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Exclusive Interview with Eddie Palmieri

By Mark Towns
Published: November 5, 2001, JazzHouston

Eddie Palmieri has always blown me away with his use of Afro-Cuban rhythms, his hipper than hip jazzy horn arrangements, his liberal doses of dissonance, but mostly by his piano solos. In Latin music, nobody takes piano solos as far out as he does. When Palmieri solos, he isn't just playing in the music, he uses it as a cushion to take off into a musical sightseeing tour from the innermost depths of his mind to the farthest reaches of space.

Born in Spanish Harlem in 1936, Palmieri began piano studies at age 8. At 13 he switched to drums for a while, learning all of Tito Puente's timbale solos note for note. But by age 15, he switched back to piano for good, and became an avid student of the Cuban music and players from the 40's and 50's. By 1961, he started his first group, and has gone on to rise to the icon status he holds now. Today, Eddie Palmieri is recognized as one of the true giants of salsa and especially of Latin Jazz.

His creative genius has won him six Grammies, including one for 'Masterpiece,' his collaboration with Tito Puente on Puente's last recording.

The following interview took place on 10/23/01 as Palmieri was preparing to embark on a tour that brings him to Houston at Sambuca on Wednesday November 7.

MT: We're really looking forward to your show here in Houston.

EP: Yeah, so am I. We're coming with another movement. We (usually) do the salsa, the dance form with vocalists, you know. And we do the Latin Jazz. But this is 'Jazz Latin'. What I mean by 'Jazz Latin' is when we don't have the full (Latin) rhythm section but we have a (set) drummer. And the drummer is quite extraordinary -- Dafnis Prieto.

MT: Where is he from?

EP: Cuba. He is just absolutely frightening. We've certainly changed in another wonderful way. Jose Clausell, our timbale player, (now) plays congas. With Dafnis on drums, (trombonist) Conrad (Herwig), trumpeter Brian (Lynch) and I and (bassist) Joe Santiago have another kind of an outlet to play. We get involved in playing more jazz, in a sense, than Latin jazz.

MT: Do you still do some Latin jazz?

EP: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. It's all involved in it, but what I call 'Latin Jazz' is when I have the full rhythm section, timbales, conga and bongo. And here we have just a drummer, an extraordinary drummer, and Jose [on] congas, so, then it's another kind of an ambiance in the form of presenting the compositions, the turns that we give it It's very enjoyable also, so, to me, it's another genre.

MT: Is it like swing, or smooth jazz?

EP: Yeah, yeah. Well, if it didn't swing, well, I believe Duke said, 'It don't mean a thing!' But we always find a way to satisfy our playing desires. It's just the idea that I'm not playing with my full rhythm section, which I've done all my life one way or the other, with the vocals or without the vocals in Latin jazz.

MT: So, this is the first time you've played in this configuration?

EP: Yeah, it's really the first tour that we've done. This is quite exciting. We did it in Goddard College last summer that we did a week of seminar, and Dafnis Prieto was the drummer. He usually works also and records with Brian Lynch.

MT: So, is this kind of a longtime dream you've had of doing this kind of thing?

EP: Yeah, yeah, but I've used drummers before to give it certain embellishments and certain compositions in different recordings. But to be able to tour the four gigs that we're doing with the sextet. The sextet, and its under the heading of 'Jazz Latin.' So, it's quite exciting and it's different. It's exciting to me because its more pianistic, see?

MT: Who are your piano heroes?

EP: Oh, there's so many. But I have to start with my brother Charlie Palmieri, you know. He was my complete inspiration. And then after that, definitely, the pianists that were working here in New York. One of them was Tommy Garcia that played with Tito Rodriguez for many years and Gilbert Lopez that played with Tito Puente for many years before he went to the Korean War and one of the top arrangers that we have. And then from there, different teachers that I had. Rene Hernandez, the heart of the Machito Orchestra, he was tremendous in the heart of the orchestra. A genius in his own right in arrangement, in my opinion, but a very tasty pianist. We also listened to him. And then eventually it went into the Cuban pianists from 1956 on. Then it became Jesus Lopez from Arcaño y Su Maravilla where Cachao did most of his work as a young man. Arcaño was the charanga band that came out of Cuba in the '30s into the '40s. And, Jesus Lopez was the pioneer in his form of attack. We certainly learned tremendously about that form of an attack here in New York.

MT: Did you hang out with these people and actually study with them?

EP: No, no, just by their records. I've never been to Cuba; I never met any of them. And then Lili Martinez, who was with Arsenio Rodriguez in the '40s and then recorded gems and then went with Chapotin y Su Estrella in the '50s. And that genre of those characteristics of orchestras are gone now. They don't exist anymore, unfortunately. For fifty years the doctrine of Cuba has erased them and that's been such a tremendous rhythmical, lyrical and structural damage to our music, in my opinion.

