In conversation with eddie palmieri and brian lynch
By Bob Blumenthal
Introduction: For the past six years, I have served as critic-in-residence at the Discover Jazz Festival in Burlington, Vermont, which has allowed me to conduct numerous on-stage interviews with the featured artists prior to the concert performances. Among the benefits has been the chance to go outside the one-on-one interview mode where appropriate. This year, Eddie Palmieri’s Latin Jazz Group, with Brian Lynch featured on trumpet, opened the ten-day festival. Given the different backgrounds of the two musicians, their longstanding collaborations, and the fact that their most recent recorded effort, Simpatico (ArtistShare) had won the 2007 Grammy for best Latin Jazz disc, they seemed to be an ideal interview team. What follows is a transcript of the conversation, which took place on June 1 in Flynn Space. My thanks to Arnie Malina and Brian Johnson of the Flynn Center for their assistance.
Eddie Palmieri and Brian Lynch, photo by Ignacio Palmieri
I’m always curious about people’s initial exposure to music. In your case, Eddie, I suspect that your family was involved.
EP: It started with my mother, who arrived from Puerto Rico in 1945. When my brother Charlie was born, he was almost immediately put into the study of piano, and by the time he was 14, he was playing professionally. He was nine years older than me, and was clearly my inspiration. So I started hearing the music he was playing and the records he would bring home, as well as the bands he played with the other popular big bands.
At the same time, my uncles were very musical. The extended family lived very close together, so I always heard them playing guitars and singing. Between them upstairs at my grandmother’s, and my brother in our home, little by little I was inspired to study piano. I studied drums briefly, because my uncle had a typical orchestra like the kind you found in Puerto Rico, and I played timbales with him. After doing that for two years, I gave him the timbales back and returned to the piano.
Your brother Charlie is someone who deserves more attention from music fans.
EP: In my opinion, he was the greatest pianist in our genre. At that time, the kind of club dates you saw later didn’t exist; but by 1948 he was already working at the Copacabana, in the orchestra. He also helped Tito Puente get started around that time by doing the Picadilly Boys. He made some great recordings with Tito, then left to join Pupi Campo, who was working with Jack Paar on a TV show. This was when Paar had a show early in the morning. Having gone through the big bands and the show bands, Charlie finally decided to start traveling with a smaller group, four or five musicians. When he’d get a gig on the road, he’d recommend me as his sub for the New York work he had.
By 1959, he formed his first charanga band, with a young man named Johnny Pacheco on flute. That’s when my brother started to write, not just for his groups but also for many other artists through Tito Puente’s office.
So you came on the scene as Charlie’s little brother.
EP: Right. He’d tell people, “My brother’s just starting, but he’s ready.” That’s how I got my first gig, with a bass player named Johnny Segui, who had a great book because he was also a copyist. He’d do the copying for Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez, and the deal was that he’d get a copy of the arrangement for himself. So he had a great book. Then my brother recommended me to Vincentico Valdez, who had been the vocalist with Tito Puente for many years. I spent two years with him, beginning in 1956, and then he recommended me to Tito Rodriguez, who had started to do a Vegas-type show. We even went to Vegas. I recorded that great album Live at the Palladium with him. It included Latin Jazz, which wasn’t called Latin Jazz at the time, but the jazz element was already mixed in with the more dance-oriented pieces. By late 1961, I started my first orchestra, La Perfecta.
Eddie was born in New York…
EP: Spanish Harlem, on 112th between Madison and Park – but I was raised in the Bronx.
…and Brian is from Milwaukee, where he was part of a great generation of local jazz musicians.
Eddie Palmieri, photo by Herb Snitzer
BL: Right. Carl Allen, Dave Hazeltine, Jeff Chambers. I was just in Milwaukee last week, where we attempted a reunion of my college jazz group that included Jeff and some other great musicians who aren’t as well known. One gentleman who influenced all of us was Tony King. In the late 1960s, he put together one of the first degree programs in pure jazz performance, at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music in Milwaukee. It might have even been before Berklee became a college and could only give certificates as opposed to true college degrees. His mission, to show the importance of jazz in musical culture and American culture, and to fight for its proper stature, influenced all of us. He also loved bringing people together, regardless of race, while still emphasizing where the music came from. He really taught us culture as well as music.
