Interview: Eddie Palmieri

“Schillinger was a Russian scientist – he wrote 12 books in two big volumes that start with the theory of rhythm and pitch scales. It takes you to a whole other world because music makes you feel that it’s alive, because it has movement. Even Aristotle said that.”

Eddie Palmieri is speaking down the phone from his home in New York, musing on the Schillinger System, a compositional method based in mathematics that he has used to innovate within Latin music for over five decades.

“It had to do with tension and resistance – that’s the way you would reach the highest degree of arrhythmical and harmonic climax,” asserts Palmieri, “and that’s the essence of an afro-Cuban orchestra, to excite the dancers, like we used to in The Palladium Ballroom.”

Palmieri rose to prominence in the Latin dance band scene of the early 1960’s at venues such as The Palladium, where bandleaders such as Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez had been popularising the genre since the late ‘40’s.

When the ambitious young pianist and his group, La Perfecta, came along it was with a take-no-prisoners attitude. “That orchestra put a hurt on all the orchestras that were existing at that time, we were just very fresh and very exciting to see, to watch and to dance to,” states Palmieri.

Although he would later go on to record a collaborative album with Puente, Obra Maestra, in 2000, the competition for bookings and therefore audiences was extremely high in those early days. “They had no choice – you can’t stop a roaring locomotive!” he exclaims, “what you gotta do is just get out of the way.”

Palmieri began releasing a series of ground-breaking albums from 1962 onwards that each seemed to expand the vocabulary of Latin music, incorporating unexpected instrumentation as well as Cuban and African rhythms. By 1971 he was up to his 15th LP, and third for that year alone, when he released the groundbreaking Harlem River Drive. Utilising members of Aretha Franklin’s touring band and for the first time featuring English language vocals, the record fused Latin music with soul and funk in attempt at crossing over to an R&B audience.

“That album was chosen as one of the top 50 recordings in New York City and it came in at number eight. That recording is the past, present and future,” says Palmieri with pride.

However, the political nature of the lyrics brought its own problems, raising the ire of the authorities. “The next thing we know the CIA and the FBI came to my record company and boy did that cause a lot of trouble,” he laments.

Such trouble continued, culminating in his label Coco releasing an incomplete work as Unfinished Masterpiece in 1975. Although the record went on to win a Grammy and has been hailed since as a classic work, for Palmieri it remains a painful subject.

“It’s a scar. It’s a vital scar in my life,” regrets Palmieri, “my wife sent them the album with a bow on it that said ‘shove it’. I closed myself in my home in Long Island for three years. When I came out we made a half a million dollar deal with CBS and I did Lucumí, Macumba, Voodoo. It didn’t sell the way we thought it would so I locked myself up for another year and a half and finally the company that did that to me went bankrupt. And I’m still here.”

The 1990’s saw the release of three albums that explored the Latin Jazz genre, which is what Melbourne audiences can expect to hear when the musical stalwart visits next week with his septet.

“What I do with the Latin Jazz is use the harmonic structures for the compositions of jazz, but the rhythm is always danceable,” explains Palmieri, “my enjoyment in life is to see them dancing like we used to do in the Palladium. It was between the dancers and the band, who was gonna win!”

For this purpose Hamer Hall will be rearranged especially to accommodate a dance floor during the performance. As he has three different bands, the septet will play music strictly from those Latin Jazz albums. “One orchestra has nothing to do with the other, you see? There’s the septet, octet and then there’s a thirteen-piece orchestra with a Latin singer. That’s the most exciting actually, that’s concentrated power!”

At 79 years old Palmieri still maintains an extremely busy schedule touring the world, teaching university classes twice a month, and working on new music.

“I’ve been writing more than ever, I work at it mentally constantly and after that I’ll go right back to the piano. I do it the old fashioned way with the pencil and a score,” he says, “I’m writing some exciting music, extending some symphonic work of my music to present it with an orchestra, which is about two years away. That will be to take it to Carnegie Hall and some classical places, and eventually recorded, of course.”

More immediately there is some already recorded material, which includes collaborations with Carlos Santana, which we should expect to hear quite soon. “There’s an album that was recorded for my wife, before she passed away, called My Major LightLa Luce Mayor, and that’s gonna be released hopefully by Sony. We’ll find out within the next ten days if we have a deal with or not,” confides the living legend.

Eddie Palmieri Latin Jazz Septet play Hamer Hall on Friday June 10 as part of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival

Written for Beat Magazine #1527

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