To observe the 75th birthday of maestro Eddie Palmieri, “El Rey de las Blancas y las Negras,” I’m posting a pair of interviews conducted, respectively, in 2003 and 2005. The first is the raw transcript of a conversation with Mr. Palmieri and Arturo O’Farrill for Downbeat in 2003 — trumpet master Brian Lynch dropped by and joins the conversation towards the end. The second was conducted for the press materials for Palmieri’s 2005 album, Listen Here, on which he convened guest improvisers Michael Brecker, Christian McBride, Regina Carter, David Sanchez, John Scofield, and Nicholas Payton, as well as Lynch and Donald Harrison and Conrad Herwig from his Afro-Caribbean Octet, one of the truly underrated bands of the ’90s.
Eddie Palmieri-Arturo O’Farrill (Birdland, 9-22-03):
TP: I wanted to start with a comment for Eddie. I’ve been thinking a lot about you in the last couple of years and listening to a lot of your music. And it occurs to me that you’re from the same generation as Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner. You’re a little older, actually, than all of them, but only by a few years. And all of them within the last decade or so have been revisiting roots, their roots in the music and the things that initially inspired them, with fresh ears. It seems you’re doing the same thing these days, particularly with La Perfecta and with El Rumbero del Piano. It seems this last decade has been a period of consolidation. It’s not a specific question, but could you take it and offer some reflections on what you’ve been doing in the last decade.
PALMIERI: Well, what happened, after the dance genre really ended, in a sense, of the music called Salsa, then I started to record Latin Jazz. That’s when I was working with Brian Lynch, Conrad Herwig and Donald Harrison. We did three CDs, Palmas, Arete and El Vortex. That was the move. We started to travel to Europe and started doing concerts, playing Latin Jazz. What happened was that the last two CDs, which were recorded for RMM, the label company of Ralph Mercado…and we analyzed that to see if we could get back into our main genre, which was, again, the dance orchestra. Because it’s essentially a dance orchestra. That’s where you have El Rumbero Del Piano. After El Rumbero Del Piano, which closed the 20th century, then to open up the 21st century Tito Puente and I did Masterpiece. But Tito passed away, and we were never able to travel or do concerts, which we naturally had planned. Then I decided to go back… The idea came from a conversation with Conrad Herwig. He was doing some transcription work on Frank Rosolino, the trombonist, who was his idol, and he said that we should do this for Barry Rogers, who was the co-partner with Jose Rodriguez on the trombone. That’s where it started. Then we started to do the work for La Perfecta. We did the first album, La Perfecta, II. We were quite fortunate to have the flute player Eddy Zervignon, and we took that conjunto to Europe, and it was well received. Then on the second CD for Concord, Ritmo Caliente, we brought back some of those compositions as well and recorded them again.
TP: You wrote new music as well. Was it inspired by the same idea, the same notion? Did you use the older compositions as a springboard for the new work as well?
PALMIERI: Well, the old work, as far as the compositions that had been recorded, they knew what we were going to do there. The new work that was created was from a ballad that we had written, then a gigue of Bach that I always had in mind, and I knew we could work it out — by adding the batas, it became quite exciting. That’s how we were able to get some new compositions and mix it with La Perfecta on Ritmo Caliente.
TP: You just brought up a point that I think is very pertinent for both you and Arturo as bandleaders dealing in this idiom. This is dance-driven music. But there aren’t so many venues, I wouldn’t think, for you to play for dancers any more. I don’t know how many jobs either of you do in a year for dancers, but I wouldn’t think it’s too high a percentage. Can you address the impact of the function, of the situation on the music that you play and the music you conceive?
O’FARRILL: It’s funny, because there aren’t really that many great dance halls left. That’s one of the problems. In the heyday, during the ’50s and the ’60s, there were a lot of dance halls. Also, I think this is true. People don’t know how to dance any more! [LAUGHS] They don’t know how to dance.
O’FARRILL: They’re not taught to dance. The few dances that I’ve played, I look out on the floor, and there’s no style, no elegance. So I think there’s an absence of really fine dancing, and that has a lot to do with it. It has a lot to do with the fact that there’s also no dance clubs. We played the Copacabana this year with the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, and it was very disappointing, because we didn’t get out as many people as we would have liked, and the dancing was… I mean, it was very lovely, but I think that it’s a lost art. I think we need to have dancing schools, so people can learn how to dance again!
TP: When La Perfecta was formed, I’d imagine most of the songs were written and conceived for dancers — and for the greatest dancers around!
O’FARRILL: You can’t listen to those records without moving.
PALMIERI: Well, it certainly happened that it was the time and it was the location of the Palladium, and there were the greatest dancers. To be able to play the Palladium, you had to have an orchestra that was… It was like a challenge between the dancer and the orchestra, who could outlast who, in a sense. And to be able to get into the Palladium… Then once you got in, then the word of mouth… We were a dance orchestra, and how we presented that with the two trombones and flute was quite interesting and very exciting to dance to.
TP: It’s the same process as the old big bands, the jazz dance bands, who played with chorus line dancers or played at the Savoy or the Apollo. A lot of the music, which is an untold story, was done in response to the dancers. What were the first principles for your compositions? Rhythmic? Harmonic? A combination of both?
PALMIERI: At the time, it was following the Cuban structures that I heard in the different orchestras that were coming out of Cuba in the ’50s and ’60s. It never ceased to amaze me how it would excite me to listen to them. At that time, you could record only within 2 minutes and 45 seconds. How they were able to get you! I dedicated all of my time and my career to listening to the structures that were coming out of there. Once I learned them intuitively, then I learned them scientifically — why they excite. There were reasons. There’s a tension and resistance within the forms, and the rhythm section and how it has its own form so it can reach that climax. That’s what made it interesting for me.
O’FARRILL: That’s an interesting word — “tension.” When I listen to your music, man, to me it’s always eminently listenable and eminently danceable.
TP: And intellectually challenging.
O’FARRILL: Intellectually challenging, and always with a heavy attention to exactly what you’re talking about — the tension. The dancing. The groove. There’s very few people in the world who have ever achieved what Eddie has done, to make music really intelligently and eminently groove. I mean, the groove is the factor, too.
PALMIERI: Thank you.
TP: Do you think that having intensively played timbales in your early teens… You’ve said that you copied all of Tito Puente’s solos.
PALMIERI: Oh, yeah. As a youngster, me and all my friends, we all wanted to be another Tito Puente, and by 13 years old I was playing the timbales with my uncle, who had a typical folkloric orchestra — a conjunto. For two years. Then after that, I gave him back the timbales, or sold it to him, whatever, for the next drummer who was coming in. But that certainly helped me to be able to comprehend what I was listening to later. In 1955, I went with Johnny Segui. In 1956 is when I came into the orchestra with the conjunto of Vicentico Valdes, who was also Cuban. The conjunto that he was presenting was extremely exciting, and the rhythm section was what was happening. So I was able to capture that also. After that, I worked with Tito Rodriguez for a couple of years. By late 1961, then I formed La Perfecta.
TP: So you had a long apprenticeship. Your concepts didn’t just come out of nowhere. You had a lot of time to think about it, and you’ve been playing since you were young.
PALMIERI: Oh yeah. And certainly, the different orchestras that I was able to work with and comprehend…
O’FARRILL: I think it’s very important for all musicians to play some kind of percussion instrument, especially Latin musicians — especially Latin Jazz musicians. You should be able to play timbal, on the conga, or whatever it is. To get that concept, you have to play it. I’m the kind of person who learns by doing. I can’t learn by rote or by hearing it. I have to do. So playing timbales, that has to be a heavy part of your development.
