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The Boston Globe

All That Latin Jazz . . . While Legendary Pianist Revisits His Roots

By Bill Beuttler, Globe Correspondent

3 September 2004
Copyright © 2004 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

Pianist Eddie Palmieri, the reigning king of bona fide Latin jazz, made his name by ceaselessly testing the limits of the genre. It was Palmieri, 67, who adapted the harmonics of pianists such as Thelonious Monk and McCoy Tyner to traditional Afro-Caribbean rhythms; who demonstrated that Latin jazz tunes could remain danceable for longer than three minutes at a clip; who built his great '60s band La Perfecta around a front line of two trombones and a flute - unheard of at the time.

Lately, however, Palmieri, who plays the Tanglewood Jazz Festival tonight, is embracing more than ever the style's roots, and is emerging as one of Latin jazz's most committed guardians. Can an innovator also be a conservator? Maybe that's less a contradiction than it seems.

One of his greatest attributes, says trombonist Conrad Herwig, who still occasionally performs with Palmieri's bands, "is that he's the keeper of the flame of the traditional forms, but he's open- minded in looking to the future at the same time."

Two events have led Palmieri to emphasize his traditional side. First was the death of Tito Puente in May 2000, a few days after he and Palmieri had recorded their first CD together, which left Palmieri the best-known figure in Latin jazz.

Second, Palmieri switched record labels, to Concord Picante, and agreed to record a CD looking back at his La Perfecta heyday. He did so both to honor the memory of late trombonist Barry Rogers and to remind people what Latin jazz is supposed to be about - the use of Caribbean percussion and instrumental firepower to make people want to get up and dance.

Latin jazz, to hear Palmieri tell it, has been threatened on a pair of fronts since the 1980s. Jazz itself has captured the imaginations of many of the best musicians coming out of Latin America in recent years, de-emphasizing those sacred Caribbean rhythms in the process.

"Their recordings go into another direction, which I call `jazz Latin,' " says Palmieri by phone from California. "They've been weaned more to jazz, and they became great talents, but they had no interest, let's put it that way, in the Latin orchestras or full Latin rhythm sections.

"See, I'm used to the Latin jazz that was known as instrumental mambos - it comes down from musicians like Tito Puente and Machito - which means that it's danceable. The concept behind the arrangement of the composition is that it can be danceable. The young players, there is no concept of dance within their structure."

There's nothing wrong with that, he says. But to him, Latin jazz requires a full Afro-Caribbean rhythm section of timbales, conga, and bongo. The younger, jazz-oriented musicians often build their groups around nothing more than a drum set.

He hastens to add, however, that he finds much to admire in the best of these musicians. "David Sanchez is the pride of Puerto Rico," he says. Palmieri is also a fan of Miguel Zenon, who will lead a quartet at Tanglewood on Sunday afternoon and is another jazz- oriented saxophonist from Puerto Rico.

"I don't know him personally," says Palmieri, himself the son of Puerto Rican immigrants, "but he is an incredible young genius of a player."

Less impressive, and more threatening to Palmieri's brand of music, was the emergence of salsa romantica as the dominant form of Latin dance music in the 1980s and 1990s. That's when good-looking young balladeers began shoving the sacred rhythms of the Caribbean into the background. Latin dance music "started to lose its excitement," Palmieri said. "And that's of course because the tension and resistance have been taken away from the composition itself. It's just from top to bottom the singer sings, and the rhythm is just accompanying him - it never gets primary position."

"That's the way everybody was recording," he adds, "including some top artists that knew better. But you can't fight success, so they joined the bandwagon so to speak, no?"

Where once Latin jazz and Latin dance music were one and the same (much as swing music had been the popular dance music of the '30s and '40s), salsa romantica came along as a separate, blander form of dance music.

Its dominance drove many talented Latin musicians into the arms of American jazz, and caused the general public to forget what was exciting about Latin dance music in the first place - the all- important rhythms of hard-core salsa.

Luckily, Palmieri says, he sees signs here and there that this is changing; certain bands are re-emphasizing traditional Latin percussion. "I believe it's turning around," he says. "The Spanish Harlem Orchestra, for example, is doing very well under the leadership of Oscar Hernandez. Even Jimmy Bosch, who's traveling with us, he's just recorded an album [that] went in that direction. It's a direction that I've never [departed from], with the excitement of a dance orchestra really letting you have it. My forte has always been that I'm a dance orchestra leader."

At Tanglewood, Palmieri's dance orchestra, an updated version of his '60s band called La Perfecta II, will include Bosch and Doug Beavers on trombones, Karen Joseph on flute, Johnny Rivero on conga, Orlando Vega on bongo, Jose Claussell on timbales, and vocalist Herman Olivera. It's an ensemble guaranteed to get people moving.

"Oh, if they want to get up and dance, they could certainly do it," Palmieri says. "I don't guess I'm going to excite you with the band. I know it."

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