Palmieri’s Wisdom

At eighty, pianist Eddie Palmieri still continues to shape Afro-Latin jazz


An uninformed listener attending a late set at the Subrosa club on a Monday in April — one who knew nothing of Eddie Palmieri’s long career shaping Afro-Latin jazz into a uniquely New York sound — might have thought the solo pianist onstage was a straight-up avant-gardist. Palmieri crafted abstractions with a heavily amplified Yamaha hybrid piano. Single notes were piercing pokes. Complex chords became brash tonal washes. The logic was rhythmic, suggested as much as stated, and always of Afro-Caribbean lineage. Palmieri’s improvisations moved from formal to funky to funny. Here and there, he gracefully stitched in a passage of startling beauty, as with the melody of “Life,” a tender ballad from his new album, Sabiduría/Wisdom.

Palmieri went on like this for more than twenty minutes, relentless and riveting. You’d never have suspected he turned eighty in December.

Born in Harlem to Puerto Rican parents, and raised in the Bronx, Palmieri is the reigning patriarch of Afro-Latin music in the U.S. On opening night of “Eddie Palmieri Presents Afro-Caribbean Mondays,” a weekly series that runs through August, some audience members seemed old enough to recall the hard-edged innovations of Conjunto la Perfecta, which Palmieri formed in 1961, or Harlem River Drive, through which, a decade later, Palmieri braided together Latin, jazz, funk and soul. Palmieri’s new album and Subrosa residency don’t amount to a victory lap. Rather, they’re evidence that he still sets the pace.

His music is expansive, in terms of both the concepts and the players it touches. On that opening Monday, after his solo-piano turn, Palmieri’s quintet included 66-year-old percussionist Nicky Marrero — who first played with him nearly a half-century ago — on bongos, and 33-year-old bassist Luques Curtis, the most thrillingly gifted member of the latest generation to soak in Palmieri’s influence and invigorate his music. Together with Vicente “Little Johnny” Rivero on congas and Camilo Molina on timbales, they formed a rhythm section of consummate authority and impressive dexterity — locked-in yet loose, responsive to Palmieri’s every shift. When vibraphonist Joe Locke joined them, Palmieri added new wrinkles to a combination he’d first forged in the 1960s with Cal Tjader. The following Monday, leading a quintet that included alto saxophonist Louis Fouché and trumpeter Jonathan Powell, Palmieri dipped into small-ensemble Afro-Caribbean jazz rich with gleamingly odd harmonies and unexpected syncopation from all instruments, blazing deeper into territory first explored on his 1994 album, Palmas.

“I just want to enjoy myself in an intimate space and to be spontaneous,” Palmieri says of the Subrosa series. “So I’ve invited musicians that inspire me. This is my musical family.” Indeed, those first two Mondays carried the close-knit joy of a family gathering. The music was loud to the point of enveloping. Palmieri’s bands are finely calibrated engines of rhythm and sound; here, we felt like we were inside the machine.

For some Afro-Caribbean Mondays, Palmieri will yield the bandstand: On May 22, Rivero will lead a flamenco jazz band featuring tenor saxophonist Craig Handy. Other weeks find Palmieri leading must-see lineups, as when alto saxophonist Donald Harrison joins his quintet (May 29), and when he shares a stage for the first time with drummer Roy Haynes (June 26).

If these Monday nights offer rare opportunities to vibrate as one with Palmieri’s band, his new album has a different effect. Here, the acoustic piano is well articulated within a gloriously engineered mix; the sound, panoramic and rich, highlights the intricate details within Palmieri’s music. Save for Tjader’s “Samba do Suenho,” with Locke on vibes, these are new compositions, each furthering a different aspect of Palmieri’s reach. Violinist Alfredo de la F (who will perform at Subrosa on June 5) hints at the sound of La Perfecta on “Cuerdas y Tumbao,” yet he’s overdubbed into a four-part string section. Bassist Marcus Miller, drummer Bernard Purdie, and baritone saxophonist Ronnie Cuber rekindle Harlem River Drive’s flame on the title track. Best of all is Palmieri’s deepened communion (cultivated over twenty years running) with Harrison on “The Uprising,” which blends modern jazz, Afro-Cuban bat, and Mardi Gras Indian chants from Harrison’s native New Orleans. Harrison calls Palmieri “the Charlie Parker of Afro-Caribbean jazz” for the propulsive quality of his music and the freedom it affords.

Palmieri still never stops composing, and demands his players match that level of creativity. He credits early exposure to Afro-Cuban dance bands with teaching him, intuitively, how to achieve musical climaxes. Decades later, he says, the ideas of musical theorist Joseph Schillinger, absorbed through studies with singer-guitarist Bob Bianco, taught him to engineer such moments through compositional structure. “I don’t guess that I’m going to excite you,” he says. “I know it.”

At Subrosa, head bobbing, shoulders hunched, elbows squared, fingers splayed, Palmieri displayed such command over bandmates and audience. You are in his grip. You will be excited. There’s no stopping it, no better place to be.