TP: What percussion instruments do you play, Arturo?
O’FARRILL: Conga. That’s it.
TP: And is playing the drums important to your identity as a pianist, to your tonal personality?
O’FARRILL: It’s difficult on my hands. As a pianist, you don’t have to have calluses on the bottom of your fingers.
TP: You’d better pick up some sticks.
O’FARRILL: Well, I wish I had thought of that! [LAUGHTER] No, you want the calluses on the tips of your fingers. But at least for the fingers to have a thorough understanding of the different patterns that come into play in a rhythm section. A lot of people take Latin Jazz and do a generic thing. But to really know what each instrument plays, that’s where you begin to have an understanding. And as a player, you begin to pick up on things. You can land in places rhythmically, because you’re aware of what the timbal is doing or the bongo. It’s very important stuff.
TP: Your approaches to the piano are so different, and yet come from such a similar root. Arturo is a very florid player. You play a lot of notes, there’s a lot of facility and elan…
O’FARRILL: I have to say that’s true. But when I’m playing… We did this record called… It was a Machito tribute, “Live at Hostos.” And one of the highlights of my life was that I sounded like Eddie Palmieri! [LAUGHS] On a Papo Vasquez composition. For a minute there, I had his groove. It felt so good! Florid, whatever. But to have that kind of command of the groove, that to me is very important.
TP: Where I wanted to take this is: Arturo, even though your father is one of the seminal composers and arrangers in the idiom, you yourself came out of a jazz head and then moved back into the structures of diasporic music and Afro-Cuban music.
TP: And Eddie began as a rumbero type of personality, and then moved to jazz later. You’re quoted as saying that you hated jazz at first.
PALMIERI: Yes, I never comprehended it. Not that I never comprehended it, but I really concentrated on the structures for dancing. That’s where I really stood, as a dance orchestra leader. What was I going to do with an exciting orchestra to make the people dance? But sure enough, then we certainly had to go into the world of jazz harmonics and go into the Latin jazz, as we did on those four CDs.
O’FARRILL: See, I came from a different background. It was probably because I did the typical rebellious son thing. My father was a very great Latin composer-arranger, so I rejected that. You know how kids are. You reject what your father does. So my first influences were Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, and that’s all I played. It wasn’t until many years later that I started listening to Latin music and playing it.
TP: What were the challenges you faced in adapting your style to the rhythms and structures of Latin music, coming from the orientation you had. What are the challenges for a jazz-oriented person in adapting themselves to Afro-Cuban music? Conversely, what are the challenges for someone who is immersed in Afro-Cuban structures to adapt themselves to jazz sensibility and expression?
O’FARRILL: It’s very different. There’s a tradition in Latin piano, and you have to respect it. You have to really understand and know the great pianists, to be able to play in that style without losing your identity. First of all, it’s a different technique. Your hands have to move differently. It’s not florid. It’s not Bud Powell. It’s a different concept. And I think that if you play enough right-handed, heavy, florid, 16th note type stuff, you lose that percussive sense. Also, it’s a very Cuban kind of piano style that you have to adopt.
TP: Elaborate on that.
O’FARRILL: Well, Rene Hernandez. Peruchin. That’s the kind of school you’re coming from, with the octaves, thirds… You’re playing stuff that you can’t really do with 16th notes. You have to really play that stuff with a heavy touch. And if you grow up playing Bud Powell, that’s not the school. Bud Powell is the school of 16th notes in the right hand and spare comping in the left hand. So I had to basically retrain myself to really be able to play that. And I had to grow up. I had to get past my teenager crap, and come to love this music. Because it’s who I am.
PALMIERI: And for me, like Arturo said, it was the octave playing, which came from the players… Rene Hernandez was one of the greatest arrangers that we had here, naturally, and his father, Chico. And when we’re playing in the Latin area, the minimal harmonic changes is…we land up, more or less, on tonic and dominant, I-II-V-IV chord changes. When you get into the jazz, that really was a whole other world for me, and I had never experienced that. Because I listened to the jazz artists earlier, but never gave it the time and the effort that I gave the dance orchestras. So then, it was quite difficult for me. And still, to work out that different… How to change the style of fingering also, to play certain things. Because when you’re playing in octaves… And that was a time when there was no mikes, so you had to play really…
TP: You had to play loud.
PALMIERI: That’s really the worst position, because the extensions are locked in. So sure enough, I had to get back to some basic fundamental exercises, thirds and minor thirds and sixes, and double note techniques, so that I could be able to play in a different style. It’s still difficult for me to go from one to the other.
TP: Arturo, is going from one to the other complex for you as well? Because both you record and perform in both areas of the music.
O’FARRILL: Ideally, you want to blur that line. You don’t want to have that big a changeover. What I try to work towards is having the two styles be transparent, so that you can play. As Eddie was talking, I was thinking that there’s a thing in Latin music that we call “timba.” It’s a lot easier to fudge and fake jazz type stuff than it is to fake “timba.” Because when you’re playing in Latin music and you’re not really grooving, people pick up on that — especially dancers! So you can do all this fast stuff, and that’s like nonsense to me. But when you’re playing a really heavy groove, you’re playing “timba,” that’s a lot harder to fake. I don’t think you can make it. I think it really has to come from your soul. So the thing that I work with is to blur the line between Jazz and Latin, and kind of come out of this fast kind of stuff right into “timba,” right into a heavy, groove-oriented, clave-aware style.
TP: Eddie, you’re not just a pianist, but I would think there must be an orchestra in your mind all the time when you’re playing. Is that how it is for you when you’re soloing?
PALMIERI: What happens, again, it’s how I’m able to go and extend, if it’s a variation, within the chordal structures that… They’re not variant. For us to lock up…Arturo said the word “timba.” For me, it’s always, again, holding onto a dominant, and how am I going to be able to extend on that, what was I going to do on that. That’s where it started to extend, harmonically or whatever, I was able to perform in the sense of what I was playing. Whole tones came in, and different kinds of tension chords within the structures that I play. I still keep working on it and keep developing it.
O’FARRILL: Eddie plays with a lot of texture. Eddie plays with what I call sound waves. He plays with the texture of the piano. It is orchestral.
TP: I would imagine that 98% of what you’ve recorded has been your own original music or your own arrangements on music in parallel to what you do. Which is one reason why, when you played on Conrad Herwig’s “The Latin Side Of John Coltrane,” it was very interesting to hear you improvise on “Africa” or “Impressions.”
PALMIERI: [LAUGHS] Right!
TP: So I was wondering if for you playing the piano equals composing? What’s the relation between improvising and composing for you?
PALMIERI: To compose for me is what I’m going to be able to…what theme I’m going to work on, what am I looking for. For me, the majority of the work in Latin was also with the vocalists. So what theme was going to be on it, what’s the story going to be about. And naturally, I was more interested always to write constantly more original music, and keep it that way. That’s why I never ventured into recording with many other artists, except what I recorded on my own. And then, in improvising, it’s based on those structures that I create within that composition, and what I do with that, and how I move it around is quite enjoyable to me! [LAUGHS] I’m very fortunate that it’s been accepted. So between the two of them, it’s a great combination, like the composing and the improvisation.
TP: Were you composing before you left Tito Rodriguez?
PALMIERI: No, I started really when I formed La Perfecta.
TP: How many compositions have you published over forty years?
PALMIERI: I’d say we’re close to maybe 200.
TP: And how much of that is in the book of your band at any given moment?
PALMIERI: Well, there’s different books. I have the enlarged orchestra, you know, with three horns, with five horns, and that’s one book. Then we have the Latin Jazz. Then I have the Perfecta work, which is not in its entirety. But the majority of that work, what I’ve written, is unplayed.