I had been playing trumpet from the age of nine, but never had a goal of becoming a musician until I discovered jazz. I’m 50 years old now, so I’m what I guess you’d call a late-hippy-era guy, and in 1970 I began to hear the rock bands that had horns, like Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears. I was also into the great funk bands that had horns, like Sly and Buddy Miles. Being a kid that played a trumpet, hearing those bands gave me more of a sense of purpose.
My jazz exposure initially came from listening to the radio. Again, this was the era when radio was more free-form, where you might hear tracks by John Coltrane or Miles Davis alongside those by the Jefferson Airplane or the Grateful Dead. The first three LPs I bought, in order, were Miles Davis’ Live Evil, John Coltrane’s Sun Ship and Ornette Coleman’s Science Fiction. I started way out there, while still listening to a lot of horn-driven pop music; but the avant-garde stuff took over very quickly. But while I was listening to the Art Ensemble and Sun Ra, I was also in a rock band with a guy who had all of the Prestige and Blue Note albums. So then I started hearing Blue Train and Tenor Madness. Then the CTI records had a huge impact on me, especially all of Freddie Hubbard’s records. And those Cedar Walton Live at Boomer’s albums made a huge impact, in terms of showing me how good straight-ahead jazz could sound in a live setting.
Funny that you mention Sun Ra. I thought I detected a little Heliocentric vibe on the track you both wrote for the Simpatico disc called “Jazzucar,” where Edsel Gomez plays organ alongside Eddie on piano.
BL: That’s in there, but it’s also a tribute to the way Eddie and his brother would play organ and piano together.
You two are among the greatest examples of musicians who create without worrying about whether someone will call the results jazz, Latin or what have you; but the lines were more rigidly drawn when you were both growing up. How broad were your individual listening experiences in those years?
BL: Latin music entered my mix after I started to play with a Latin band while I was in college in Milwaukee. The leader, Tony Ramos, had written a lot of original music that you could call salsa jazz. The band had vocalists, but he also wrote hip instrumental things. He had also transcribed some music by Eddie, Machito, Tipica 73 and Ray Barretto. Playing that music when I was 21, and just hanging out with the band, is really when I began to hear Eddie’s stuff. I didn’t find out about the earlier stuff from Cuba until later; but even then, hearing Eddie or the Fania All-Stars, I wasn’t having a “What is this?” kind of reaction, because I had heard a lot of Horace Silver and he has some of that same feeling in his music. Let’s face it – if you were listening to Horace, Lee Morgan and Art Blakey, you’d hear the rhythms in some of their stuff. The musics have always been locked together.
EP: My primary focus was the orchestral music of Tito Puente, Machito and Tito Rodriguez; but at the same time, each band played some music that at the time was referred to as “instrumental mambos.” What would be called Latin Jazz now, but structured for dancers by great arrangers. In 1956, I started paying attention to what was coming out of Cuba, and really got into the fundamentals of the music. The mambo, the cha-cha-cha, all of that came out of Cuba, so I became focused on Cuban orchestras. The jazz I first paid attention to was on my brother’s Duke Ellington and Count Basie records. But the first jazz album that I bought was by Richard Twardzik. I got that album in 1958 and was into his compositions like “A Crutch for the Crab” and “Yellow Tango.” Over time I started listening to more jazz artists. When I formed La Perfecta, I started trading records with Barry Rogers. I’d loan him a La Sonora Matancera album, and he’d loan me Thelonious Monk. That’s how I was introduced to Kind of Blue, Thelonious, Bill Evans, all of the pianists. All of that music, plus the small Latin group Cal Tjader formed with Mongo Santamaria and Willie Bobo, were my jazz foundations.
Very few artists can not only come up with radical new concepts, but also fight for them. La Perfecta is a primary example of that.
EP: I really wanted a Conjunto, like the bands that were coming out of Cuba, which meant three or four trumpets and a rhythm section. But it was expensive to put a band of that size together, especially when you also had to carry vocalists, and there were not many trumpet players around who could play the music I was hearing. So I started getting jobs with just six or seven guys. At this time, in 1960, Johnny Pacheco was holding Tuesday night jam sessions in the Bronx. I knew the owner of the club where the sessions were held, and would sometimes be on the bill as well. At one of the sessions, I met Barry Rogers, and asked him if I could start calling him when gigs came up. We did a few where he was the only horn. Sometimes it was just a flute, which was very popular then because of the pachanga. One night I was able to have both Barry and a flute, and immediately knew that was it. Eventually Barry met a second trombone player, Jose Rodriguez from Brazil, at a recording session, and the combinations that they created were truly unique. In my opinion, nobody will ever match what those two did.
