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).
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.