TP: So now you’re revisiting a lot of things, and setting a precedent for going back.
PALMIERI: I’m bringing some of them back.
TP: Arturo, you lead the Chico O’Farrill Big Band, which has access to the entire body of work of your father, who was composing as far back as the early ’40s in Havana. In Ira Gitler’s “Swing To Bop” he said that after he heard “Salt Peanuts” in 1946, he started writing charts for a band he had in a Havana club, and had it for six months. So from 1946, he was aware of modern jazz. And he’d arrange for his band and was also an arranger for hire. So you have a huge repertoire at your disposal. When he formed the big band again in the mid-’90s, how did he choose older repertoire to play? How did he make his choices?
O’FARRILL: He chose pieces that were suggested to him. There’s an old saying that the great composers always have four or five great themes, and they regurgitate them over the years. Chico has rewritten a lot of music. So something from the ’40s might show up in the ’90s as a different piece. It’s smoking. But it has its roots there. I think it’s a process of working out your ideas that you may not have worked out fully in 1948. Certainly, a lot of the stuff that we play now… Some of my favorite Chico O’Farrill is from the ’50s. Some of that stuff is classic.
TP: The things he did for Norman Granz?
O’FARRILL: “Almendra,” “The Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite.” What always strikes me about his writing is that it’s very simple. It’s not cluttered. It’s linear. So over the past three records that we did, people suggested to him what stuff might be brought out of the closet, and then he would rework it.
TP: Your father did a lot of writing for hire and for studio bands, which is different from Eddie’s experience. You were always in the Ellington position of having to sustain a performing orchestra and create music for it, and to play for dancers. Arturo, from your perspective as a bandleader and someone who analyzes music, can you talk about the dynamics of Chico O’Farrill’s music vis-a-vis Eddie Palmieri’s. Very different perspectives on similar roots.
O’FARRILL: Right off the bat, you have to remember that Eddie is a monster pianist, too. My father didn’t play anything.
TP: He was a trumpet player.
O’FARRILL: Believe me, as soon as he figured out that he had to practice all the time, he gave it up. A lot of the music that Eddie writes is for Eddie, and specifically for the unbelievable performance that he gives. Chico’s music doesn’t do that, because he didn’t create it for himself to perform. Also, he made the decision early on in his life; he was 21 or 22 when he said, “I can’t play music; I just want to write!” For him, it was an easier way to be a musician. It was an easier way for him to work out his musical battles.
TP: Arturo, you’re obviously influenced in many ways by the example your father set for you, from your teenage rebellion against Latin music to your embrace of it. I’m sure Eddie was influenced by your uncles who played, but I’m sure the deepest influence for you would have been your older brother Charlie, because you had to follow in his footsteps in bands!
PALMIERI: Right, Charlie. And he was the one that would recommend me to the different orchestras. My brother was nine years older. We had no other brother, no other sister. It was just Charlie and I. So he was certainly my great inspiration as far as his form of attack on the piano. He really went at it! That certainly came into me. I could never really thank him enough for showing me that road. My brother was quite an exceptional player. He knew Arturo’s father, Chico O’Farrell, more than I. I believe I met your dad when he was already elderly; I didn’t know him before. But Charlie had. So that was an tremendous asset to me in my playing.
TP: Arturo, within the last year, you’ve taken on the position as Director of the Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra at Lincoln Center, which is an institutional position, and one that involves a lot of responsibility, because you have to accumulate a lot of repertoire that’s representative of this tradition. How does Eddie’s music, which is so personal… I mean, it’s hard to think of anybody else playing Eddie’s music, because your sound and your vibration is so fundamental to it. Is there anything you can say about that?
O’FARRILL: There’s a whole controversy about repertory orchestras. People always ask me why they exist, and it’s a very good question. Because the people who created this music left an indelible stamp on it. I just believe that musicians are organic. They bring to the music a whole nother vibe. There’s never going to be an Eddie Palmieri. This is the cat! But to have Eddie’s music continue, whether Eddie’s playing or just sitting in the audience, is very important. Machito is gone, Mario Bauza is gone; does that mean their music shouldn’t be performed? Hell, no.
TP: Which of Eddie’s compositions would be your choices?
O’FARRILL: It’s a daunting task. And I’ve got to talk to Eddie, because we’ve got to get some of your music in the book! Eddie played on the Benefit Gala at Lincoln Center.
PALMIERI: Yes, I remember. We had the two orchestras, I think.
O’FARRILL: The two orchestras side-by-side. How do you choose? That’s like asking me…it’s like the kid in the candy shop. There’s just an amazing amount of music that I would play as a regular part of the canon. Now, it’s a funny thing, because it’s a very important position…but it’s not. What it is, is just bringing this music forward, bringing it out. That’s more important than the position or the institution. And Eddie has been all over the world, playing this music in Finland or in Japan or in Des Moines. That’s what it’s about.
PALMIERI: One of the greatest dancers we’ve seen, we saw in Pori.
O’FARRILL: We played in Pori. They LOVE his music in Finland.
TP: One thing about leading a band for forty years is that people come through it and go on to make original contributions of their own. So in the early ’70s, you have Los Diabilitos, the Gonzalez brothers and Nicky Marrero and people like this, who all went on and added to the vocabulary, Conrad Herwig and Brian Lynch, Richie Flores and Giovanni Hidalgo. I’m wondering if you can discuss how the vocabulary of Afro-Cuban music has evolved during your career.
PALMIERI: For me, it’s on the rhythm section side. But certainly the music that harmonically has been composed going into the Latin Jazz world has extended. I find it very interesting what’s happening… Again, what we do with it. How we’re going to present it, where we’re going to present, and how important it is to be presented properly. It’s a constant challenge.
TP: How has musicianship changed over the years?
PALMIERI: They certainly have extended in their preparation, compared to the younger players when… When I started, for example, the elders were very well prepared. And what I find now, coming out of Puerto Rico, for example, are incredible trumpet players and saxophone players. Percussion has reached an incredibly high degree. I have to say that. Before we would have just a conga player and the bongo who were there to accompany. But now we have incredible soloists. You talk about a Giovanni Hidalgo or a Richie Flores, who each came through my orchestra. I call it my Hispanic Jazz Messengers, with all the different artists who came through my different orchestras.
TP: Arturo, one of the defining events in jazz over the last 15 years has been the influx of musicians from all over the world who are familiar with jazz and bring their own culture to the music. How do you see this movement affecting the vocabulary of jazz as a whole? It seems there used to be more separation between jazz and Latin music. Now things seem to be converging more. Does that sound right to you?
O’FARRILL: I think so. I think you have to be very well equipped to compete in the traditional Latin Jazz world now. You really do have a wide variety of styles. You’re talking about Danilo Perez and Gonzalo Rubalcaba, and then there’s people also like Papo Vazquez, and Bomba and Plena. That’s why the world of Latin Jazz is no longer, and actually hasn’t been for many years, just Afro-Cuban. That’s very important to me, because Cuba was very central to the formation of these styles, but now the thing has really gotten quite large. I mean, you’ve got Chano Dominguez in Spain, and you’ve got… So the world is really opening up for Latin Jazz. And it’s still Latin. It still comes from our corner of the world. But it’s very much more open, very flexible.
The thing I’m proud of is that our musicians tend to really love jazz. I mean, the ones that come out of our tradition are really very well trained in jazz. I haven’t quite found that parity in jazz musicians. Jazz musicians aren’t as well trained in Latin music. They don’t really research it as much as Latin musicians tend to learn about jazz. I think it’s a very exciting time for Latin music and jazz to interact.
