Eddie Palmeri and the sound Of New york

La Perfecta!

Eddie_Palmieri  El Grande  Salcero


I can’t imagine New York City without the sound of Salsa, that marvelous dance oriented music which is a musical Mondongo – a kind of Puerto Rican Gumbo.  It is a vital part of the soundtrack of the drama of life here in the Big Apple. The outstanding artistic achievement of Salsa is that the genre successfully blends Afro-Cuban rhythms and cohunto music with elements of traditional  Puerto Rican Bombas and Plenas, polished off with Afro-American Jazz and Rhythm and Blues.  The resulting Afro-Latin sound is something new and ultimately different from the sum of its parts.

From the Afro-Cuban tradition come the rhythm instruments that give the music its unique flavor…and hypnotic effect if you are out on the dance floor.  In fact,  the instruments that are unique to this music are  Afro-Cuban inventions: congas, bongos, timbales, maracas, cowbells, and clave. From the jazz tradition the Salceros adopted the sophisticated orchestrations and the complex art of extended instrumental solo improvisations.  From Rhythm and Blues singers they learned how to sing with a lot of “soul” in a way that appeals to a sensibility fashioned in the urbane American world in which the musicians and their audience were socialized.  Sometimes they even made records  covering Rhythm and Blues hits performed in English over a Latin beat.

Although the main stylistic features of Salsa can be traced to Machito and his Afro-Cubans, who along with the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra of the late forties were the inventors of the Cu-bop school  -an amalgam of the Afro-Cuban Son Montuno and Afro-American complex instrumental music  that combined elements of big band swing with the emerging Be-bop sound to create Latin Jazz – it was mainly Nuyorican musicians – Puerto Rican musicians raised or residing in New York like Tito Puente, Willie Bobo, etc– who synthesized the myriad disparate elements into the new sound that has become world famous as “Salsa.” 

However not everyone was pleased with this interpretation of events; Mario Bauza, who was the musical director for Machito and his Afro-Cubans, was famous for announcing: “Salsa is something I put on my food. This is Afro-Cuban music!” Yet while it is true that the fundamental esthetic characteristics of the Cuban Son and Mambo bands remain the basis of Salsa; it is undeniable that this musical style is Nuyorican.  And In Eddie Palmieri  and his La Perfecta Orchestra we have the quintessential New York Latin Jazz ensemble. 

In ways the La Perfecta Orchestra can be seen as an extension of Machito’s orchestra, although it is a smaller  ensemble.  The rapport comes from the emphasis placed on instrumental virtuosity without sacrificing the needs of dancers.  This is because while nurtured on the dance music of typical Latin dance bands, like Mario Bauza, Eddie Palmieri is also a serious student of the Jazz tradition  – and a virtuoso pianist to boot. 

Born and raised in New York City Eddie was influenced as much by the blues and swing of Jazz masters of the piano such as Theolonius Monk, Bud Powell and McCoy Tyner, as by the intoxicating rhythms of the montunos  played by the great Latin pianists he heard all around him.  Not the least of these was his brother, the great Salcero Charlie Palmieri.

It is no accident that Eddie is often referred to as “the Latin Monk,” because he cut his musical teeth with Latin bands who were playing the Palladium, the premiere Latin Dance emporium in the nation, which was located only a block from 52and Street: the Mecca of Be-bop that attracted the world’s greatest Jazz musicians.  Hence like a child raised in a bi-lingual household Eddie absorbed both languages simultaneously.  Among  Nuyoricans in general this experience produced “Spanglish,” a patois that combines English and Spanish vocabulary and syntax; among serious musicians it produced Latin Jazz.  Eddie Palmieri and the La Perfecta Orchestra are exemplars of this grand New York  musical tradition.




 Playthell Benjamin

Fall season 2009



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