The Last Maestro
Eddie Palmieri brings the ‘concentrated power’ of authentic Cuban dance music to Burton Chace Park
By Christina Campodonico
Latin jazz composer, pianist and bandleader Eddie Palmieri, 79, may be among the last practitioners of authentic Cuban dance music outside of Cuba.
“More or less the Last of the Mohicans,” he says over the phone.
But when he plays with his eponymously named orchestra, that dying art form springs back to life with what Palmieri calls “concentrated power” — a full-throttle blend of blazing horns, punchy piano chords and Afro-Caribbean beats.
It’s a sound that caught the ear of the music world in 1961 when Palmieri formed his first band, La Perfecta, notably replacing traditional charanga trumpet and string lines with the sound of two brassy trombone players. The then-experimental fusion of Latin rhythms with
jazz harmonics has now become an iconic and invigorating sound.
“To both jazz and Latin music fans, Mr. Palmieri’s unusual style is instantly recognizable,” writes The New York Times. “His songs often feature angular melodies and modal passages, and he plays emphatically, almost like a percussionist with lots of chord clusters, some containing hints of dissonance.”
Palmieri brings his signature style to Burton Chace Park on Saturday, closing out the Marina del Rey Summer Concert Series with a free outdoor show featuring elements of tango, cumbia, waltz and Puerto Rican folkloric music infused into hits like “Azucar,” “Muñeca,” “Pa Huele,” “Lindo Yambu” and “La Ocha” that are sure to tickle eardrums and tempt feet to dance.
“My motto is, ‘I don’t guess that I’m going to excite you. I know it,’” says Palmieri, a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master and 10-time Grammy winner.
Palmieri’s own excitement for Latin music sprang from growing up in the Bronx, where rhythms and beats from Cuba and his family’s native Puerto Rico intermingled, feeding into his musical subconscious almost by osmosis.
“I learned them intuitively. Then I learned them scientifically,” says Palmieri, whose mother insisted that he and his brother Charlie, a huge musical influence on his life, learn to play the piano and practice extra scales while his friends played stickball outside on the streets.
“My mother had an incredible ear,” Palmieri told NPR’s Terry Gross. “I call her Momma Ear Chops. I mean she could hear. She says, eh, you know, that don’t sound right, you know, an extra 15 minutes. … And I was missing the game.”
The jazz influence came later while listening to the likes of Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and John Coltrane and playing piano for Eddie Forrester, Jonny Sequi and the Tito Rodriguez Orchestra.
“When I was growing up, I knew nothing about jazz, really, and I didn’t like it because I didn’t comprehend it,” Palmieri told The New York Times. “My whole life was dedicated to Latin music.”
That dedication continues every time Palmieri plays. He sees himself and his band as torchbearers for the Cuban dance music tradition — which in Palmieri’s repertoire encompasses not simply salsa, but also rumba, mambo, cha cha cha, guaracha, changüí, danzón and bolero.
“The artists of Cuba set the world on fire. All the greatest dance orchestras came out of Cuba. Unfortunately that musical umbilical cord was cut when we had the problem with Cuba in 1959,” says Palmieri, referencing the rise of political tensions between the U.S. and Cuba when Fidel Castro came to power. “And now the music is not the same anymore. All the pioneers are gone. The only one left is me. And we’re the only ones that present the music the way it ought to be played.”
The state of Cuban dance music may be weak in Palmieri’s view, but for this musician — who started his musical career at age 13 playing timbales in his uncle’s orchestra and pounds the piano like a passionate percussionist — its beat isn’t hard to find or carry on.
“It’s the pulse of my life,” he says.
The Eddie Palmieri Salsa Orchestra plays at 7 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 27, at Burton Chace Park, 13650 Mindanao Way, Marina del Rey. The concert is free, but parking in the marina can cost $7 to $15. For more information, call (310) 305-9545 or visit marinadelrey.lacounty.gov.