TP: It just seems to me that things that used to be considered (and I’ll use the word in quotes) “exotic” in jazz 15 years ago — maybe Dizzy Gillespie was applying them — are now part of the mainstream. Every musician is supposed to know it, basically — at least in New York.
O’FARRILL: Well, it’s funny, because I run into… Twenty years ago, ten years ago even, drummers…you’d talk about cascara, and they’d look at you like you’re from Mars. Now every drummer coming out of every conservatory that has a conservatory is learning about cascara and about clave and all these things that were considered exotic 10-15 years ago.
TP: Eddie, how do you observe this with the musicians who come into your bands? You do have steady personnel. How do you see the musicianship?
PALMIERI: It’s tremendously rounded now. As Arturo says, we have players coming from all over, and making it quite… For example, from the Afro-Cuban it went to Afro-Caribbean, with the Puerto Rican (?) in the ’60s. Now it’s Afro-World. And now it’s all over. The talent just keeps pouring in. On my end, I’ve been carrying lately a band of certain personnel. So it’s not as varied as it was before. I used to have different musicians coming in and out of the different orchestras. But now I’m hanging on to certain personnel. We have Brian Lynch, who comes in and out and performs with us. But I see it as quite exciting, very educational with the intermixture that’s happening now. They’re all different players, and they’re interested in the Latin music, and where we’re going to be able to present it and where we’re going to be able to take it.
TP: In bringing a new piece of music to the band, how do you go about it? Do you sit down with the drummers and go over their specific parts with them, and ditto with the brass, or is it something they’re expected to know and it evolves over time?
PALMIERI: Well, with my rhythm section, when we’re doing a recording, they know what they have to do as far as the structure of what we’re playing, and the horn players have their music, and then we gel it together whenever we’re able to have a rehearsal for recordings. I don’t have that many rehearsals constantly. But when I have new material that’s going to be recorded, certainly I need it. The problem I’ve had, in a sense, is that in the last certain amount of years I’ve had different types of recordings, and that certainly has hampered the situation of the personnel.
TP: Well, these days it seems like you’re accessing your whole corpus of work. You can go to La Perfecta, you can go to the more open ended things of the ’70s, and the vocabulary you built up in the band with Brian and Donald and Conrad. All those things are there for you, and now you’re consolidating all of them in some sense.
PALMIERI: Right. But lately, in the last few years it’s been just the typical La Perfecta orchestra. When we have certain engagements, the Latin Jazz, we bring out certain other compositions.
TP: Arturo, you’ve been in the enviable position of having the same big band for many years with very constant personnel. Talk about how playing every week builds the growth and identity and sound of a band.
O’FARRILL: There’s no substitute for having a regular gig. Also, I’m very blessed in that the musicians I have are bona fide Latin players. They understand how to phrase. It’s very subtle, it’s very different. You can’t walk in off the street and be a straight-ahead jazz player and play this music. You have to be aware of clave, you have to phrase, you have to be aware… Victor Paz once said to me, “You do not wear a tuxedo to the beach.”
PALMIERI: That was his form of identification.
O’FARRILL: That’s a very Victor Paz thing. But what he meant was that you get players who understand Latin music and you put them together, and it’s an invaluable thing. I am very lucky, very blessed. I have wonderful musicians who have been doing this for a long time.
TP: Have either of you been able to do any amount of playing in Africa at all? Eddie, have you brought your band to any of the African nations?
PALMIERI: No. I haven’t been to Africa. As far as I’ve gotten, we went to Algiers. Another problem is that to get into an African country, you need shots, and I always wanted to stay away from the shots — at that time.
O’FARRILL: We went to South Africa. I’ve been there several times. The last time we went… They have a Northsea Jazz Festival in Capetown…
TP: My God, that’s the real extension of imperialism.
O’FARRILL: You better believe it! Talk about colonial imperialism! I was amazed. I was there with Papo Vazquez, and they loved it.
TP: Eddie, was listening to African music ever part of your early experience, or was it all Cuban?
PALMIERI: It was Cuban. But I knew that the fundamental, naturally, was African. But it was the music that was coming out of Cuba. That’s where I really centered my education on.
TP: How would you describe the difference between the Afro-Cuban approach to these rhythms and the African approach to these rhythms?
PALMIERI: I think it’s the evolution and crystallization of these rhythmical patterns. They were certainly coming from Africa, but when the “mulattoes,” so to speak, were born in Cuba, it became a mixture of Spaniard and the African, along with the native who was there, and that combination… They took it into another direction, in my opinion, and it was really more eventually from their religious “abacua,” that was strictly African (naturally) and their religious belief to the dance orchestras that then started to come out from Ignacio Pinero earlier, and his Sexteto Habenero from the ’20s and the ’30s, then they started to use those patterns for people to dance. That’s where I come in.
TP: So it’s a stylization of the folkloric, or as you once put it, of the primitive.
TP: Arturo, how influenced was your father by the African aspect of Cuban life? Was he very involved in the rumbas and the folkloric rhythms, or less so?
O’FARRILL: He grew up in a pretty rural part of Cuba. Undoubtedly, he heard a lot of ritualistic music. I think it influenced him greatly. That kind of music gets in your blood. It kind of becomes a part of you. I remember the first time I heard Los Munequitos. Man, I started bawling! I was weeping, man. Because I’d never heard that profound a sentiment, and a sentiment expressed in rhythm, as when I heard those guys. That’s such a central feature of “Latin Jazz” — and I use that word in quotations. It has to be folkloric. It has to have its roots, and it has to respect its African roots. It has to respect it in terms of its instrumentation and in terms of its textures. You can’t just slap a conga on something and call it Latin Jazz. Whether or not my father transcribed the crostic rhythms of the Gon people… He did not do that!
TP: But he got Machito’s players, who could put their own stamp on anything he might give them, if he wanted that feeling.
O’FARRILL: I don’t know how much of that stuff is an oral tradition and how much of it is actually transcribable. Anybody can write these rhythms. It takes somebody who really knows that stuff to play it well.
TP: But Eddie, when you were a kid learning Tito Puente’s solos, or hanging out and soaking up Cuban music with Manny Oquendo in the ’50s, was it an oral tradition? Were you writing it down or learning by doing?
PALMIERI: Well, naturally, by listening. That was the main direction. And then, when I went on to play timbales, I listened to the older records. Because the orchestras that were recording here were really happening! Machito, Tito Rodriguez and Tito Puente, who had conjuntos at that time. Conjunto meant without the saxophone. So certainly, by listening to them, that was my guide. Then eventually, I started to do the same when I got hip to the Cuban recordings. The main time was when I was with the orchestra of Vicentico Valdes.
TP: Is it different for you playing for dancers vis-a-vis a seated audience? As a kid, from the age of 13 or 14, you were playing for people who were dancing.
PALMIERI: Well, it’s certainly a great feeling when you’re performing and you see some great dancers. That’s something that gives you balance. It’s absolutely wonderful. But again, as the genre changed and the art of dancing is lost now, and mostly what we do when we’re presenting the orchestra is have concerts. On the concerts, certainly everyone is thinking about how do you excite them, get them moving in their chairs and making them feel… When you’re playing one of the jazz rooms, it’s another kind of feeling. But again, it’s a musical and rhythmic challenge.
O’FARRILL: You can’t be a musician in New York without playing dances, salsa gigs and whatever. I’ve been playing for dancers since I was a kid. To me, there’s something slightly artificial about playing for a seated audience!
TP: And you play for them a lot.
