Eddie Palmieri on Latin Jazz


Pianist-bandleader Eddie Palmieri, who won his 9th Grammy in February, has been the gold standard of Latin dance music and jazz for an amazing 45 years. He is “in residence” this week with the Harvard Jazz Band, under the redoubtable Tom Everett, practicing for a big concert on Saturday. We’ve asked Eddie Palmieri for the Open Source one-hour course on the rules and global resonance — not to mention the earth-shaking power — of Latin jazz (never to be confused, as he’ll insist, with “jazz Latin”). He might sound something like this:

The organism fluctuates between being restful and being restless and when you hear the Latin rhythms being played properly with a great orchestra with good arrangements and a good singer, whether you know the language or not, you can feel the beat…The bass player is playing in unison with the conga player…he is going: 1…2…3…boom boom…oom paka chaka…dun dun, the bass player is playing a tumbao, dee dee yu…bee been…dee dee dee…bee been and they are meeting in a certain time which gives them a synchronization and then the piano vamp and then the bongo and the timbales folding in because between the timbales and the bongo there is a question and answer. They all have specific jobs to do and different patterns to play but they are complementary to the degree that it synchronizes so well that it is a force coming at you that is going to excite you… It just grabs everyone because the rhythm is going to get you. The rhythm is the most exciting rhythmical patterns to me in the world….you can’t miss.

Eddie Palmieri in Elliott Simon’s profile at All About Jazz.

Eddie Palmieri’s recordings go back to the early 60’s. The new ones that people love include La Perfecta II (Concord Jazz, 2002); Listen Here (Concord Jazz 2005); Simpatico this year’s Grammy winner by the Brian Lynch and Eddie Palmieri Project; and the duet Masterpiece with the late Tito Puente.

Eddie Palmieri is recognized since Puente’s passing in 2000 as the grand master of Latin dance music. He’s also been known as the Latin Thelonius Monk for his eccentric pianism; the Latin Duke Ellington for the majesty of his unsinkable orchestras; the Latin Art Blakey for running the university for stars on the rise. He is also, in his own right, a compositional genius and the intellectual of the mambo “movement,” its social and political vibrations as well as its rhythms.

We wondered in our staff meeting today: is there a connection, or a correspondence, between the Latinization of jazz and the Latinization of baseball? Post your questions for Eddie Palmieri, please.

Eddie Palmieri

Pianist, arranger, and bandleader on 38 albums and countingNine-time Grammy Award winner

Ned Sublette

Singer-songwriter-guitarist-bandleader-producer, Cowboy RumbaAuthor, Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo

Founder, QbaDisc

Extra Credit Reading
Martin Cohen, Eddie Palmieri, Congahead, September 7, 2000: “Eddie, leaning in close as if imparting some great secret, replied, It’s the gloves, Tito gave them to me before he died and told me to just put them on and I wouldn’t believe what would happen.”PDF, Learning Latin Pt. 2, Running the Voodoo Down, APril 4, 2007: “I think my favorite track is “Resemblance,” which is a modal jazz tune somewhere between Dave Brubeck and Coltrane’s original studio recording of “My Favorite Things.” Most of the album is horn-free, or limits them to accents, keeping the piano and vibes the dominant voices, which I like . . . “

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  • Bobo

    In the largely anglo-saxon culture in which I was raised, ‘Latin’ is generally synonymous with ‘hot’, ‘impassioned’, ‘tropical’, and thoroughly ‘un-anglo-saxon’. Is this what ‘Latin’ brings to music? Is it just a swinging rhythm or some syncopated drums? But Jazz had those already.

    What is truly Latin about Latin Jazz? Is it those vague stereotypes of ‘heat’ and ‘passion’, or something technical in the theory behind the notes? I want to know if and why Eddie Palmieri views his own music as ‘Latin Jazz’ as opposed to all other Jazz. My instinct tells me it’s more than just geography.