MT: What I see that you, Eddie Palmieri, have brought to this music is the extended kind of outside jamming within the Afro-Cuban framework.

EP: Well, it's comprehending the rhythmical patterns as I do. And remember that I was a drummer once with my uncle's orchestra, a typical orchestra, Chino y Su Alma Tropical. I played timbales from 13 to 15. And we all, as kids, wanted to be another Tito Puente. I wanted to be my brother's drummer until he acknowledged to me that if you wanna be a drummer you gotta learn all the drums and you gotta carry them around like bass drums and tom toms. And I certainly satisfied my desire with the minimal of physical labor and that meant that the drums were out. And my mother would tell me, 'Well, don't you see how beautiful your brother looks going to work and he don't have to carry an instrument? When will you learn? You'll learn Eduardo.' And I'm picking up this case that she bought for me for the timbales with a metal case that weighed more than the timbales. And all you heard from me was, [strains] 'I'm learning ma, I'm learning.' The next thing I know I sold my timbales to my uncle and then I set up the piano. Because of the percussive knowledge in me, I kept expanding particularly when I was made aware of the records that were coming out of Cuba between 1956 and 1960. After '60 it all changed. Then that was very rewarding to me and I analyzed and I learned intuitively the structures of dance form. And then eventually when I started with my greatest of all teachers Mr. Bob Bianco that lived in Elmhurst, Queens, in 1965 I met him through Barry Rogers, and then I learned it scientifically. Why a recording of two minutes and 45 seconds will excite you? That took a tremendous amount of study and love to learn and hug those structures, which I still do.

MT: Can we talk about soloing as an art in itself? Where does that come from? Is there a spiritual side to it?

EP: Well, of course, there's always a spiritual side to all of us. But in me, it's still the rhythmical attack, form of attack, is quite percussive and, yet, becoming more and more pianistic. So, when you combine them both you come up with quite an interesting signature. And the signature was very important to me, to establish a signature not only in my former playing and what I was able to do. And being bi-fold, because I could also accompany myself with one hand and solo with the other; I started doing that in 1965. That's certainly the vision of mental labor and I certainly enjoyed that. But, the variations and extensions on the structures that, the old structures, that comes out of philosophy from a book called From Thales to Aristotle, and that book written by a gentleman called W.C. Guthrie. He talks about matter and form. When he gets to the matter of the structures that we have, if any of the new forms fits the old structures then it's the structures what we must analyze. And by me knowing the structures to make you dance excitingly and holding what we call 'tension and resistance' within that composition and certainly in the orchestration, the arrangement, then it's engineered to excite the listening parties involved, either in the concert when you're sitting down, or dancers. It was one on one in the years at the Palladium to have the most exciting dance orchestra and we certainly did with La Perfecta. We went one on one with any of the orchestras with eight men. We took that until 1968. And throughout all these years and these decades the dance form attack has never been diluted in any which form by me. I kept it always at the hard core. That's the way it always will be whether it's the salsa hard core, or Latin jazz or the Jazz Latin that we're going to present in Houston on the Sambuca tour.

MT: Do you practice anymore?

EP: More than ever now because I've made my mind up to become a pianist. See, all these years I've been a piano player. So, now to become a pianist you wanna get into repertoire, a different technique. I had a tremendous teacher, Claudio Saavedra that gave me a classical technique of thirds and sixes, which I have developed and constantly have developed to a high degree now. Now I need guidance and I'm looking for a new teacher and that'll happen after the New Year. And I'm hoping that we find someone in Julliard that has a studio in Carnegie Hall where I started with Ms. Margaret Bonds when I was 11 years old. Ms. Margaret Bonds is in the Negro history books. She was my brother's piano teacher and she was a concert pianist in her own right and I was very blessed that she was my teacher for a certain amount of time. And then I met another gentleman that passed away, Mr. Robert Harris. In the rooms upstairs at Carnegie Hall, they rent them out to certain teachers, and there's where I want to get back to. I'll be looking for extensive repertoire and applying the technique to take it to the highest degree in double note technique, which is thirds and sixes.

MT: What would you recommend as required listening for those wanting to understand the roots of Latin rhythms?

EP: I recommend whomever, as students, to listen to Los Muñequitos. There are so many different (groups), but the Muñequitos I use as an example first. They have just singers, clave, congas, and bells, but the clave is always there. They have a rumba clave, which is 'pow pow, POW pow pow,' just almost like the bossa nova. You always gotta remember that the Brazilian's rhythmical patterns, being as complex as they are, are very complimentary to the ones in Cuba, (where) the greatest rhythmical patterns that the world has ever, ever heard (were formed). Then when you get into the harmonic structures of jazz - when you unite those two, it becomes quite extraordinary, the meeting, the hybrid there, in my opinion. You can't get any more rhythmical and harmonically evolved than that.