O’FARRILL: Oh, I do all the time. When you’re playing this kind of music, invariably, somebody will get up and shake a little bit, and I think that’s what you want. Cabaret laws notwithstanding, I encourage people to get up and dance whenever they feel like it. You can’t do that at Alice Tully Hall sometimes. But that’s the real deal. That’s what this music is about, and getting people moving is central.
TP: But the pool of musicians now comes primarily from conservators. They’re very technical. A lot of jazz we hear now has very complex rhythms, but it’s also a very technical thing. So it’s an interesting challenge, I’d think, to keep that feeling in the music given the climate of the times.
O’FARRILL: Yes. There’s the old saying, “You can be very well trained or you can be very well trained.” A lot of musicians are coming out of conservatories who can play, but that’s a small part of what music is. My father always said, “Okay, so you can play an instrument. So what?” That’s a small part of it.
TP: Eddie, are you still doing a lot of composing?
PALMIERI: I haven’t been writing since the last CD. I stopped since “Ritmo Caliente.” But there are a few things now that are starting to work up, and I’m seeing what I can do now to prepare for another CD when the opportunity comes with Concord again.
TP: Has your process in writing been a project-oriented thing, or is it something that’s just part of your everyday life?
PALMIERI: Well, sometimes I’ve had a project presented to me. I did the Ballet Hispanico work, and that music was never recorded. I have it at home. But usually, it’s when I get inspired by some theme that I want to present or make a statement on, and once I get that, then I start working from the bass line up, and start layering, putting the structures on to write the arrangement.
TP: Do you make use of the new technology?
PALMIERI: No. I haven’t been able to comprehend that. I leave it alone!
O’FARRILL: I can’t make heads or tails. I’ve had Finale for many years. I still prefer pen and pencil and paper. I can’t cope with it at all.
TP: And how much composing and arranging do you do?
O’FARRILL: I do quite a bit. And still, I can’t use sequencers or samplers or notation software.
TP: Is it project-oriented for you?
O’FARRILL: It’s always project-oriented. For me, deadlines are crucial. I have to have something presented, where I have to come up with a project or a writing assignment, because left up to my own devices I’ll just procrastinate forever. So it always has to do with a project or a deadline that is looming. My father was very much the same way. Now, Chico had the unusual ability to churn out an arrangement in an hour-and-a-half, three hours — he would do it in pen!
O’FARRILL: He would do it transcribed. The instruments would be in their proper… So he was kind of a freak that way. It’s very different for me. But he also had to have a deadline, and he had to have a specific goal and a real articulated project for him to be able to do that.
TP: For many years, you’d go to hear an Eddie Palmieri performance, and he’d be playing a keyboard.
PALMIERI: The reason is that when I play you can’t amplify the acoustic… The feedback is on it. For me, it’s the feel of the instrument. That’s why the keyboard was put on top. I’ll play solo piano first, and then come in with the keyboard. I get complications with it, too, because of the volume and complaints, but it’s the only way I feel I can cut through. It’s very seldom you can find a great engineer… We just did the Monterrey Jazz Festival, and they had two Marcus Berrys, I think, so I got the microphones they had, and the acoustic was quite wonderfully amplified.
O’FARRILL: That’s rare.
PALMIERI: But still, when I play with the orchestra, if I can’t be stimulated, then I have a problem to stimulate the band, in my opinion.
TP: So it’s to hear yourself. To hear yourself think.
O’FARRILL: The clarity.
PALMIERI: Yes, and to hear myself play, so I can cut through with the band. The rhythm section is quite heavy also. And we use three horns or five horns. So I use the keyboard on top.
TP: Arturo, you’re basically leading two bands. There’s the Chico O’Farrill Orchestra. Is the repertoire expanding for it?
O’FARRILL: The repertoire is expanding.
TP: And where are you getting repertoire?
O’FARRILL: Original music from the members and from myself, and we’re digging out stuff from Chico’s archive.
TP: With Lincoln Center, I guess you’re cherrypicking from everywhere.
TP: How are you conceiving that? Where are you getting material from? How big is the book now?
O’FARRILL: Some of the stuff we’ve had to transcribe, because it’s impossible to get the actual scores from the sources. For example, the Machito stuff I can find. It’s irreplaceable. The scores are gone. So we pay a transcriber to do that stuff. And there’s a lot of material that exists.
TP: How has leading these bands influenced your own personal growth as a musician? It’s a huge responsibility, and there’s so much more involved than just playing.
O’FARRILL: It’s funny. I’m not a happy bandleader, because I find it very difficult to deal with all the issues. There’s the issue of playing and there’s the issue of creating music, and then there’s the difficulty of dealing with people’s schedules and people’s idiosyncracies. I don’t have patience for that, to be honest with you. But certainly it’s expanded me as a musician. Being responsible for an evening’s performance and a set group of people has heightened my musicianship, my sense of… When you’re rehearsing a band, you want to make sure the trumpets blend, and you want to make sure the dynamics are honored and the people aren’t stepping on one another. That’s pure musicianship. That takes a lot of skill. So all that has honed my musical skills. It’s also created a larger sense of my understanding of this music, which is invaluable. I’ve had to listen to a lot of music.
TP: So it’s made your musicianship richer and imparted more depth.
O’FARRILL: Yes. And not as a pianist. As a musical concept. As a mind. As a pianist, I’ve tried to stay out of the way.
TP: Brian Lynch is here, and I’m sure he has a few comments or questions for Eddie.
BRIAN: How has jazz been something… What has the weave been between… You may not describe yourself as a jazz musician per se, but I think jazz has always been a counterpoint. I always feel one of the unique things about you is the way you’ve epitomized jazz, even though a lot of times you do music that may not be termed as much. But you seem to exemplify the jazz attitude in a lot of ways that I see it. The spirit of improvisation, the spirit of doing things differently each time instead of staying in the same place, the rawness of a lot of your music. I think you’ve attracted a lot of unique personalities. The one who comes to mind, of course, is Barry Rogers, who came from being a jazz musician, but I think you and him had the same way of thinking — you came from different sides of the street, so to speak, and you met in the middle. Has jazz always been something that’s been on your mind, no matter what you’ve been playing?
PALMIERI: Well, jazz phrasings for sure, in the work we did with Barry. Then that led to… Well, definitely, when I met you, we went into the Latin Jazz, starting the work of “Palmas.” Once that came in, that was my inroad to the work I did.
BRIAN: You’ve spoken of listening to some of the jazz greats in the early years, both in person and through the medium of records, and I remember you saying that you had to make a conscious decision about which way you wanted to go, whether to follow jazz or to follow however you want to term the music you’re playing.
PALMIERI: Right. What I followed was definitely the dance orchestra. That’s where my heart was. But certainly, I developed an orientation from my early listening to records by Art Tatum, Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock. We heard the Count Basie band… Remember, the original Birdland was right next door to the Palladium, so the exchange was quite exceptional. But it’s certainly helped me in terms of how I structure, how I think of the phrasing and the harmonic changes I want to use — it comes from the jazz idiom.
BRIAN: Arturo, maybe I can ask you something. I feel that so much of the Cuban music I hear you could call jazz. If you apply the same criteria that you’d call Count Basie or Benny Goodman or that style of jazz: This music is played for the dancers, it’s got improvised solos, it’s got swing — all these qualities. Do you feel sometimes people kind of miss the point?
O’FARRILL: I’ve always maintained that the music that came up in Cuba in the ’20s and ’30s paralleled the music that was taking place in the States in New Orleans and Kansas City. It’s another branch of the roots. Just like you have your Kansas City school and St. Louis school and Detroit school, you have a Havana school growing at the same time. I think where people goof is that they don’t accord it the same kind of stature. You’re right. The roots of improvisation are there for both musics. There’s a similar instrumentation style and orchestration style.
