Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Mambo King Returns

                               Palmieri at the Union Theater, 2006                       SKepecs photo                          
  By Susan Kepecs

If the pundits are right, after Tuesday’s alarming midterm elections are over I’m going to be in mourning for our country in general and for my representation, as a Wisconsin citizen, in the US Senate in particular.  But halleluja, there’s brief, shining respite on tap Friday night (Nov. 5).  After a four-year absence Maestro Eddie Palmieri, the mambo king, presides at the piano on the Union Theater stage with his stellar Latin jazz septet.
Since Palmieri’s last visit he’s reaped his ninth Grammy, with his protegé-turned-collaborator, trompetista Brian Lynch, for their stunning 2006 release, Simpatico.  And Azucar Pa’ Ti, Palmieri’s glorious fifth album, recorded with his Conjunto La Perfecta in 1965, was chosen for the National Recording Registry of the US Library of Congress.  Azucar’s Nuyorican-style Cuban dance beats are brilliantly laced with jazz idioms –montunos imbued with dissonant, Thelonious Monk chords and the extended instrumental mambo improvisations that mark everything Palmieri’s done since.
Was Azucar Latin jazz, or salsa’s precursor?  Either way, Palmieri and his brother Charlie were among the founding fathers of the son-based dance music we still love to groove to at the Cardinal Bar.  But please, don’t yell out requests for “Adoración” or “Vamonos p’al Monte” Friday night.  Palmieri’s instrumental mambos are bailable, though sometimes, with Lynch in the lead, they head toward hard bop territory.  If you need your salsa fix first, head down to Chicago the night before.  Palmieri mostly plays Latin jazz these days, but he’s never been able to completely cash in his dance band chips.  La Perfecta II revives its predecessor’s greatest hits at V Live on Logan Square at 2047 N. Milwaukee Ave., Thursday (Nov. 4) at 9 PM.
“I didn’t grow up with jazz,” Palmieri says.  “I brought myself up in the Latin dance genre. That was my forte, my main interest.  I love to watch people dance, and leading a dance band orchestra was my ideal.  But little by little the genre changed.  I saw the writing on the wall.  I had no choice but to go into Latin jazz.”  His first official jazz release was the all-instrumental Palmas, in 1994. 
Nevertheless, for Palmieri there’s always been a fine line between Latin dance music and Latin jazz.  “Remember,” he says, “jazz started with the big dance orchestras.  In the 1950s the Palladium [New York’s legendary Latin ballroom] and Birdland, ‘the jazz corner of the world,’ were right next to each other.  We had the greatest jazz players coming to the dance club and vice-versa.”
Palmieri rattles off stories about the birth of Cubop, the original Latin / jazz fusion.  “When Chico O’Farrill came to New York and started composing and arranging for Machito’s orchestra he was always going next door to Birdland and listening to Duke Ellington and Count Basie.  And don’t forget the most famous example – when [Havana-born conguero] Chano Pozo meets Dizzy Gillespie in New York one percussionist changes the entire jazz orchestra.  The power of the drum was the New York phenomenon of the late ‘40s and early ‘50s.  All these years Latin rhythms and jazz have gone hand and hand and now they’re moving forward in wonderful new kinds of jazz fusion.”
Everywhere he travels lately, Palmieri explains – Japan, Russia and Australia as well as Europe, Mexico and the US – he’s finding incredible interest in Latin jazz and its instrumentation.  “The young players that aspire to be jazz musicians start to comprehend the rhythmical patterns we use and they find it extremely exciting.  Many aren’t Latinos, but they’ve discovered than using Latin rhythms within any composition enhances it.”
The new fusions that emerge from the new, global generation’s experimentations with Latin beats are the vanguard of the 21st century, Palmieri  says.  The problem is that jazz doesn’t get commercial airplay, so a lot of it happens underground. 
Frankly, I find some of the new global jazz fusions confusing.  I’ll take Palmieri’s Afro-Cuban-plus-bop brand of Latin jazz any day.  His regular rhythm section – José Claussel on timbales, Vincent “Little Johnny” Rivero on congas and bongocero Orlando Vega – provides the drum power Friday night.  Vega, who’s been playing with Palmieri for a couple of years now, is the youngster of the bunch – Claussel and Rivero have worked with the maestro since he swapped salsa for Latin jazz. 
So has Milwaukee-born Lynch, who started playing Latin way back in the late ‘70s with the Brew City’s original salsa / Latin jazz band, La Chazz.  Lynch, who went on to play with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers in New York till Blakey died in 1990, first recorded with Palmieri on Palmas.  “If you count up all the years Claussel, Rivero and Lynch have been working with me,” Palmieri says, “it comes out to about 100.”
Also in Friday night’s lineup is Luques Curtis, a fast-rising young bass player who studied with leading Latin jazz bassist Andy González of the Fort Apache Band.  González himself played with Palmieri in the early ‘70s, so Curtis, whose recording career with Lynch and Palmieri began with Simpatico, brings it all back home.  And on alto sax for this tour is newcomer Louis Fouché, who’s been playing with some happenin’ young musicians, notably New Orleans-born trumpet and fluglehorn player Christian Scott.  Scott’s uncle is saxman Donald Harrison, another of Palmieri’s longtime associates.
Palmieri’s bringing us one helluva band Friday night, so buck up, Mad City.  America may be in freefall, but we get to go out and dig some of the most exceptional music on the planet.  At least we still have that!