MT: Right. Latin jazz, then, would be the most harmonically and rhythmically advanced music?

EP: Sure, (the most advanced) encountered ever, ever on this planet.

MT: What would it take to make this music more popular?

EP: Oh, well that's something else. Now we're talking music politics or something like that, no' The problem is that what exists is the different tastes of the youngsters that buy, and particularly in the United States where' this is not the country for our music. Here the majority wants country and western, hip-hop, or rap. We have so many different versions and tastes of musical presentations that we certainly all get lost in the shuffle. And our hard core salsa is already a lost art, in my opinion. What you have now is 'la salsa monga,' which means, like, deadwood salsa. And that's what you're hearing. And that's what the kids are buying. And the sadness is that once you 'dry clean' them ' not to use the word 'brainwash' any more. We'll go to the Manchurian candidate ' you 'dry clean' them. By constantly listening to that, they truly believe that's what it is. And that's very sad, because the rhythm is constantly in the secondary and third position. And rhythm and the drums represent the pulse of life. And this has been smothered. And being in the secondary and third position, just accompanying these young singers, and that in a very bland arrangement, told to the arranger that's the way he must write from the record company. What we have is a rhythmic, harmonic, and structural tragedy.

MT: What do you think about the current state of Latin jazz?

EP: There's a tremendous amount of young talent that's coming out, some incredible musicians. From the pianists, to the horn players, I mean, extraordinary talent. But, it all depends on which one of them comprehends that rhythmical pattern to the degree that I'm talking about. And we see that it's very, very few.

MT: I've found that many people like Latin jazz. They just don't know it because they never get to hear it.

EP: Right. And because there's no station that's gonna play it. We don't sell many records when we do Latin jazz, and that's the sad part of it. And when you don't sell many records, then the radio stations, to get their listeners, they gotta give you the hits of the day, the hits of the week, and the hits of the year, and that's certainly not our genre. And we suffer dearly. And with all that, we're still able to persevere. We're certainly able to vault through it. That's how powerful our music is, and accepted all over the world. Because I've done already 45 countries, easy. And that's international bandstands. And I'm talking about Europe, and particularly France has a tremendous, sophisticated ear for our music, and loves it. Plus, what they did for the jazz genre in the forties, I would say France is quite unique in the sophistication of ear chops.

MT: How has salsa music changed over the years?

EP: (There's been a) demise of the art form of the dance music. Not that there won't always be singers and music to dance to, but to the degree that it was once in the 50's and 60's when Cuba was still feeding us. It was the umbilical cord feeding us the structures and the music until the doctrine changed in 1959 to 1960, and after that, it's been a tragedy all over. Even in Cuba, they don't know and recognize the music that was recorded 50 years ago that was taken away from them. When they listen to it now, they go wow, they didn't know that. So, in Cuba now, all the bands either sound like NG La Banda, Los Van Van, or Irakere in general, see? You might have a few exceptions, but in general it's that way ' very rapid playing, because the Cuban can dance any kind of rhythmic pattern accelerated. But that's certainly not commercial. Not as commercial as it was when it was the mambo and the cha cha cha, and that kind of music that was coming out of Cuba. That's all gone. And all the ones that do have that treasure of information in them, they're all either very elderly. They're retired of they're passed away.

MT: What do you think about Chucho Valdes?

EP: Oh, he's extraordinary. Him and Gonzalito Rubalcaba -- these gentlemen represent fear to the instrument. And, like I said at one of the concerts when I played with Gonzalito, he also frightens me. They play wonderfully. Remember, the doctrine in Cuba gives them the opportunity to study even though the parents pay dearly, but it's free. But here, we must pay dearly. In Puerto Rico, they must pay dearly for their education, and somehow, we must do something along those lines to help the students. It's tremendously costly to get your education, and if you're able to do it, you come out of school with a tremendous debt. It's quite extraordinary, the extremes here.

MT: Where else can the music go that it hasn't been yet?

EP: Oh, I would say to the Milky Way. The Salsa Milky Way, you know? I mean, music will always be a language of nature, a language that we all need. Can you imagine if there was just no music on the planet? There would be plenty of straightjackets, you know? The music, in all its different art forms, you know, the way we've broken down now before the human musician himself, the player will be completely disappeared. You won't need eventually, any individual players. It could be all be put together in components in one way or the other. That's what's happening now with the advanced technology. And all of that will be coming into the future, but in the interim, we still have enough time to play, to show our individual wares with whoever is able to get gigs at this time and to record. Things are very, very bad now with the tragedy that's happened now on September 11. So we're all alert and aware. There is great gratitude on our end that, under the existing conditions now, still able to travel to certain places to play, and to be able to record whenever we get the opportunity to. Because now, a lot of the independent companies are closing because the conglomerates are either buying them out or eating them up. And even the conglomerates have lost a tremendous amount of money. I was reading they've lost more than $350 million or something like that, since September 11, in sales, or something extraordinary like that. So things are quite delicate at this point. But, we just have to have a tremendous strength within us, you know, and be optimistic enough to keep creating and send out your message to el pueblo. Because now is the time for the artist, in my opinion, to rise to the level that they are rising and doing concerts and stuff. Because it's music that is able to get you away from any kind of existing problems, at least for a certain amount of time. And you see in the way they've been supporting all these benefits that have been done, and being done, and that will be done, unfortunately because of the extreme dangers that exist on the planet now.