BRIAN: I think it has to do with the appropriation of a certain word, and the appropriation is the word “American.” That America means just the residents of the United States of America.
O’FARRILL: That’s very narrow-minded.
BRIAN: Well, if you talk about jazz being a music of the Americas, instead of American music… I think a lot of things get left out. The genesis of jazz, in a lot of senses, is pan-Caribbean.
O’FARRILL: I’m sure if you visited Congo Square in New Orleans at the turn of the century, you’d hear a lot of clave-inspired music. Guess what? New Orleans is the Caribbean!
BRIAN: I was looking through a book of photos by James Van Der Zee and found a picture of Sexteto Habenero in Harlem in the late ’20s. It looked for all the world like a picture of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five. All these things are very much together. So there’s a case for saying that this is all jazz.
TP: One thing I could bring in is that musically, the styles may be different branches of the same tree, but I think the scene, in certain ways, was more stratified when Eddie was coming up. A lot of jazz players played in Latin bands, but I think the musics were seen more as very separate. With the notable exception, of course, of Dizzy Gillespie, who was fifty years ahead of his time.
BRIAN: I think in 1945 or 1950, the typical jazz musician knew much more about playing Latin rhythms that he did in 1970 or 1980.
O’FARRILL: Yes, there was a moment there when it fell out of favor.
BRIAN: Maybe we’re just about back now to a certain… It’s still the same thing. Back to what you were saying, “jazz musicians” don’t do their homework as much about Latin music as the other way around. A lot of times they’re missing something in their comprehension of what the requirements for jazz is. And this maybe gets back to what we were talking about before, about having an incomplete analysis of what jazz is and what it means.
O’FARRILL: Well, that’s the $64,000 question. What is jazz?
BRIAN: What is jazz. Or what is swing? I know in my own experience, playing Latin music helped my straight-ahead swing immeasurably.
O’FARRILL: Oh yeah. I have to agree with you there. Your whole rhythmic concept is broadened in Latin music. Your ability to hear eighth notes and sixteenth note sequences in a flow.
BRIAN: And also the idea of consensus and playing a groove together. I came to town in the early ’80s, and sometimes it seemed that swinging was kind of a lost art back then.
O’FARRILL: Yeah. It might be a lost art today! I would add to what Brian was saying. I think that to look at jazz as separate from Latin is a real fallacy. Human beings love to categorize things. They put things in boxes and make understandable that which is not. The idea that Latin Jazz is so popular is both a blessing and a curse these days, because it further delineates the differences that people have in their mind about the two.
TP: What did your father think about it?
O’FARRILL: I don’t think he gave it much thought. I think he looked at life as a musical challenge. The only thing that bothered him was that Latin musicians tend to get paid less, and the music is less well received and not accorded the same respect. It’s basically an economic issue. To this day, I think, Latin Jazz tends to pay less, just in terms of economics. I think my father didn’t care. He was just a consummate musician. He just wanted to write music. He didn’t care if it was Count Basie or Machito. He just loved what he did. I don’t think he saw one or the other.
BRIAN: Jazz is an attitude and a procedure to what you’re doing. It’s about improvisation. It’s always about wanting to extend something. I think a proper relationship with your material is, as Eddie was talking about, extending folkloric materials of one sort or another.
TP: We were talking about how sophisticated everything has gotten today, and yet the folkloric element is still so fundamental.
BRIAN: Well, you’re seeing a lot of this trickle back into straight-ahead jazz. A lot of the polymetric kind of wizardry that’s going on and a lot of the sophisticated bands is kind of coming in through the back door through Caribbean and Afro-Cuban music. The fact that drummers have a much more pronounced emphasis on the 12/8 in their beat I think has to do with some of that, too.
Eddie Palmieri (for bio for Listen Here) — (Feb. 24, 2005):
TP: What I think we should do is try to give something to the press so they can see what you think about jazz, why you doing a jazz record is different than what you normally do, and what your relationship has been to jazz, as well as the songs on the record. Plus the different instrumentalists. What’s so interesting is that you have some of the most distinctive personalities out there, and they all sound within your music. They follow the logic and they’re immediately part of your world. It’s a sort of magic.
EDDIE: Regina Carter just fell right in. I had met her, but I wasn’t aware that she also had played Latin music, with charanga bands. So the piece I wrote for her, In Flight, she blew it away. Her soloing was incredible.
TP: She played a little pizzicato, almost a tres sound, on “Nica’s Dream.”
EDDIE: I’ve never done compositions of the jazz artists, because I don’t know the jazz repertoire. But I do know the jazz phrasings and jazz harmonies that I utilize for my own compositions. This time, we utilized some of the compositions like “In Walked Bud,” which we did with Brian Lynch, Conrad Herwig and Donald Harrison. It was going to be for Nicholas Payton, but that composition was just finished, and I gave him another composition, called “E.P. Blues,” on which he plays with the three horns, the band. Nicholas also plays on “Nica’s Dream.” Michael Brecker and Christian McBride just blew me away.
TP: Let me ask you systematically, tune by tune. Then I can interpolate questions.
EDDIE: I didn’t use the full rhythm section, which I always do. I missed it in some of the compositions because of the form of the writing, which I turned into more of the Latin flavor.
TP: Explain how the rhythm you used for this, the drums and conga, is different than using timbales, bongo and congas.
EDDIE: It wasn’t a major problem. It’s just that when I use the drums, I call that Jazz Latin. Latin Jazz, if I may, would be when I use my full rhythm which I always had—bongo, conga, and timbal. But in my opinion, when you put a drummer within that whole rhythm section, the drum is very heavy. He just holds the weight, and it’s very difficult in the mixing. But usually, when we do it, I either tone down the drum, bring down the volume, or we just eliminate him in certain sections. But I wasn’t going to do that to El Negro; I wanted him to play. Between him and Giovanni, they have a rapport. They did an excellent job. So I left it like that, without the timbales. But in some of the compositions, I missed having my full rhythm section, the conga, bongo and timbales. Just a few of them. The rest were fine. If you notice, we did a duo, we did trio, we did quartet, which I haven’t done.
TP: Also new, except for the overtures you’ve done. So “In-Flight” was for Regina, and it seemed you were playing with some familiar changes.
EDDIE: Yes. I came up with the melody, and I figured with the violin it was going to sound real interesting, and that she’d blow it away. Not only the melody, but her soloing on “In-Flight” is extraordinary. I’d met her in Europe, but I hadn’t heard her. I certainly didn’t know she had played in Latin bands. That helped a lot when we started to play.
TP: I think you told me that you had to change your fingering system to play jazz, that it requires you to alter your actual approach to the instrument.
EDDIE: Right. The way you always play in Latin is in the octave, the full octave, and that locks the hand. The reason for playing the octaves was that there really was no amplification at that time, and hitting four C’s, for example, and lining them up that way so it had a lot of power. But what happens is you’re not using the fingering the way you would for jazz. So when I went into Latin Jazz, then I had to do some exercises and a different approach of technique to be able to play the Latin Jazz.
TP: Is there a process of unlearning that goes into this? You spent so many years creating this unique sound, always with jazz in mind. But this seems to culminate a decade of moving back to a certain element of your early years.
EDDIE: It was really to let go the form of attack. My soloing, for example. And also, comping behind the jazz players on the Latin Jazz CDs that I did—Palmas, Arete and Vortex. That was a great experience for me at the same time, and I brought it into this CD. So it worked good for me. At the same time that I let go of the other approach in my form of attack, this one helps me in another way. I use more fingering in one of the numbers with John Scofield. I solo…
TP: “In Flight” is your composition, and there are some changes you work, probably subconscious. “Listen Here” is an Eddie Harris tune. You selected it?
