Thursday, January 6, 2011

1989: The Duke of Salsa

I'm going to try to re-post a music article every morning and a politics piece every evening. As for new stuff, I'm a little snowed under right now, but I'll cough up fresh hairballs of prose whenever I'm able. This morning's piece on the venerable Eddie Palmieri appeared in the Santa Cruz Sun in October of 1989, just days before the earthquake that shook that paper out of business.

Eddie Palmieri has been called "the Duke Ellington of salsa," and the comparison is apt, not only for his brilliance in orchestration but for his highly personal piano work. But whereas Duke's playing was subtle and elegant, Palmieri's can be fiery, even manic (he was fired from his first band for breaking the keys).

Another parallel to Ellington is the way in which both musicians revolutionized their chosen fields. Just as Ellington transformed big-band dance music into a means of self-expression, Palmieri has transcended the narrow strictures that define what is and is not salsa music. He was the first to include trombones in the horn section; later there would be electric guitars and violins. Both in his arrangements and his keyboard work, Palmieri incorporated elements of whatever music he was captivated by. One can hear traces of R&B, 20th century composers, rock (both acid and metal), tangos, waltzes and always the strong jazz influence.

The one constant in Palmieri's music is its irresistible danceability. He has studied composition intensively, absorbed his disparate influences and experimented unceasingly in his quest to find the most danceable music on Earth. By all accounts, he succeeded a long time ago.

Palmieri was born in Spanish Harlem in 1936 and raised in the South Bronx. His mother pressed him and his brother into music as a way out of the barrio; both were professionals by their mid-teens. The Puerto Rican community in the '50s was cross-pollinating with Afro-Cuban rhythms to create the infectious new style called salsa. After U.S. ties to Cuba were cut off, the genre solidified and audience expectations became more conservative.

At the same time, Palmieri was being influenced by the no-limits spirit of the '60s to push his music in unforeseen directions. The music industry, however , was more conservative than the audiences. Palmieri found it difficult to break through the segregated marketing strategies. Despite his growing recognition in the '70s, Palmieri's entire career has reflected the tension between the dominant culture and the subculture.

Many musicians less expansive than Palmieri bristle at being labeled, yet he has embraced the word "salsa" - even as it confines him - because its fiercely loyal audiences are his lifeline. Crossover success, as others have shown, can carry a high price. Palmieri has struggled heroically for success on his own terms, and it may not be far off. The ubiquitous Paul Simon has initiated a co-project, and the ensuing attention focused on the potent genius will be all to the good.

These days, Palmieri attempts to both possess and consume his cake by leading three different bands – orquestras in both Puerto Rico and New York, and a touring jazz octet. It is the latter grouping, consisting of two trumpets, three percussionists, violin, bass and piano, that Palmieri will bring to the Kuumbwa Jazz Center on Tuesday. Anyone interested either in serious music or in dancing their fool head off would be well-advised not to pass up this event.

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