Eddie Palmieri Sets SoHo on Fire
In this era’s maze of weird tempos and microtones, sometimes some of us forget that jazz was the world’s default pop and dance music not for years but for decades. The crowd that packed SOB’s Friday night to see Eddie Palmieri hadn’t forgotten, though. It was as if it was 1965 all over again, in the best possible way. El gente were an eclectic mix of dancers, but just as many of them had come out for a concert experience, to listen and be blown away by the intensity of the music. Even the pianist at least partially responsible for the invention of salsa jazz was impressed by his 14-piece orchestra’s raw, feral power. There was a point where after Palmieri had wrung all the apprehension he could find out of a gleefully cautionary, Monkish riff, trombonist Chris Washburne grabbed a mean handful of low chromatics, ran with them and headed straight to the rafters, the band close behind. Would they ever back away and let it breathe for a minute? No way, Jose! The band’s stampeding ferocity could not be stopped, and at age 75, Palmieri is every bit as vital as he’s ever been, maybe better than ever.
He looked out at the crowd, remarked that the ambience was the same as it had been way back in day at the Palladium, then dedicated an expansively crescendoing version of Azucar Para Ti to Barry Rogers, the trombonist on that landmark album. The band had begun on an improvisationally-charged note – probably a good idea to tweak individual sound levels right off the bat considering how loud it was in the club, with the occasional howl of feedback bleeding from the PA early on – and as the heat rose, eventually took a turn into more hypnotic, two-chord-vamp Afro-Cuban grooves for the sake of the dancers. Crooner Herman Olivera held suave and resolute while the percussionists went deeper into a thicket of tropical polyrhythms punctuated by the incisions and roars of the horns, ablaze with minor-key fury. Palmieri is a generous leader, to a fault, playing to the strengths of the band and doling out solos throughout the orchestra. One particular star was the absolutely brilliant tres player Nelson Gonzalez, who was running his guitar through a watery, flanged effect that gave him almost as much volume as the trombones, making his way matter-of-factly through several slinky, unstoppably crescendoing solos, moving from fluid, sinuous melody lines to frenetic chord-chopping way up the fretboard. It looked as if he was about to break a string at any second, but he never did.
When Palmieri did take a solo, he was probably the most adventurous of everyone, slowly uncoiling from swinging broken chords, to insistent pedal motifs, to outright menace as he fired off several series of resonant atonal clusters anchored by his powerful low lefthand attack. Avant garde as it may have been, it made sense: this is a guy who’s been pushing the envelope all his life. And that was just the first set. Palmieri – who’s just been made a NEA Jazz Master – is off on world tour, with a return engagement at the New York Salsa Congress on September 2 at the Hilton at 6th Ave. and 53rd St. You have to wonder if the rest of the world is anywhere near ready for the kind of energy that the crowd here seemed to take for granted.
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