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There is an image burned into my mind of a well-dressed, somewhat stocky man, with a wild look in his eyes, attacking a piano. Almost literally. I expected it to come tumbling apart under the hands of the virtuoso who played this gigantic instrument; fingers on ivory like hands on a drum. Midway through his set, he and the rest of the musicians got up, one by one, until there was a lone conguero center stage, furiously keeping the rhythm. Then everyone returned to the stage and picked up where they had left: bass, horns, piano all to the 3/2 rhythm of the clave.

I was in awe.

That was the first time I saw - and heard - Eddie Palmieri play. I knew nothing about this guy, or Latin jazz or salsa music. But from that point on I wanted more.

When artists' careers span several decades, they have a wealth of material from which to choose. Palmieri is no different. One of the grandfathers of Latin jazz, Palmieri (and his brother Charlie) played with and led both traditional bands of the NYC scene in the '50s and cross-cultural, pop-meets-political groups during the '70s. (There's even an album of Palmieri playing at Attica!)

By the time I began listening to him, Palmieri had become more and more experimental with each subsequent album, indulging his penchant for abstract, mind-boggling, challenging compositions. In contrast, Palmieri and the late Tito Puente came together in 2000 and produced Obra Masterpiece. Puente's last disc (he passed away weeks after completing the recording), it is a fitting tribute to the classic sound ushered in by his generation. Palmieri followed this with Perfecta II, successfully recreating the sonido and sentido of his band La Perfecta a generation later.

Eddie Palmieri
(Concord Records)
Ritmo Caliente, Palmieri's most recent release, continues this mix of the old and new, rivaling - and in some cases surpassing - classic era Palmieri salsa and Latin jazz. The sounds are sharper, the brass fuller, the compositions crisp and moving; the disc rewards both casual listeners and aficionados of Afro-Cuban music, on and off the dance floor.

Palmieri is bucking the trend of veteran musicians like Carlos Santana who have paired with "hip" and "edgy" youthful artists and recorded commercially successful but ultimately disappointing albums that lack the ooomph of their earlier work. There's a whole generation of listeners like myself who appreciate the music enough on its own merits, without being pandered to with gimmicky guest stars and subpar songs. Fortunately, Ritmo Caliente avoids this pitfall with its mixture of young and old who are well-versed in the classics, yet innovative enough to keep it fresh and alive. •

More by Alejandro Pérez



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