EDDIE: My son wanted me to do it. We used Michael Brecker and Christian McBride. Michael hadn’t played in a while, and when he came to play, he REALLY played. I had met Michael Brecker with Randy many years ago, from when Barry Rogers was in the orchestra, and they eventually made Dreams together. But I saw them playing once with Horace Silver. Randy had recorded with me at times, but not Michael Brecker. He came and he played incredible in that company.
TP: Eddie Harris in the ‘60s was one of the most proficient guys at using vamps and boogaloo, which is a sort of pan-Latin-backbeat unity thing. Can you talk about you responded to that in the ‘60s when it was happening? Also, did you know Eddie Harris?
EDDIE: No, I didn’t know Eddie Harris. But the time of the boogaloo, that was also going into the late ‘60s. There were certain vamps, and then they were singing in English, a few of the young bands coming out at that time. But in the Eddie Harris compositions I’ve heard, he always simplifies in the harmonic structures, but they have a natural swing ride to them like Listen Here has. And between Michael Brecker and Christian McBride, they certainly had it riding. Then I was right in there in the middle with them. It turned out great
TP: What’s it like working with a jazz bass player like Christian McBride?
EDDIE: He and I met in Aspen. He’s the musical director of the Festival up there. I saw him doing seminars, and he was excellent. Then we talked about recording. He is tremendous! His father played with Latin bands in Philly, and one of the Latin bands here… He knew Mario Rivera, people like Cortijo and so on. His Dad was involved in there. He even told me, “My Dad will be jealous that I recorded with you and not him.” But he’s an incredible bass player. You know what he does in jazz. But he can grab a Latin tumbao and ride that, too. I know because we did a thing together for Donald Harrison, one of my compositions called “Snow Visor.” We did an intro together, and then we played the whole composition.
TP: Did you have to give them much instruction?
EDDIE: No instructions. They certainly knew what to do.
TP: “Vals Con Bata.”
EDDIE: That has John Scofield and David Sanchez, with Giovanni playing the bata drums. That’s more or less into the Jazz Waltz, and it came out also… That one was going to be pulled, because it was giving us a lot of trouble in the recording. But we held it for last, and worked on it, and were able to put it on the CD.
TP: Did you think of it with Scofield and David in mind? Didn’t David come out of Puerto Rico with you?
EDDIE: Yes. He went to Montreux. We closed a show for Miles Davis; Miles didn’t like to close. At the end of his career, he’d rather open and then leave. Then we followed him.
TP: I wouldn’t want to follow your band.
EDDIE: [LAUGHS] But David left with me from Puerto Rico. After that, he’s held his own, and he’s very respected in the jazz field and a pride of Puerto Rico.
TP: Were all the tunes composed for the date?
EDDIE: “Vals Con Bata” was already done, and I decided to pull it out because I needed a jazz waltz. I love them. It worked fine. John Scofield plays electric guitar, and David solos excellent.
TP: I guess the jazz waltz is another point of connection between jazz and Afro-Caribbean music because of the triplets. Is that one of the things that appealed to you when you were younger?
EDDIE: Yes. I always dedicated myself to listening to the Cuban music, and that was really my forte. But if I was ever going to do anything in jazz, it would be in a waltz type thing. I felt very comfortable there. I love them. I’ve recorded 3/4 on certain CDs. I have one called “Bianco’s Waltz,” another is “Resemblance,” which I did with Cal Tjader.
TP: “Tema Para Eydie” is for one of your daughters.
EDDIE: One of my daughters who’s here tonight. That turned out to be a duo between John Benitez and I. John was great, because he can comprehend the Latin playing, and he’s become quite a jazz bass player in his own right, and a great soloist. It was written for the CD.
TP: Break it down for me a bit.
EDDIE: It was going to be done like a ballad. On the last CD, I did one called “Tema Para Reneé,” my oldest daughters. This is my second oldest; I’m doing them one at a time. This one was going to be like a ballad with the whole rhythm section. But we were having some complications, not in the recording itself, but in the numbers that were being selected to be done and a few that might change from the instrumental point of view… So instead of doing this one as a ballad with the horns and rhythm section, I decided to do it as a duo. I said, “Instead of playing piano alone, I’ll play with John,” and we did it as a duo.
TP: Has working on the different fingerings made this a more acceptable thing for you to do on record? Your fans who are into jazz like things like “Cobarde” or “House On Judge Street,” where you make these long, grand intros. But these are a bit different. And what you did with David at Le Jazz Au Bar was also different. Can we say this is something you’ve been evolving to?
EDDIE: We’re working towards it. Eventually it will be like solo piano, which I do sometimes on sets…
TP: I wish you’d recorded the opener on this set. And if you do a solo record, I hope it’s on a Bosendorfer. Your left hand deserves it.
EDDIE: I love the Bosendorfer. I’m working on that. But then the duo made it comfortable for me. At one time, I would never even have attempted to do it. But because I’ve been working on a few things, I thought it should be a duo. And I was very comfortable with John Benitez.
TP: What makes this the time for you to start working on this. Your place in history would be pretty secure if you weren’t doing this. What was going on in your mind ten years ago that made you start taking this direction.
EDDIE: Because the dance genre had changed, and my wife said, “the writing on the wall is going toward Latin Jazz.” That’s when I decided to do the Latin Jazz CDs, and then changed my style of playing more. Once I started with the fingering, then I wrote a couple of ballads, like Bolero Dos and Tema Con Reneé, and another one that Brian Lynch put strings on for me. I started to work on other ballads, and that made it more pianistic, more pianistic in my approach to the recording, and played ballads.
TP: So ballads is more jazz for you… Up-tempo 4/4 swing isn’t really your thing, but playing these beautiful rubato ballads…
EDDIE: Yes, which I enjoy very much. And then the 3/4, which I use for the jazz waltzes.
TP: “Tin Tin Deo.” Was Dizzy Gillespie very important to you in the ‘50s.
EDDIE: [LAUGHS] Dizzy was something special with me.
TP: Didn’t Jerry Gonzalez go from him to you?
EDDIE: I don’t know if he went from him to us. The brothers came in around 1974, when…
TP: Jerry’s on the Puerto Rico concert.
EDDIE: That’s ‘71. But when we do Sentillo is when we really started to meet. Then Jerry plays congas on one of the compositions on Puerto Rico. Because there was another conga player, [tk]. In the Sing-Sing album also, the brothers were on. As a matter of fact, I wrote the compositions at Andy’s house. I came up with it right there. I said, “I have this in mind,” and then we did it before we went to play at Sing Sing. So in ‘71-‘72, we already were playing together.
TP: But had you always been aware of Dizzy…
EDDIE: Yeah. Dizzy went with me to Riker’s Island once. He knew the gentleman who was musical director there, named Carl Warwick. He came with his camera… He was my MC that day. Matter of fact, before he brought me out, he said, “Before I bring out my Latin soul brother, Eddie, have you ever seen such a captive audience?’ That’s how he brought me on to the stage. Then we played and blew them away.
TP: Let’s say something about Dizzy Gillespie to give the press something. Everyone knows his connection to Afro-Cuban music and what he did with it. But was it personally important to you in the ‘50s and early ‘60s.
EDDIE: Well, the most important thing for me with Dizzy was the importance of how he got together with Chano Pozo, that one percussionist, coming out of Cuba, was able to change the characteristics of a jazz orchestra. Then that worked, it became very important in the Latin Jazz. So credit must be given to him to the highest degree. Plus what he did on his own with the jazz bands that he had constantly, and his form of playing. Then how he ended his career with the international band, that he brought in more Cubans. He brought in Arturo Sandoval and Paquito D’Rivera, plus Giovanni and Danilo Perez. They all were in that orchestra.
