchet the excitement with exchanges of 16's, 8's and 4's, and an extended contrapuntal shout chorus, before Carter reenters.
It's apropos that Palmieri concludes this spirited jazz paean with the "E.P. Blues," offering meaty blues changes Payton and the ACJO horns, who uncork a succession of thrilling solos. When they're done, Palmieri momentarily tamps down the molten tempo, and asserts the leader's prerogative to claim the last word, stating drum-centric, Monk-like clusters before gradually building to a force-of-nature montuno. Animated by both the body and the soul, the solo caps a recital that again reinforces Palmieri's ranking as one of the great jazz piano voices of all time.