The following piece first ran in Isthmus on Nov. 30, 2006.  I'm including it here in case you don't know much about Palmieri.  It's got all the background information I left out of the short preview of Friday night's concert, above.

Jazz you can dance to

Latin music king Eddie Palmieri brings salsa-style energy to a combo setting

By Susan Kepecs

It may be a cold, dark December, but the Sun of Latin Music — the one and only Eddie Palmieri — lights up the Wisconsin Union Theater on Saturday, Dec. 2, at 8 p.m. For this second of three concerts in the season’s Isthmus Jazz Series, Palmieri, best known for scorching salsa, plays his mambos jazzeado. At 70, with 200 compositions, 50 recordings and eight Grammys in his kit, the fabled Nuyorican bandleader/ pianist has pretty much cashed in his dance orchestra for a seven-or eight-man combo. But no matter which mode he’s in, Palmieri mixes Afro-Cuban dance rhythms with monumental American music better than anyone else on the planet.
I live to dance on clave, but let’s face it — salsa’s old-school. Some of its brightest stars — Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, Ray Barretto — are gone. Rubén Blades is Panama’s tourism minister now. Willie Colón’s gone political activist and talks of retiring his trombone. Sure, a handful of ’70s salseros like Blades’ piano man Oscar Hernández and trombone icon Jimmy Bosch are trying to rescue the genre from the chintzy late-’80s “salsa sensual” of Marc Anthony’s ilk. Even Palmieri, who’s been swinging on the jazz side since the early ’90s, made a short salsa comeback at the start of the millennium. Mostly, though, style trumps substance in today’s highly commercialized Latin dance music. The scene’s been usurped by electronics — heavy recordings, flashy clothes, souped-up dance moves and a younger generation’s beats: timba, reggaetón and — the latest — salsatón.
On the other hand it’s an auspicious age for Latin jazz. In recent years some terrific players have come through town — Omar Sosa, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, John Santos and Poncho Sánchez, to name a few. But history puts Palmieri at the head of the pack.

