Photo: Rob Davidson Media
Eddie Palmieri On Pioneering Latin Jazz & His Blue Note Residency: "We're Talking About The Greatest Jazz Room In The World"
To fully appreciate an Eddie Palmieri show, it helps to see it twice. First, catch the pianist outdoors at New York's Lincoln Center and soak in the space and balance between the septet. Later, head downtown to Blue Note and behold the same ensemble—with the horns mere feet from your face. The effect, as Palmieri said during a recent Blue Note set, is of "a herd of elephants, or 99 Mack trucks."
Why is this music so viscerally overwhelming, capable of pulling your head in seven directions while maintaining precision? It's simple, Palmieri says during a recent phone call. "After I take a piano solo, I give it to one of the drummers and then we synchronize," he tells GRAMMY.com. "And when the horns come in, I guarantee you I'm going to put you to dance in your seat!"
Now, music fans of all backgrounds can watch that equation play out before them. If you're on the East Coast, Palmieri's current run of shows at the West Village institution are a masterclass in swinging and dancing rhythms.
His next Blue Note gigs are August 2 and 16—and if you can't make those, there are bound to be more. Because, to hear Palmieri tell it, traveling overseas is an ordeal at 84—and the Blue Note is his temple for now. "We're very fortunate to perform at the greatest jazz club in the world," Palmieri says humbly. "But when I'm playing there," he adds with an audible grin, "It's the greatest Latin jazz club in the world!"
GRAMMY.com caught up with the 10-time GRAMMY winner and 14-time nominee to discuss his 60-year career, the lessons he learned along the way and why the Blue Note is, in his words, "the greatest jazz room in the world."
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
How are you, Mr. Palmieri?
Never been better, my man!
That's good to hear!
Never been. Ever!
Why do you say that? Having a particularly good day?
It's just wonderful to be alive under the conditions that exist. There's so much danger out there and unfortunately, that virus has affected the whole planet. At my age, I've seen so much, but never anything like this.
There was a bandleader called Vicentico Valdés. That was the singer for Tito Puente in the '50s when my brother, Charlie Palmieri, played piano also for Tito Puente, for two years. Vicentico Valdés made his own orchestra in 1954; I joined in 1956. He taught me this. He said, "Palmieri, remember this. It's dangerous to be alive, but you can't live if you're dead." You know what I mean?
I'm happy to be so healthy and alive and that I can perform. I celebrate that every day.
While the virus remains a threat throughout much of the world, it's calmed down significantly stateside. How does it feel to be onstage again?
Well, you know, the pandemic is still around. That variant is still around. Now, they want to give you a booster and it could be like that for many more years, which is unfortunate. But that's what we have to deal with. It's the most wonderful feeling that I could have ever had [to be back onstage]. We didn't perform for a year and four months, at all.
I thank the gods for the Blue Note that gave us these five engagements. We did two in the summer, July 4 and 5. Then, we're going there on the 19th. Then, we have two more in August, and that's it.
The agency that I work with, Kurland, coming out of Boston, has all the jazz greats in there. Because of the pandemic, by the time they start booking for next year, that means that we're not going to be working until 2023. So, it's been a situation of two and a half years of financial drought because there's no income coming in.
It made it completely hard on every musician. Broadway closed. It changed music in seconds, unfortunately. But there's a saying that without music, the world would be flat.
I was at the Lincoln Center gig and loved it. What's the difference in energy between playing a giant outdoor show like that and the Blue Note?
We did Lincoln Center outdoors and there was a select crowd. They had to get a COVID test. We did that and it was great to play again. But to answer your question, the reason is also that on July 4 and 5, we broke the record playing at the Blue Note. No one put as many people as we put in there July 4 and 5 because we put over 750 people—around there—in four shows.
So, it wasn't expected. I expected it because of the long time [since] we had performed. I predict that on the 19th that it'll be a sellout, the two shows. I predict that for sure because people are hungry to hear the music and we're very fortunate to perform at the greatest jazz club in the world. But when I'm playing there, it's the greatest Latin jazz club in the world!
The difference is the rhythm section! I call our jazz the fusion of the 21st century mainly because of the rhythm section that stems from Africa. That's called the 8/8 series, and we play in 4/4 time, 6/8 time or 2/4 time. The 8/8 series came from Africa when the captives were brought by force all over the Caribbean and South America.
But I'm talking about one island: Cuba! Cuba was the most incredible cultural exchange between the Spanish and the Africans. Out of that cultural exchange came the mulatto, and the mulatto put the world to dance with the drum. The drum is the pulse of my life. It can make el rumbero del piano, and that's because I'm a percussionist at heart.
I started playing timbale when I was 13 years old, which is the drum in the rhythm section and what creates the rhythmical tension and resistance. Put them together, and you'll reach the high degree of a musical climax—a rhythmical and harmonic climax. After I take a piano solo, I give it to one of the drummers and then we synchronize.
That creates tension and resistance. It starts to swell. And when the horns come in, I guarantee you I'm going to put you to dance in your seat! And like I say as always, that's because I comprehend well the African rhythm, and that African rhythm will always getcha.
Tell me about the material you're performing at these gigs. With your debut album turning 60 soon, does it feel like it's time to look back and survey your career? Or are you more interested in the future?
