Recently declared a National Endowment for the Arts' Jazz Master, Puerto Rican musician Eddie Palmieri has now joined the ranks as such previous legendary honorees as Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald and Herbie Hancock.
Palmieri will be honored in January at the Kennedy Center for his extraordinary career as a virtuoso pianist, bandleader, arranger, and composer of Latin dance music and Latin jazz.
"It's one of the highest honors that has been bestowed on me, to be in the category of these jazz greats," marvels Palmieri. "It's very special because my forte has been Latin dance music and Latin jazz, and to win the award in jazz and to be nominated as a jazz master is really an honor. It's very humbling."
Trumpeter Brian Lynch
Hailed as "the Latin Thelonious Monk," and "the Miles Davis and James Brown of the genre," Palmieri is currently celebrating the 75th year of his career with a series of world-wide events.
Age is definitely not slowing down this vital, vibrant musician.
"You ready?" he asks, armed with a rundown of what he's accomplished so far this year. "We started in Australia, then I came back home and did some things in the States and then did three European tours, went, came back, went, came back, went, came back. After the last tour in Frankfurt, they flew me to the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles to play with Ruben Blades, and then I went to Bogota, Colombia and we had about 60,000 people (at the Festival Salsa Al Parque). I came back home, then they sent me to Johannesburg in South Africa, and after that we took a short hop to Japan and we did five nights at (Tokyo's) Blue Note, which blew everyone away with the big band."
Plus, he's been recording the soundtrack for the new documentary, "Doin' It in the Park," which explores the cultural influence of playground basketball on sports and music. And he just headlined the 55th annual Monterey Jazz Festival, and will perform a career retrospective at New York's Lincoln Center in December.
This nine-time Grammy Award winner was born in Spanish Harlem to parents who moved to New York from Puerto Rico. His siblings, including his older brother Charlie, another renowned Latin piano player, all grew up in the Bronx.
Encouraged by his mother, Palmieri began studying piano as a child. "I started at about eight years old, and then by 13, I wanted to play timbales," he explains. "My mother bought me a pair of timbales with the heaviest case she could find. My mother would tell me, 'Edward, don't you see how beautiful your brother looks when he goes to work without carrying an instrument, when will you learn?' I said, I'm learning mom, as I'm picking up the case. So I went back on the piano."
This early percussive training has imbued his piano work ever since. "Donald Harrison (jazz saxophonist) told me, 'you solo like a drummer,' " he notes, chuckling.
His signature style developed from listening to the great Cuban orchestras and their innovative admirers in New York, the legendary mambo bands of Machito, Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez.
"It never ceased to amaze me how it would excite me to listen to them," he recalls. "You had the great Machito and his Afro-Cubans, who had started in 1939. And Chano Pozo arrived and met Dizzy Gillespie and that's when the phenomenon of Latin jazz was created. They recorded 'Manteca' and Chano changed the characteristic of Dizzy's jazz band. Then Tito Puente formed his own conjunto (group) and Tito Rodriguez came out with his conjunto, which I worked with from 1958 to 1960. I learned from the orchestras coming out of Cuba, and after that from all the jazz artists. I met a lot of them like Art Tatum, Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, and McCoy Tyner who was a mentor of mine. And I saw the original John Coltrane Quartet at Birdland. I was playing at the Palladium next to it in the '60s. Between all of them I came up with my own personal signature form of playing."
At the height of its popularity, New York's Palladium Ballroom was a mecca for Latin dance music fans, attracting Hollywood and Broadway stars. With his band, Conjunto La Perfecta (the Perfect Group), Palmieri packed the Palladium dance floor.
"It had the greatest dancers," he reports. "On Wednesday nights, actors like Marlon Brando and Kim Novak would come to see the mambo shows. Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez and Machito would all play. On Fridays, you would have Puerto Ricans, gamblers and ladies of the night. Saturdays would be the workers who drank a lot of liquor, and then on Sundays it was all black, and great dancers, too."