TP: So it was more his overall accomplishment than the specifics of his compositions?
TP: That being said, how did you approach “Tin Tin Deo?”
EDDIE: Well, I gave “Tin Tin Deo” a Latin intro, and I worked it more like a montuno type thing, the cha-cha-cha type approach to it, a Latin flavor type thing for David Sanchez. Then David took over, and brought that number home.
TP: So David’s personality is the thing.
EDDIE: He plays beautifully. You can hear his tone and feeling in the number. It was excellent.
TP: That’s another jazz characteristic. Not only jazz. But writing for personalities. You wrote for Barry Rogers… I don’t know what you did when you were writing for Tito Rodriguez. But is that an appealing thing about jazz for you?
EDDIE: Yeah. Barry was really great, because not only did I write with him in mind and what he did, but we worked together. Working together was great, because I would bring in the composition, and then Barry would add the harmonies of the two trombones, and change them around, and then when we got into different orchestras, he also orchestrated incredibly well. On Santillo, for example, or the composition Puerto Rico. Then when we did The Sun of Latin Music, the Dia a Bonito(?) was a great collaboration between Barry Rogers and I.
TP: Let me bring this to the ACJO. Have you been influenced by the way that Brian, Donald and Conrad play? Have they inspired your compositional direction?
EDDIE: In the Latin Jazz, for sure. When I met Brian Lynch and he started to play, he’s the one who was the stimulus for me to write for them. I already had been using Conrad in the Latin orchestra. So between the two… I said, “Well, I’ll write a composition.” How do I satisfy the personal desires of the jazz player and their changes, and how do I bring it then in the same composition to satisfy my rhythm section desire, which is more Latin and less chordal changes? In the three CDs, I was able to achieve that.
TP: So really, having them, plus the practical necessity of moving to a different sound, combined to move you toward jazz.
TP: How about “In Walked Bud”? Was Monk someone you paid attention to?
EDDIE: Sure. Thelonious Monk… In fact, Willie Bobo years ago called me the Latin Monk because of the dissonance playing that I did. But I never did any of the jazz playing, not even Thelonious Monk, until this one. Richard Seidel sent me certain compositions, and when I was looking at “In Walked Bud,” I liked it. It was a natural to do it in an up-tempo. It came out all right. Even “Nica’s Dream” later on is in an up-tempo also.
TP: Were you paying attention to Monk in the ‘50s?
EDDIE: Well, Barry Rogers also made me very aware of him. We’d exchange LPs, and he brings me a Thelonious Monk LP, the one with the stamp, where he does “Tea For Two,” which is a classic. I exchanged that for a Celia Cruz-Sonora Matancera. He also brought me Kind of Blue, maybe for Chappotin or something like that.
TP: When Fort Apache did Rumba Para Monk, did it make sense to you? Do Monk’s compositions flow easily into Afro-Caribbean rhythmic structures?
EDDIE: Certain numbers, yes. I met Thelonious Monk once, when I was playing at the Corso, and he came up to hear the orchestra. He was brought up by a bass player named Victor Venegas, and he brought him upstairs. He blew me away.
TP: Where was the Corso?
EDDIE: That was a dancehall on 86th Street off Third Avenue.
TP: What did he say?
EDDIE: He didn’t say much. But he enjoyed the band, and that was great.
TP: Did he dance?
EDDIE: No. He just sat and listened.
TP: “La Gitana” is a trio with Scofield on acoustic guitar and John Benitez.
EDDIE: He played beautifully. The instrumentation was originally for a larger band, and we rehearsed it, but it didn’t come in.
TP: So it became a trio track by accident.
EDDIE: Right. First it became a duo in the studio, and then a trio.
TP: “Nica’s Dream.”
EDDIE: Many years ago, in the ‘60s, I bumped into Horace in the street. I knew he liked Latin music, and I’ll never forget that he asked me, “Are you hip to ‘Nica’s Dream?’” I was walking on Broadway, right by Birdland. The Palladium was right next to Birdland. We were going like this, then he said hello, and I said how much I admired him. I wasn’t into jazz until later on, until I had Barry in the band. Then he brought me to Birdland on a Sunday, and I saw the original John Coltrane quartet also. Which by the way, when I started here on Tuesday, McCoy Tyner was at the soundcheck, and we had a nice talk.
TP: So Horace Silver was another connection for you.
EDDIE: Except that I met him. So when Richard Seidel sent me the tunes, I said, “I’d like to look at Nica’s Dream.” We did again up-tempo, a little bit more, and then we wrote a Latin thing at the… For that and “In Walked Bud” I was going to use the Latin rhythm section I like later on, but we didn’t do it, and I left it just drums and conga. But we put a mambo ensemble in there, because I changed the chord structures toward the Latin. That’s what I solo on.
“Mira Flores” is a place in Spain called “En Cortijo a la Mira Flores.” I just used the words “Mira Flores.” That’s where I heard and saw the original crushings of the olive to make the virgin olive oil. It was the historical museum, and then they turned on the machinery, because it worked, and the machinery… It gave me an idea again, and another 3/4 rhythm, which I wrote. There Christian McBride and Brecker exchange solos, and I accompany them. Michael Brecker told me, “Eddie, it’s a beautiful composition,” and I told him, “If you play it and put it in your repertoire, I’ll be quite honored.”
TP: So it’s a recent composition as well.
TP: “E.P. Blues” was also for the session?
EDDIE: I had Nicholas in mind for In Walked Bud, but he falls on this one, and he exchanges with Brian and Conrad and Donald. He was great. And he was comfortable here.
TP: By the way, does Donald Harrison’s presence in the ACJO have an impact on you?
EDDIE: Oh, yeah. He can play drums, and he’s a Big Chief. Now he has his own tribe, since his father passed away. Not only that. Donald can dance, he loves Latin rhythms. That’s why he wanted to come play with us. He told Brian, “I’ve got to get into the Eddie Palmieri band,” and he stuck with me for a while. We did the three CDs. I happen to love Donald Harrison very much. He’s not only a great, great player, but he’s a gentleman to the highest degree, an incredible human being.
Conrad is my compadre. I baptized his son Glen. Conrad to me is the greatest trombonist that I’ve ever met. Conrad is an incredible trombonist. He can execute the instrument, and knows about the structures of how to play it, and how to explain it to the students. Now he’s in a great position, because he’s also a professor at Rutgers.
Brian is an extraordinary talent. He’s one of the greatest trumpet players I’ve ever met. How he is able to comprehend… He’s very well known in the jazz world. But when he came into the Latin thing, I saw him make it his business to buy, like Barry did, for example, the essence of these Latin rhythms from the Latin records…to be able to get the right recordings. Brian Lynch has fulfilled that. He comprehends Latin very well, and that’s very difficult to do.
John Benitez is an incredible bass player. His roots are Latin from Puerto Rico, and he knows that, and he’s also become one of the top jazz bass players. He’s rounded.
TP: Had Negro played with you before?
EDDIE: He played here with me along with Richie Flores for a whole week. Negro is an extraordinary drummer. At the same time he plays his jazz, he knows his Cuban music. He gives another unique style that only a few drummers can do.
And Giovanni left with me for Europe as a young man, in 1984. His first tour to Europe.
TP: You end “E.P. Blues” with a solo. You have the last word. Do you always have the last word on your bands?
EDDIE: Yeah, sure.
TP: Was it intended to be the set closer?
EDDIE: Well, it was the most exciting number.