The lineup for the WUT show includes four longtime Palmieri regulars: second-wave post-boppers Brian Lynch (from Milwaukee) on trumpet and Conrad Herwig on trombone, plus Nuyorican rhythm kings José Clausell on timbales and Little Johnny Rivero on congas; bongocero TBA. Eddie Resto, who’s played with Palmieri in the past, is on bass. That’s a smokin’ Afro-Latin rhythm section plus personnel for modal harmonics and adventurous solos, but it’s not Cubop. Don’t leave your dancin’ shoes home.
Palmieri — Spanish Harlem born, South Bronx-raised — is a direct musical descendant of the original Afro-Cuban mambo kings, Arsenio Rodríguez, José Curbelo and Machito, who played big-band Havana dance music at Harlem clubs in the roaring ’40s.
The first U.S.-born Latin music king — the late, great Nuyorican timbalero Tito Puente — always said if it’s Latin jazz, you can dance to it. That wasn’t always true, even in Puente’s day. As a category, today’s Latin jazz covers a lot of ground, but Palmieri shares Puente’s philosophy. For him, and for players like Poncho Sánchez or Mad City’s own Tony Castañeda (who plays a Latin dance party for ticketholders in the UW Memorial Union Rathskeller after Palmieri’s set), the partitions between Latin jazz, mambo and salsa are porous.
Palmieri was born in 1936 to working-class Puerto Rican parents. “My dad,” he says, “was an electrician, a radio and TV repair man. He could do anything — he was unique. My mother was a seamstress. She loved music. I had uncles who lived in our building. They had a band that played typical Puerto Rican music.”
Palmieri was 11 when he started studying classical piano with the barrier-breaking, Juilliard-trained African American composer-pianist Margaret Bonds, at her studio in the Carnegie Hall building. Always versatile, at 13 he played timbales in his uncle’s band, Chino y sus Tropicales. But the biggest influence was his older brother Charlie, who became known as “el gigante del teclado” (the keyboard giant).
“My brother would come home with records by the big bands — Glenn Miller, the Dorseys, Duke Ellington and the Latin orchestras of the time. The favorite was Machito, who was extraordinary, with René Hernández from Cuba on piano and the young Tito Puente on timbales.
“It was exciting, growing up then. It was before TV. Latin music was on the air constantly. You could hear Machito, Tito Puente and Tito Rodríguez all day long. We don’t have that kind of radio any more.”
In ’48 Puente put together his own conjunto, the Picadilly Boys, with a three-trumpet frontline and Charlie Palmieri on piano. The Picadillys soon became Tito Puente & His Orchestra and — along with the Machito and Tito Rodríguez orchestras — made the Palladium Ballroom at 53rd and Broadway the epicenter of mambo and cha-cha-cha.
“The live mambo scene was really happening,” Palmieri says. “That was the greatest dance that ever came out of Cuba. Vicentico Valdés was Puente’s vocalist till he started his own conjunto in ’54. From ’56 through ’58 I did summer gigs with him. We’d play the Palladium four nights a week, and in September Machito and Puente would come back from the Catskills and excite us all with the new music they’d bring back.”
Palmieri got a big break in ’58, playing with Puente’s main rival, Tito Rodríguez. Eisenhower was president, Elvis was king, Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand” was at its peak, and Sam Cooke was set to release “Everybody Loves to Cha-Cha-Cha,” which brought the dance, American-style, with the break on the wrong beat, to TV-watching teenyboppers like me.

Two years later political events put a new edge on American culture. The Cuban Revolution was fresh from triumph. Thousands of displaced Cubans flooded Miami. John F. Kennedy was elected president. Lunch-counter sit-ins kicked off civil rights activism in the South. Berry Gordy Jr. started Motown Records in Detroit. In Manhattan, the brand-new John Coltrane Quartet recorded My Favorite Things. And Eddie Palmieri forged his own edgy new band, La Perfecta, featuring a three-trombone-plus-flute frontline. He called the sound, which broke the typical trumpet-based conjunto format and added flute from Cuba’s popular charanga orchestras, “trombanga.” La Perfecta reportedly played the Palladium four sets a night, four nights a week from its inception till the famous ballroom’s final night in 1966.
A mainstay of La Perfecta’s shifting lineup was trombonist Barry Rogers, a Bronx-born Jew of Polish descent. Rogers was hip to straight-ahead jazz, and partly through his influence Palmieri started adding modal harmonics to what became his signature sound.
“I came to jazz late,” Palmieri says. “I wasn’t interested before ’cause I was so into the music coming out of Cuba in the ’50s. But those extraordinary jazz pianists — Thelonious Monk, Art Tatum, Bud Powell, McCoy Tyner — they knew the piano inside out. They were great pioneers with those fingerings and harmonic structures.
“I took the structures of their chords. I’ll utilize Monk’s dissonance and those big McCoy Tyner fourths in a piece with vocals. It becomes quite a challenge to present those harmonic structures in my solo and keep things interesting for the rhythm section at the same time, but jazz harmonics make salsa interesting to the ear.”
“Azúcar,” on the hard-to-find Azúcar pa’ ti (Tico, 1965), is an early example. “We played that tune all over town. It was a hit before we recorded it. In the studio back then you had to keep your tunes to two minutes, 45 seconds, so they could put 12 on an album. The A&R man at Tico was Count Basie’s manager. He said ‘play it like you play it,’ and we did. It went 8:38 and was released that way. It wasn’t called Latin jazz, but it was free format, with vocals. That was the first time I accompanied myself, soloing freely with my right hand, playing over the chords. It became one of the biggest hits I’ve ever had.”

