Eddie Palmieri at the Rose Theater – a career retrospective
“Happy Birthday!” someone from the crowd shouted in the Rose Theater on Saturday night, a handful of songs into Jazz at Lincoln Center’s tribute to Eddie Palmieri. “It’s about time!” shot back Mr. Palmieri, the indomitable Latin bandleader and pianist, puckishly noting his age as 26, half a century younger than he is. Then he was back to business, dedicating the next tune to one of his bedrock jazz heroes, Thelonious Monk.
Eddie Palmieri kept a headlong momentum almost from start to finish in a three-hour concert.
There was every cause for revelry in this exuberant three-hour concert, framed as a career retrospective (and also held on Friday). But Mr. Palmieri seemed determined not to stand on ceremony, giving each of his reminiscences an air of critical instruction. (He also chose not to resuscitate any material from his landmark debut album, “La Perfecta,” released not long before he really did turn 26.)
Holding forth between songs Mr. Palmieri touched on the fallacy of “salsa,” as a genre construct; he recalled the early musical education bestowed by the percussionist Manny Oquendo. Summarizing his intellectual debt to the music theorist Joseph Schillinger, he mentioned the “tension and resistance” built into his compositions, creating “that energy — what we call ‘masacote’ — that can drive you out of your seat.” He chuckled knowingly. “I warned you.”
That the audience remained seated for most of the concert can be chalked up to a design flaw — concert seating, dutiful ushers — rather than any deficiency in the music. Leading both his Afro-Caribbean Jazz Octet and his namesake orchestra, Mr. Palmieri sustained a headlong momentum almost from start to finish, heaving coal into the furnace from his conductor’s perch at the piano.
The concert’s first half featured the octet, with an exacting front line of Brian Lynch on trumpet, Conrad Herwig on trombone and Louis Fouche on alto saxophone. They blended in airtight formation, each delivering at least one knockout solo: Mr. Herwig’s, on “La Libertad,” began with pinpoint precision and ended in a blurry mosquito buzz; Mr. Lynch’s, on “Crew,” was zippy and controlled throughout.
But the rhythm section rules any band under Mr. Palmieri’s sway, and so it was here: his montunos and chordal syncopations meshed with the tumbao patterns of the excellent bassist Luques Curtis, and with the gracefully syncopated scaffolding of Jose Claussell’s timbales, Vicente Rivero’s congas and Orlando Vega’s bongos and cowbell. There was not an ounce of fat in the band: every cog clanked and whirred indispensably.
That much was even truer in the concert’s second half, which fleshed out the octet with Herman Olivera on lead vocals, Nelson Gonzalez on Cuban tres (and vocals), Joseph Gonzalez on maracas (and vocals), Jonathan Powell on trumpet and Jimmy Bosch on trombone. The five pieces played by this orchestra, including a too-brief encore, reflected Mr. Palmieri’s imperial authority in the realm of rumba — and the fact that he always stamped this dance-floor music with the full measure of his ambition. “Adoracion” was a case in point. As Mr. Olivera suavely handled its melody, the horns played sly modal asides, later bursting into riotous, gleeful polyphony.
Mr. Palmieri’s tough, percussive pianism was essential at every turn, his solos serving a larger purpose. On “Palo Pa’ Rumba” he created a cycle of pauses and outbursts, the balance between them gradually favoring the former, so that the heart of the solo seemed to rest in silence. (Against such purposeful clamor this was a considerable feat.)
And after an expansive, superheated “Azúcar Pa’ Ti” a stagehand carried out a slab of cake from the wings. Mr. Palmieri seemed to eye it distractedly as his band bleated a “Happy Birthday” in son clave. He was surely aware of the house curfew, and there was an encore yet to be played.