No, no, no. You've always got to look forward. That's for sure. But the recordings that I have done—remember that my forte was with the big band, OK? Always with the big band.
When I started my orchestra, the trombone was important. [We had] a genius called Barry Rogers, another genius called Jose Rodrigues, a Brazilian. Two trombones up front, a wooden flute, a singer. Timbale and bongo—that was played by one man, Manny Oquendo. Then, we had a conga player, Tommy López, and a bass player, Dave Pérez. Then, Jose Rodrigues came in and then Dave Pérez came in again.
When I was presenting the music, my structures for Latin jazz were danceable. I'm a dance orchestra leader. When we played the Palladium Ballroom, the greatest ballroom in the history of Latin music that started in 1949—and I closed it in 1966; I started playing there in 1963—you had a thousand people dancing. I'm wanting to put people to dance, and little by little, that is the way.
My wife, who passed away in 2013—Iraida Palmieri—told me: Look at the writing on the wall. The Latin music that you play is not what they're playing now. They have watered it down to a disaster and put it on commercial radio.
When I was a young man, commercial radio had the Machito Orchestra, the Tito Puente Orchestra, the Tito Rodriguez Orchestra coming on commercial radio. But when you turn on commercial radio now, you've got to run to the pharmacy to try to get the largest bottle of Pepto-Bismol because of what you're hearing! That's how bad it is!
So my wife says, "If you can do Latin jazz, then do it. That will extend your career and keep you going with employment." She was completely right. We did the first one, [1994's] Palmas, with the great [trumpeter] Brian Lynch, [saxophonist] Donald Harrison—Chief Donald Harrison from New Orleans! And a great trombone player, Conrad Herwig.
Eddie Palmieri. Photo: Rob Davidson Media
We did three albums. We did Palmas, [1995's] Arete and [1996's] Vortex. Then, I went back to Latin dance music with [1998's] El Rombero Del Piano. Then, before Tito Puente passed away, that was [2000's] Masterpiece. Then, Tito passed away and we never went on tour after that because he died right after the album was done. So, we keep going and keep going and keep going.
Now, the Blue Note has given me the opportunity to present my new works and the new arrangements I'm doing. I really appreciate the home I have at the Blue Note. I'd like to keep something out because if I keep something out, I can have it—more important—at the Blue Note.
Which helps me, because at my age—look, I've played five continents already! We've done more than 2,500 concerts since I started going to Europe, and that's many, many years ago. I started in 1974. Being home means a lot to me—staying home and not traveling so much.
Those trips are very hard to do. We went to Australia five times, Japan seven or eight times. That's 13 hours. When you go to Australia, it's 27 hours. You've got to do 13 hours, then you stay overnight and fly over the Indian Ocean for four more hours. Because from Sydney to Perth is a thousand miles longer than New York to California. It's 4,000 miles. Unbelievable!
So, we did all that. We went to Africa. All over Europe. The body can only take so much. I like to stay more local, and that would be the Blue Note for me. That's why the Blue Note means everything to me. I love the Blue Note very, very much and what they've done for me.
I hope we can extend these with more and more presentations there with my septet, which is an amazing septet. And that's it for now. You know what I mean?
I do. You're staying here and settling in at your chosen home.
Well, yeah. We're talking about the greatest jazz room in the world! And at the same time, I've played the one in China. I've played the one in Japan four or five times. Then, we went to the one in Italy, in Milan. Now, I want to do the one I'm missing in Hawaii! I want to go, but that's a little bit of a tremendous, long trip.
I'm a Blue Note member. I appreciate them calling me because when we play there, we play hard and we play very good. We've started to pack them in. And when you start packing in the hall, then you've got yourself employment, and that's what I'm after. Health and employment have been my prayers always. I'm 84; I'll be 85 in December. The great Chocolate Armenteros taught me that after 50, you have to start counting by one again. So, I'm 34—I'll be 35 in December!
I'm a happy camper with all my experience. I would say my brother was the pianist; I'm the piano player. It's an incredible story between two brothers who loved each other very much. He died at 60 years young. I've made it my business to not only extend my legacy as far as what I do, but to live as long as I possibly can because there's so much work to do.
Right now, I'm recording a young lady called Arlene G. A lot of this is now back to dance music, and it's going to be a great composition that I did for her. It's going to turn out to be another album. What I want to do at the end of the year is Harlem River Drive, Vol. 2. The new one will be Poverty is the Parent of Wars and Crime.
The importance of staying healthy and alive to me means everything as I reach this stage. Let me put it this way: The great Pablo Casals from Spain—the greatest cellist in the world—was 92. The reporters asked him, "Maestro, at 92, when you've been acclaimed as the greatest cellist alive in the world, why do you keep practicing?" His answer was so simple and so true: "I hear progress."
So, I hear progress in my playing and see progress in my writing. I'm writing some new compositions with exchanges for five horns. Things that I'm doing and experimenting with. I'm still healthy enough to perform, and that's all of it in a nutshell. Would you agree?
Yes, absolutely. Do you feel that the future of Latin jazz is in good hands? You mentioned that young musician you're working with.
Oh, yeah. Latin jazz is the fusion of the 21st century.
Great talking to you, Mr. Palmieri.
I think you've got enough for a book, my man!