From the early '60s on, Palmieri released a stream of influential recordings such as "Mozambique," "Molasses," the "Live at Sing Sing" albums recorded at the infamous New York prison, and "The Sun of Latin Music," recorded in 1973, which earned him his first Grammy.
Palmieri's classic recording, "Azucar Pa Ti," is one of the most influential Latin jazz recordings ever made. Combining Afro-Cuban styles with jazz, it was inducted in 2009 into the Library of Congress.
Palmieri will perform at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center in Kahului on Friday with a quartet of equally talented musicians. Reviewing the group, Time Out London praised, "This is music so vital and joyous, a totally celebratory sound, weaving and grooving along on a beat so mesmeric that you want it to go on forever."
"They're all great players," he says. "It's a dynamic quartet with Brian Lynch on trumpet, myself on piano and the drummer is Dafnis Prieto from Cuba, who just got awarded a genius award. And the bass player is Luques Curtis, one of the best bass players who has ever performed with me. He knows my style and where I'm going next.
"It's quite exciting because people will hear something that involves tension and resistance. Just like in life, sex and danger are exciters, and you have that in the compositions if you want to reach a high musical climax. The tension and resistance excites everybody.
* Eddie Palmieri and the Brian Lynch Jazz Quartet perform at 7:30 p.m. on Friday at the MACC's Castle Theater. There's a dance floor. Tickets are $12, $35, and $45. Call 242-7469 or visit mauiarts.org.
The MACC will host another exciting show on Saturday evening with the debut of the Canadian Indo/Celtic fusion band, Delhi 2 Dublin.
Ever since they formed in 2006, the Vancouver-based group has been drawing rave reviews.
"Imagine the energy and cultural fervor of a huge Indian wedding party colliding with a bunch of drunken Irishmen dancing on a wooden table with fiddles," lauded Evolving Music. "Famed for its incendiary live show, the multi-culti, genre-bending fivesome has been playing white-hot gigs the world over," noted Uptown Mag.
So it looks like we can expect a jubilant dance party.
"On one of our M.O.'s is to have a party that brings people together and it's a bit of science now for us how we do that," explains Delhi 2 Dublin co-founder Tarun Nayar.
In fact, the fledgling group got many folks grooving to their intriguing cultural fusion at their first-ever gig.
"One of the things that brought us together was the chemistry we felt onstage and what we felt from the audience at our first gig, so it's kind of fitting that that's been an essential feature of what we do because that's how it all started," Nayar continues.
The band's original inspiration came from the director of a Celtic festival that hired the musicians to perform. "He commissioned me to write music for the festival," Nayar recalls. "My specialty was Asian music and Asian electronica, and I told him I don't do a lot of Celtic music. So he said, 'why don't you write some.' He wanted me to take some Indian music and put it with Celtic music. I thought it was a fascinating idea, so I called up a couple of fiddle players and started jamming and it worked really well. It was amazing how easy it was to put the two kinds of music together. There's a sort of bitter sweetness to both, it makes you smile and also be introspective at the same time. And they're also good for dancing and good for drinking. So there were many ways it worked. But I'm not the first one to do it, The Dohl Foundation in the U.K. did a track a few years before we wrote our first tracks."
The band features Nayar on tabla and electronics, Andrew Kim on guitar and electric sitar, Sanjay Seran on lead vocals and percussion, Ravi Binning on dhol and Sara Fitzpatrick on violin and back-up vocals.
The band recently completed their latest album, "Turn Up The Stereo," and are offering a free track download on their website.
"We have our new album coming out in the States in January and that's really exciting for us," says Nayar. "For this album, we worked really hard on crafting songs and really thought about telling stories and expressing ourselves a lot more personally. I think it's definitely the strongest thing we've done."
* Delhi 2 Dublin play at 7:30 p.m. Saturday outdoors at the MACC's Yokouchi Pavilion, with room for dancing. Tickets are $25 in advance and $35 on show day. Call 242-7469 or visit mauiarts.org.