In ’68, after nine albums, La Perfecta broke up, broke. In the heart of the hippie era Latin/funk fusion reigned. Palmieri recorded boogaloos and antiwar anthems with various lineups, most famously the all-star Harlem River Drive outfit, featuring Charlie Palmieri at the organ.
I admit it — I’ve been in love with boogaloo since the ’60s. But Latin purists hated it, at least back then. Puente said it stunk. Barretto called it a curse. Palmieri blamed isolation from Cuba for this low point in Latin music.
In the early ’70s Palmieri reclaimed his mambo roots with a vengeance, putting out a series of albums with shifting big-band lineups that usually included Rogers on trombone. The Sun of Latin Music (’74) and Unfinished Masterpiece (’75) won back-to-back Grammys. There’s still some funk on these discs, but mostly they’re a mix of straight-up salsa spiked with Palmieri’s trademark dissonance and tunes in the “Azúcar” mode — jazz jams that morph into mambos like “Un Día Bonito” (on Sun) and “Adoración” (on Sentido, from ’73).
Those recordings blasted Mad City into the salsa age. In August of ’75 Ricardo Gonzalez, who’d recently opened the Cardinal Bar, kicked off its first-ever Latin dance night with “Puerto Rico,” off Sentido. In December of that year he launched “La Junta” on fledgling WORT radio. On his first playlist were “Puerto Rico” and the beautifully bailable “Kinkamache” from Unfinished Masterpiece.
By the end of the 1970s, Dominican merengue had replaced Cuban-based salsa as New York’s favorite Latin dance beat. But if salsa was going down, it went in style. In ’81 Palmieri put out a self-titled album with a big, rich orchestral sound. Everything sizzles. In particular, “Ritmo Alegre” is the nostalgic motif of my many noches latinas at the Cardinal Bar.

For Palmieri the next decade was mixed. He picked up a couple of Grammys but lost both his brother and Barry Rogers. He reworked some earlier hits. In ’93 he came roaring back, invigorated, with Palmas, the first of a breakway, small-format, instrumental trilogy that includes Arete (’95) and Vortex (’96). Lynch, Herwig annd Clausell, at the heart Palmieri’s Latin jazz combo, have been with him ever since. The “new” sound is really the old setup, mellower and minus vocals. “I know how to take an instrumental mambo and make it jazz,” Palmieri says. “We do the top of the composition so the rhythm underneath’s more danceable. That makes it exciting for us to play, and no matter how free-form we start out, we always end with a compelling mambo coda.”
The trilogy’s danceable, dissonant recordings gleam with Palmieri’s nuanced solo piano and high-end brass. On Palmas in particular there’s a touch of Art Tatum in Palmieri’s right hand; Lynch sounds like a Latin Lee Morgan.
There’s a pair of drop-dead-gorgeous cuts — “Doña Tere” and “Iriaida” — on Vortex, dedicated to Oya, orisha of angry winds. Of the two, I love the latter. Palmieri hits some gospel chords. There’s a hint of synth, making the piano sound like an organ at a black Baptist Sunday service. He plays a run of casual riffs like a classical pianist improvising, tickling out a few blue notes with his right hand. The bass comes in slow and takes over the theme. Palmieri punctuates on piano, building suspensefully toward a three-chord guajeo. The percussion kicks over, the sax slips in, the bass goes funky and oh, baby, it’s boogaloo cha!
Palmieri’s latest CD, Listen Here, Best Latin Jazz Grammy winner this year, features illustrious guest soloists. Conguero Giovanni Hidalgo brings out the hidden clave in Eddie Harris’ original ’68 hard-bop boogaloo of the album’s title cut; Regina Carter’s violin adds a charanga charge to Horace Silver’s “Nica’s Dream”; Donald Harrison’s alto sax swings on Palmieri’s “EP Blues.” Palmieri’s signature cadence on piano gives Cubop standard “Tin Tin Deo” a whole new life. It’s a good album, but it’s no Vortex.