  • jazzman

    Bobo Asks: What is truly Latin about Latin Jazz?

    The Latin part comes from Latin America. The jazz part of Latin jazz is basically improvisation using the different rhythms that have been popularized by the various Spanish and Portuguese sub-cultures here in the Americas.

    Latin jazz doesn’t swing in the “Big Band Swing” sense (accented 8th note triplet feel, 12 implied beats per 4/4 bar) but has a straight 8th note feel in Afro-Cuban Latin music with different beats accented to produce the different styles (dances – Mambo, Cha-Cha, Conga, Meringue, Salsa etc. often in 5/4 or 7/4) or 16th note feel in Afro-Brazilian music (dances – Samba, Bossa Nova etc.) Latin music (both Cuban and Brazilian) is usually marked a large number of percussion instruments (conga drums, timbales, claves etc.) integrated into the performance which contributes to the distinctive polyrhythmic sound.

    The Disco craze in the late 20th century was essentially a simple Samba derivative. Another interesting sub-genre from Haiti is Afro-Franco music which can be as Jazz Hot as Django.

    Eddie Palmieri is the master of the Montuno which is a rhythmically repetitive phrase which is often played in up and down chromatic sequences and a staple of Salsa. He is one of the finest pianist/ambassadors of the genre.

  • loki

    Fantastico! Que bueno!

  • nother

    Oh man, I love that question about the connection between Latin baseball and jazz.

    My first improvised thought is the idea of – enthusiasm! The Latin players I love, like Danilo Perez and Vladimir Guerrero, play with gusto, they are bursting at the seams; like in one sitting, they can’t fit in all the notes and innings they have in them.

    I can’t tell you how many jazz shows and baseball games I’ve gone to, where the audience sits frozen like they’re at a lecture on quantum physics. Well, it’s a lot harder to have your butt glued to the seat when the conga’s rumble and bongo’s beat…ya right to your feet.

    Some may feel that Latin play is less serious; I say it’s very serious…about having fun.

    Anyone remember the name Orlando Cabrera? He was the Dominican shortstop of the 2004 World Champion Red Sox. We acquired him during the season and the enthusiasm he brought changed the whole chemistry of the team. That cat played with a zestful smile…even as he made dance style stabs in the field.

    It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that rhythm. When I think of the Latin influence, I see bright colors, with joyful play’n, and hips a shak’n…

  • nother

    Jazz cant be dead, for three reasons: One, the 12 bar blues is not going away; two, improvisation makes it constantly anew; and three, Sonny told us so…when he said every sunset is different.

    It wouldn’t sound right to say sunsets are dead, Latin sunsets are the new sunsets. 🙂

    You could say, there’s nothing like a Latin sunset, how it shines just so.

    Reggaeton and hip-hop can never take the place of jazz because they lack the key ingredient, improvisation (except for the rappers that freestyle, that’s jazz) Sure most young people have moved their energy to into those genres, but as long as there is some young person with deep feelings and a horn…or they come across old records of Charles Mingus or Ella Fitzgerald (who could scat your ass off), a perpetual flame will burn.

    When I was in line to greet Sonny and those two teenage African American musicians were standing there, (even more giddy than I) the first question I asked them was, do you like to improvise? They both said, oh yea! Then I said, what’s great is, you two can integrate hip hop melodies into your solos, just like Sonny integrates those old classic songs.

    And remember, a Latin influence has been there from the beginning…those guys in New Orleans, like Jelly Roll, had a Caribbean influence; and then Dizzy brought that Conga into his band.

    Really looking forward to the show!

    P.S. I hope ya get a chance to talk about Tito.

  • silvio.rabioso


    Don’t hate, congratulate!

    Instead of writing off hip hop “except for the improvisers”, why not focus on the positive intersection between the two related genres of music?

