by Chuck Reider
A few weeks ago I introduced you all to Brazilian music and with winter still upon us today is the day to meet the Sun of Latin Music, Eddie Palmieri. Going to college in San Francisco during the seventies, as a musician, the cultural diversity of the city introduced me to a wealth of music styles I would not have experienced otherwise. Back then, I would take my trombone to church to perform at a morning service. In the afternoon I would play in a marching band in Chinatown for a Chinese funeral where the band performing hymns would lead a parade of mourners in trucks and cars. Then it was off to Mission Street at night to play salsa. Those, along with performing in rock bands, big bands, and orchestras were all great experiences. It was in 1975 that the salsa band’s conga player invited me over to listen to some of his new records. When he put on “The Sun of Latin Music” I was blown away with what I heard. The first side more traditional salsa, but the second side was a fourteen-minute journey starting with a reflective solo piano that grows more intense until it meets an explosion of percussion followed by trombones and then all the brass. Next a rhythmic break and then the full band and vocals kick off into a burning mambo. Listening to “Una Dia Bonita” that afternoon opened up a whole new music world to me that lives with me today. Side note, he also played another brand-new album “Hommy, A Latin Opera” about a blind, deaf, and dumb conga player. I was so turned off that it was such a blatant rip off of the Who’s “Tommy” I would not give it a second listen, but more on that later….
Palmieri is a true latin music genius that fuses jazz and funk into that genre and, in my opinion, is as influential as Duke Ellington and Count Basie in the big band world. Born in 1926 of parents who recently immigrated from Puerto Rico he and his older brother Charlie grew up in the South Bronx. Brother Charlie was a pianist and younger brother started on piano but switched to timbales (a latin drum kit) so he could join his uncle’s band. Palmieri recalls his mother telling him, "Eduardo, don't you see how handsome your brother looks when he goes to play and doesn't have to carry all those instruments." After that, "I went back to the piano. And I'm so happy my mother was my mother." Influenced by jazz pianists Thelonious Monk and McCoy Tyner and inspired by Charlie to form his own band, which he did at the age fourteen. Early on he earned the nickname “El Molestoso” (the disruptor) for his uncompromising approach to his music. Palmieri organized the band “Conjunto La Perfecta” in 1961. He took the Cuban Charanga ensemble and replaced the violins with trombones to get a stronger sound, which brother Charlie dubbed a trombaranga. He introduced a jazz influence to the La Perfecta recordings and created his own version of the Mozambique latin rhythm. This was a start to a recording career that continues to this day. After disbanding La Perfecta in 1968 he recorded “Vamonos Pa’l Monte” in 1971 with his brother on the organ. That year he also recorded the groundbreaking album “Harlem River Drive” which fully integrated latin, jazz, and funk into one musical expression about social justice. Palmieri was inspired by “Progress Poverty” written by 19th century economist Henry George who denounced poverty and social injustice in the industrialized world. Palmieri believes, the message of "Harlem River Drive" is as relevant today as it was four decades ago." That's because the only problem we have on this planet is called poverty," he says. "It is the parent of all wars and crime, and you see this all over." Palmieri won the first Grammy Award for Best Latin Recording in 1975 for, you guessed it, “The Sun of Latin Music”. In 1975 he released “Unfinished Masterpiece” that included jazz greats bassist Ron Carter and drummer Steve Gadd. In 1978 he released “Lucumi, Macumba, Voodoo” co-produced with Blood, Sweat, and Tears drummer Bobby Colomby. He was intrigued by the Lucumi religion and the album title is described in the liner notes as “Ocha in Lucumi signifies Saint. In Haiti, Ocha converts to Loa and is practiced as the religion Voodoo. In Brazil it is called Macun- the religion, Macumba. In Cuba, Santeria derives from the Lucumi religion. Each piece on the record is described musically in detail in the liner notes, reflecting his in-depth research of the musicality of these religions. Ten-time Grammy winner Palmieri has recorded forty-five albums, some jazz focused, some latin focused, all great! His 2017 album “Wisdom’ is a true amalgamation of music styles as each song features a different style with soloists such as New Orlean’s saxophonist Augustine Parrish (and Mardi Gras Indian Chief) Donald Harrison. His tribute to his late wife “Mi Luz Mayor” (My Great Light) released in 2018 is a big band salsa album featuring a Carlos Santana guitar and legendary jazz drummer Roy Haynes. Don’t delay, get at least one of his albums and enjoy The Sun of Latin Music.
Now back to Hommy. Years ago while perusing the Tower Records racks as they were going out of business I found the Hommy CD. Curious to hear it I bought it. Listening, I was so pleasantly surprised that though the name and concept were borrowed, the music was not and in fact a groundbreaking salsa album for several reasons. First was the producer, composer, arranger, pianist Larry Harlowe affectionately known in the latin community as "El Judio Maravilloso" (the marvelous jew) who during the course of his career produced two hundred sixty albums for a host of latin record labels. The idea of Hommy came to him in 1973 as a vehicle to honor the history of Afro-Caribbean music. Second, it brought together the greatest roster of latin musicians and vocalists of the time. And third, maybe most importantly, brought the great Celia Cruz to the United States. I think of her as the Ella Fitzgerald of latin music, the absolute pinnacle of salsa. Hommy was the first time that a Spanish-language, salsa-themed opera had ever been presented. The opera ends with a chorus of pleas to the spiritual forces of the universe to end suffering on earth and the war in Vietnam through divine grace and charity.
The sun is out, warm, and inviting. Start listening and enjoy.
Chuck Reider is the Executive Director of the Reno Jazz Orchestra
Eddie Palmieri Orchestra live –
Oye lo que te Conviene (Listen, It’s Convenient)
Harlem River Drive
Hommy excerpts performed 7/23/2014