Palmieri still takes trips on the salsa side. El Rumbero del Piano (’99), with Herman Olivera on vocals, is pure sabor. La Perfecta II (’02), again with Olivera, brings back the trombanga sound and revisits some vintage tracks. From ’02 there’s also Obra Maestra, the only work Palmieri and Puente recorded together. Puente died shortly thereafter. Palmieri released one more salsa disc, Ritmo Caliente, in ’03.
     “For me it’s a complete responsibility to keep the music going in Tito’s direction, with a Latin orchestra and vocalists,” Palmieri says. “But it’s hard to keep it up. There’s not the audience there used to be. Clubs like the Palladium don’t exist, and the ones that do hire young bands. The genre’s reggaetón.”
Plus it’s just too expensive to travel with a full orchestra. “I’m always on the road,” Palmieri says. “I was in South America this month, and we’re going to the West Coast after Wisconsin. The band stays employed that way. We’ve been very well accepted in jazz festivals all over the world. Latin jazz is the fusion of the 21st century.”
Expect Palmieri to be in Palmas mode Saturday night. The style’s a balancing act onstage, says the Sun of Latin Music. “People yell requests — ‘Vámonos pa’l monte!’ ‘Adoración!’ I have to stop and explain, this is jazz! We don’t have a vocalist!”