MT: What's up with all the grunting and groaning sounds you make when you play?

EP: Oh that's my inner Congo. I call him my spirit Congo. It's Congo (chuckles). And he does the grunts and the things. And that is just because I just love him so much and I'm involved in there. And that's when I'm wrapped up within myself to be able to be the exciting transmitter to excite whomever is watching or listening to me and my orchestra, whether I'm playing solo piano, or with the orchestra. And that's something that's in me. My brother also had it, and certain musicians, when they play they have it. So I'm certainly not the only one or the first one. But I certainly have it and I certainly enjoy it.

MT: That's what I meant earlier when I asked where the inspiration for solos comes from.

EP: Well, there are different ways of looking at solos.

MT: But that's when the inner spirit comes out, right?

EP: I was taught by certain different teachers, and I look at music in a scientific point of view and a mathematical point of view also. Math becomes, then, the soul of music or of all the arts. You can't do any of the arts without math. For example, Michaelangelo's David would have looked like, you know, Goofy or something like that if he hadn't used the summation series, you know what I mean?

MT: But at some point, all that's gotta be in the background and the spirit is guiding it.

EP: Oh yeah, but how do you feed the spirit? You feed that spirit by your spirit of investigation. You come in the sincere student, constantly reading and embellishing your wares, you know, by hitting the instrument as much as you can. And if you don't practice physically, at least you're thinking it mentally, like I do on the road and before I play. And then use that in your writing when you're gonna write a composition or when you're gonna do the arrangement that you're gonna present. How you work it within these structures and engineer that drive and that excitement, that certainly comes from knowledge. Virtue is its own reward. The more you study, the more you read, the more you're working on your instrument, the more creative powers will come to aid that musa you have, that muse we have inside of us. The spirit, the guiding? you know, the guardian angel, you know, the musical part of that guardian angel. If you have the faculties, it's fed by your interest, certainly, in your love of what you're doing. And to learn more about it, every day you realize that you know not. And once you have that under your belt, it's gotta help you.

MT: It seems jazz musicians tap into that more, because the whole concept of improvisation allows them to.

EP: Uh-huh, but one of the greatest improvisers was Johann Sebastian Bach, and he did that in the 17th Century. His is the only music that's used in extraterrestrial space. He's the only composer that we send his music out into space in case there's any other life form. Because whoever hears Johann Sebastian Bach's music will have to think that we can't be that bad of a people.

MT: Do you ever dream compositions?

EP: Oh, sure. And there are a lot of them that materialize in the shower. I might sing them, you know, I'm constantly singing, then write one on the piano. I find a lot of wonderful, major ideas when I'm practicing and I'm doing my own practicing, my technical exercises. And within that, all of a sudden something comes up and then that adds to another thing and the next thing I see I could use for a composition, or change it. That's how it starts. You get the chain of development of an idea, because the extreme of an idea certainly is the stimuli.

MT: You've worked with (vocalist) La India quite a bit. I heard she has perfect pitch.

EP: What she has is a perfect tee-pee tent and peace pipe -- absolutely perfect in proportion. No, I don't believe that she does (have perfect pitch), but she's very, very talented and we'll be seeing more of La India soon. She's involved in a play that I'm getting involved in in a year called 'Murderous Instincts' and India is one of the actors in the play and so am I. It's two plays back to back, 'Murderous Instincts' and then 'The Bandstand' which is mine.

MT: Cool. Do you play any other instruments besides piano?

EP: No, I have enough problems with the piano. If I tried to learn another, it would be quite ridiculous. What I do always have in my heart, though, is the timbales.

MT: How come we rarely see you as a sideman on anybody else's projects?

EP: I never did it. I was very fortunate. I recorded very few (sessions) with anyone (else). At the same time, it was (because of) my lack of my musical reading. Reading music kept developing later, because when I started I always played drums, so my sight reading and my knowledge of my piano ' I abused a lot of talent and a lot of time in those early years the last century. So I stood away, and other piano players could do a better job and I certainly left it to them. But I went on my own in 1961, and since I've been on my own, I'm very proud of the recordings that we've done.

MT: You're awesome. I've been a fan for years.

EP: Thank you.

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