    For instance, Chris should ask Eddie Palmieri what he thinks about groups like Orishas, the Cuban ex-pat hip-hop collective. Orishas base their samples on Cuban standards; on top of these tracks rich in Caribbean musical tradition, the MCs lay down inspired lyrical performances that rival the most storied names of English-language wordsmithing. And you can DANCE to it!

  • nother

    point well taken

  • loki

    How does dance i.e. salsa influence Eddie. What features of a cuban band and its rythms influence Eddie i.e. trumpets and the beat laid down by drums?

  • cravat

    I wish Mr. Palmieri would comment on New York’s SYMPHONY SID SHOW on WADO in the mid 1960’s. When WADO switched to mostly Latin programming, the famous Jazz DJ played a seminal mixture of music spanning John Coltrane to Mongo Santamaria (and Coltrane PLAYING Santamaria) This introduced many Jazz fans to a host of Latin Jazz all-stars. To me, it was a unique musical melting pot that I suspected had real influence…I wonder what Mr. Palmieri thinks….

  • loki

    Can he say more the structure of the Dance or in spanish Baile! Christ you have got it the dance is the thing.

    Also, the hips!

  • loki

    I mean the embodied nature. Can the latin jazz change our stiff up lips and warm our anglo-saction nature.

  • loki

    Physicality I mean!

  • loki

    Ned is right Havana, San Juan, and Santo Domingo were at the confluence of various cultural traditions-african,spanish,indian, english etc. The slave trade moved through there.

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  • Potter

    Caj Tjader! One of the first records I ever owned and I loved it… a long playing disc colored RED ( believe it).

  • Jim Leff

    Eddie Palmieri is God. I feel incredibly lucky to have gotten to play a couple gigs with his band.

    Once I caught him on a double bill at NYC’s Blue Note. The first group was led by this smug, smiling pianist (I won’t say his name) who was playing a bunch of flashy bullshit. The crowd ate it up.

    Then Eddie’s band came on. Huge group, the crowd was expecting big loud groove. but first Eddie had fumigating to do. He played ten or fifteen minutes of the most discordant, impenetrable solo piano, torturing the crowd by never EVER giving them a note they expected and failing to give them even a hint of groove or flash. You could hear his disgust as he clanged and pounded on the piano, as if to purge the hair gel and tooth gloss from the keys. Finally, after an eternity, he screamed a count-off and the bad just EXPLODED, and shakti erupted in a mushroom cloud. But as always, horns were just horns and drums were just drums; it was Eddie’s montunos steering the very universe.

    Eddie Palmieri is God.

  • nother

    Jim great post. “shakti erupted in a Mushroom cloud,” I love it!

    I hope you caught the Harvard show. It was Eddie’s night, both in tribute and in practice.

    Some say that that great intelligence can be defined by the ability to hold opposing views in your mind at the same time.

    I would say that great musicians can be defined by the ability to engage on a visceral and cerebral level at the same time.

    Eddie embodies this for me. I could be lost in dance…juiced by Eddie’s rhythm and a beautiful señorita… but all the while, I’d be move’n with one ear bent to this man’s message.

    Jim, if Eddie is God to you, what is Bird?

  • Jim Leff

    If you TRY to engage the crowd on ANY level, you’re nothing but a dog peeing on a fire hydrant. The task is to just let it flow, baby. And that’s what Eddie does.

    “You don’t go to a restaurant and order a meal because you want to have a shit.”


  • nother

    Yes Jeff, Eddie does let it flow…that’s fo sho!

  • katemcshane

    I should have written tihs the night I saw Eddie Palmieri — it was one of the biggest thrills of my life to see and hear him! What always amazes me with art of all kinds in this country is the way that there are geniuses out there who are doing something that blows the roof off what we ARE aware of, but chances are, you’ve never heard of the person. I never heard of Palmieri until Chris interviewed him and I liked him, personally, very much. When I saw him perform, I could not take my eyes off his hands and the power, the GENIUS coming from him was breathtaking. Thank goodness for youtube videos, because I can’t afford to buy a CD yet.

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