© S. Kepecs 2006

Monday, October 25, 2010

Recommended Reading

By Susan Kepecs

Fifty years of US-imposed blockade on Cuba couldn’t dampen our rabid enthusiasm for the big island’s miraculous music on this side of the Florida Straits.  Still, the market – booming with Buena Vista Social Club concerts and CDs made accessible thanks to Britain’s World Circuit Records in the late ‘90s – withered a bit during W’s presidency.  Obama hasn’t done much to change the situation, but I see a resurgence shimmering in my crystal ball.  Paramount jazz pianist Chucho Valdés is on his first US tour in seven years.  AfroCubism, the album World Circuit originally intended to make – a gentle, loping collaboration between Cuban sonero Eliades Ochoa and Malian world music star Toumani Diabaté that was scrapped when Diabaté couldn’t get a visa to Cuba in 1996 – was recorded in Spain in 2008 and finally released last month.  And there’s a new book on the stands – the definitive bio so far of the late Cuban singing idol Benny Moré, “el barbaro del ritmo.”  The book [University of Florida Press, 2009] was written by homeboy John Radanovich, who’s titled his slim tome with a translation of Benny’s nickname – Wildman of Rhythm.
This book merits a CulturalOyster post for two reasons.  First, the zoot-suited, charismatic Moré was and still is the undisputed king of Cuban song.  The treasure trove of tracks he laid down on RCA Victor, the lion’s share from the ‘50s with his mind-blowing Banda Gigante, epitomizes every genre of Cuban music from balmy boleros to guaracha-swing.  Whether you’re a neophyte mambero or a raging rumbera, you don’t know beans about Cuban music if you aren’t hip to Benny Moré. 
And second, as I hinted above, Wildman of Rhythm has Mad City roots.  Radanovich, who currently lives in Florida, was here earlier this month promoting his book.  “Madison completely formed me,” he said over coffee at Borders.  He was born here, and though he grew up in Milwaukee he spent his childhood chomping at the bit to return.  “In 1969, when I was 6, we visited my tie-dyed uncle in Madison, where he lived on Mifflin street.  He had plants in the back that we knew weren't "tomato" plants as he told my parents.  He had  Jimmy Hendrix and Janis Joplin posters and bead curtains.  When we left, we saw two women nude sunbathing on the balcony next door.  My mom remembers that I said ‘I want to go to college here’ at that exact moment.”
Radanovich planned to become a photo journalist. “But I realized I didn't want to be a war photographer, so I switched to a double major in English and French.  And I wrote for the Daily Cardinal about world music, which lead to my pursuing the music of the Americas ever since.”
Two of his life’s obsessions, Radanovich said, are Louis Armstrong and Benny Moré.  “I immediately understood their music the first time I heard it.” 
Unable to find an authoritative source on Moré, he ended up in relentless pursuit of the story’s pieces, scouring Havana and Miami for years with no intention of writing a book until one day he realized there was no escape. 
The way Radanovich describes the process sounds like doing jigsaw puzzles in the dark.  There should have been tons of researchable material in Cuba, he said.  Moré’s death in 1963 was perfectly timed for history, since all but the last four years of his life were spent in the pre-Revolutionary period.  The Cuban national archives should be full of radio interviews, news clips, photos.  “But there was nothing.  It was like searching for a ghost.”
Radanovich managed to meet a few of Moré’s still-living musicians, including his cousin, songwriter and backup singer Enrique Benítez, “El Conde Negro.”  “He’s very sharp,” Radanovich said.  “He remembers.  But we’d be talking about a specific recording session and he’d seem so lucid, and then he’d say ‘but I’m not sure …”  And I’d ask ‘what are you not sure about?’ and his answer was ‘well, we were really, really drunk...’
“I thought oh my god, he’s the last link to the historical record and I’m trying to get it straight – but I was never sure I had it right.”
For a long time, Radanovitch added, he didn’t understand how politics colored what people told him.  Jazz in particular is a hot potato in post-Revolutionary Cuba.  In the ‘40s and ‘50s Cuban players came to New York – Cubop, born of the famous Dizzy Gillespie / Chano Pozo collaboration, forever altered the path of American music.  And American jazz was big in Havana.  Cab Calloway, Sarah Vaughn, Nat King Cole and Benny Goodman played regularly at the Tropicana and other city hotspots.  Expat Cuban sax master Paquito d’Rivera, in his book My Sax Life [Northwestern University Press, 2005], talks about the jazz recordings his father collected in Havana during that epoch.  But after the Revolution, everything American – including jazz – was prohibido. 
D’Rivera, who left Cuba in 1980 and never went back, gave Radanovich a Havana phone number for legendary Cuban trombonist and Banda Gigante arranger / composer Generoso Jiménez.  “The first thing I did when I went to Havana was to look up Generoso,” Radanovich said, “and the first question I asked him was ‘how did jazz influence your arranging of music?  What did you listen to and what big bands did you like?’  Generoso got a funny look on his face and said ‘We never listened to jazz.  It had no influence on me whatsoever.’”
“Whenever I asked the same question in Cuba and in Miami I’d get diametrically opposed answers,” Radanovich  continued.  “I could never split the difference.  It never made sense to me.  The contradictions were constant, and very difficult to deal with.  Just the way Benny’s name is spelled is controversial.”
Benny was a stage alias – Moré’s real name was Bartolo.  “People come out of the woodwork on my website,” Radanovich says, “and either agree with me or tell me I’m wrong, it’s got one “n,” not two.  It took me years to come to terms with this issue.  Finally I tracked down his grandson in Miami, who insisted Benny took his name from Benny Goodman.  I’m 98% certain that’s right, but it’s still a little bit suspect.”
Wildman of Rhythm’s not perfect, Radanovich admits.  And besides the uncertainties, which in a way are part of the story, the book’s dotted with small errors of fact and translation not directly related to Moré that an astute bilingual, bicultural editor should have ferreted out.  But Radanovich put a lot of heart into this work.  The details he was able to piece together in the dark, neatly woven into the backstory of late pre-Revolutionary Cuba in all its mafioso glory, are more than worth the sticker price.

Benny Moré’s RCA Victor recordings with Banda Gigante are compiled – with a small biography in Spanish – on Tumbao Classics’ fabulous box set, El Legendario Idolo del Pueblo Cubano Benny Moré y su Banda Gigante: Grabaciones Completas 1953-1960.  

Monday, October 4, 2010

A Question for You, Readers!

Dear Readers,
Today there should be a review of Ballet Hispanico in this space.  Having written a preview that was simultaneously cautious and hopeful, I was looking forward to seeing whether the concert matched my somewhat mixed expectations, or not.  But due to circumstances beyond my control – I was sick! – I missed the show.  So I hope you’ll fill me in.  I’d love to get your critical opinion.  Was it a wonderful concert?  Or not quite what you hoped for?  Which piece did you like best, and why?  Were the dancers as beautifully trained as you’d expect for a major New York company?  Do you look forward to seeing Ballet Hispanico again?  I really want to know.  The comments box, below, is just waiting for you!  Many thanks in advance for your input,
Susan Kepecs