Eddie Palmieri Latin Jazz Septet

Jazz, Latin

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Friday 10 June, Hamer Hall

The music of Eddie Pamieri has a certain level of personal, autobiographical significance for me, as it reminds me of a defining era in my life. I first learnt of Eddie Palmieri over 20 years ago through my early interest in the great veteran session guitarist, Cornell Dupree (Aretha Franklin, Donny Hathaway, Bill Withers). While rummaging though some old records at a second hand record store, I noticed that Mr Dupree was credited in the liner notes of a record sleeve as one of the main personnel on Palmieri’s highly influential album, “Harlem River Drive”, an album that I was soon to discover, successfully fused 70’s R&B/Soul with Latin music, and is now considered by many as “The quintessential Latin Soul Album”. So it was with this particular record that I received my introduction to the music of Eddie Palmieri, and have enjoyed listening to his music since.

Grammy Award-winning artist Eddie Palmieri “The Latin Jazz King of New York”, has often been acknowledged as a significant historical figure in the evolution of Jazz, Latin, and “World” music. Such titles and accolades, however, mark low on Palmieri’s list of priorities. First and foremost, Eddie Palmieri is a creator, a musician and a storyteller.

What initially warms you about Eddie Palmieri is the earnest, down-to-earth charisma that he seems to exude regardless of whether he is playing the piano, walking or talking. After an introduction from the festival director Michael Tortoni, Mr Palmieri casually found his way over and sat down at the piano as if he was easing himself into a warm pair of bedroom slippers. Then at once, Palmieri’s change of focus became apparent as he engaged on a heart felt solo piano piece dedicated to his wife titled, “Life”. A musical piece that entered softly with sustained notes seamlessly morphing into cascading arpeggios, met with Thelonius Monk-style chord clusters and McCoy Tyner-inspired modulations. A journey well worth the taking.

After the applause finally subsided, Palmieri in bittersweet fashion spoke of his loving wife, and how he managed to play the composition for her just before she passed away. In very few words, Palmieri managed to convey to the audience the wisdom of his years. Palmieri then touched on the paradox (and mystery) of how the joyous sounds of Latin music managed to spring forth from the great pain experienced by the Latin community.

All the members of the septet had by this point had already taken to the stage. The personnel of the Palmieri’s septet consists of well-balanced mix of veterans and younger players –

Jonathan Powell: Trumpet – voted best Latin Jazz Trumpeter off 2009 (Latin Jazz Corner)

Louis Fouche: Alto Saxophone (Christian Scott, Brian Lynch, George Porter Jr)

Luqyes Curtis: Bass (Gary Burton, Ralph Peterson Jr & co founder of Truth Revolution Records)

Vincente “Little Johnny” Rivero – Congas (Johnny Pequeno)

Camilo Molina – Timbales (Santana, Dave Grusin)

Nicky Marrero – Bongo/ Timbalitos (A founding member of the influential “Fania All-Stars”, Tito Puente)

As soon as the band were counted in and the groove could be felt, a handful of dancers (who were obviously familiar with the art of salsa dancing) were the first to get on their feet, eager to show their prowess on the dance floor. The limelight for them did not last long however, for as the band continued to gather momentum, the salsa dancers were soon outnumbered and subsequently engulfed by a “swarm” of audience members equipped with nothing other than the desire to move.

The dance floor at the front of the stage then remained completely full for the duration of the whole concert. As an observer I found this symbolic of what I believe to be the general ethos behind Palmieri’s music as a whole. Although Palmieri’s intellect is certainly present in everything he does, his music never comes across as contrived, seeming to be far more about life itself and the rhythmic pulse that drives it.

The skilled interplay between all members of the septet became increasingly apparent as the concert progressed. Each member of the band took their turn, not only making room for each other but also playing in a manner that would compliment each other’s style. I observed that the septet’s overall approach seems to respectfully acknowledge the past without idolising it, while also looking to the future (without the over bearing fervour of a religious zealot that so often comes with modernists). Some of the audience members already familiar with latin music may have been surprised at the complete lack of guiro (considered by some as the quintessential salsa instrument). It’s absence did not, however stop anyone from tearing up the dance floor by any means.

The dynamic solos taken throughout the concert by both horn players could be likened to a brief history lesson in the evolution of jazz on each of their respective instruments; moving through elements of early dixieland and swing, to bebop and cool through to modern jazz. This was all achieved, however, without wasting one inch of “groove”. Every note counts, and at all costs the audience must be inspired to keep dancing. Palmieri’s own focus on the audience did not stray either, even as he infused a Montuno pattern with the deliberate dissonance of Thelonious Monk – he somehow managed to make people laugh but still kept them moving. The subtlety and level of Mr Palmieri’s great skill cannot be overstated, but despite the sophistication and intricacies of his playing, he refuses to be “gentrified”. Palmieri is still a man of the people.

On multiple occasions, Mr Palmieri could be found happily waving back at anyone he noticed waving at him from the dance floor. At one particular point in the night, Palmieri even managed to persuade the whole audience to clap a “son” clave (a distinctive rhythmic pattern of latin music) and maintain the pattern while various band members took their solos. An impressive feat to achieve with an Australian audience to say the least. Close to two hours of festivities had passed in what seemed to many, to be a far smaller window of time before the septet collectively bowed to an exuberant, standing ovation. A fine testament to a brilliant group and a skilled band leader clearly at the top of his game.

Special guest reviewer Mikey Chan is one of Melbourne’s foremost session guitarists. His playing appears alongside many of the world’s finest musicians, from Renee Geyer to Jill Scott and Grammy Award-winning producer, M-Phazes.

Edited by Dave Llewellyn