That band stayed together for eight years, and in the early days promoting it was tough. They wouldn’t let us into the Palladium, for example, so I rented a place next door and became a barker on the street. “Over here, folks, not over there!” The owner of the Palladium would complain to Jose Curbelo, a fine pianist who was also an agent: “That kid is crazy, he’s taking business away from me.” Jose just said, in his Cuban accent, “Then you will have to book him.” Next thing I knew, I got 90 gigs at the Palladium, at minimum scale. That was crucial, because when you get a few gigs, you feel compelled to fill out the calendar with more.
We didn’t travel much then – once to California and once to Venezuela – but we certainly took care of the boroughs in New York.
Who were the people you looked to as models, Brian, as your music began to cross these supposed boundary lines?
BL: There were great models around me in the bands I joined after I came to New York. Early on I met Shunzo Ono, who had played in a lot of Latin bands. In Machito’s band, he played alongside Chocolate Armenteros, and he got to the point where he could really play like Chocolate. People don’t know this, but Shunzo’s a great example of a player who is fluent in both idioms.
By the time I got to New York, more and more players were around who were trying to do more than just scratch the surface when they encountered Afro-Caribbean music. Jazz players had always taken dance gigs with Latin bands, but they had not always been so keen on studying the music. I wanted to learn, and joining Hector Lavoe’s band was very important to me, because the guys in that band took the time to coach me on my phrasing and how to play in the context of that band, as well as pulling my coat to the history. It’s like filling in the pieces of a puzzle, which is the same thing that listeners do. I remember around 1979 getting Eddie’s album Unfinished Masterpiece and saying, “Hey, this guy Ronnie Cuber is also on a new record I’ve got with Tom Harrell and Mickey Tucker. And Randy Brecker’s on Eddie’s album, too.” There was a lot of back and forth. The same kind of connections I had made when I first listened to jazz was happening all over again. I also got a lot of instruction once I joined Eddie’s band, especially on these long tours. He’d put music on every day we were out there, and from listening to jazz I had learned how to absorb what I was hearing. To be engaged like that all over again was a great thing.
Eddie, when you touch the piano, the sound that emerges is monumental. I don’t mean it’s just loud, but something in the sound has that presence. I don’t know if this can be learned, or is just there, but I’m curious as to your view of how your sound developed.
EP: I always believed that your sound should be like your signature. Watching my brother play, with his incredible attack, and listening to the Cuban players – my teachers through records, like Lili Martinez, the pianist for the great tres player Arsenio Rodriguez. The piano solos he took in the ‘40s were just amazing, and at that time you could only record two minute and 45 second singles. Another great player was Jesus Lopez. He was with the Arcańo Orchestra, where Cachao wrote the arrangements for so many years. His attack was incredible. Then you had the different style of Peruchin, and Bebo Valdes, Chucho’s father; big band players, but with more jazz and harmonic structure to add flavor. And to me, the great arranger Rene Hernandez with the Machito Orchestra was a genius. They brought him in right after World War II, 1945 or ’46, and by ’47, in my opinion, he was changing the whole structure of the band. That’s also the point where Chano Pozo arrived, recommended by Mario Bauza to Dizzy Gillespie, and you could see the change that one percussion instrument could work in a jazz orchestra.
I listened to all of these great artists, but I was also noticing the touch of the jazz greats like Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans – another guy with a fantastic sound on the piano. So that touch that I was searching for just happened, and blended with the percussive part of me that came from those early years playing drums. Once, when Donald Harrison was in the band, he told me “you solo like a drummer.” Some credit also goes to the classical training that I had, from Ms. Margaret Barnes, who had her studio in the Carnegie Hall building and had taught my brother.
I think that all of that – the classical technique, plus playing in octaves, which we had to do because there were no microphones. When I played with Vincentito Valdes, he would put his voice mike on the piano when my solo came around, and then take it back when he was ready to sing again. And Brian was part of my evolution, too. When we made our first recording together, Palmas, he was part of the influence in changing my fingering to accommodate the Latin jazz style. The attack of the Latin form of piano playing gave you that power. You had to strike the instrument with all you had.
You mentioned Palmas, which I believe was recorded about 20 years ago.
BL: It has been 20 years since I joined Mr. Palmieri’s organization – and I may start getting paid soon.
EP: Yeah, you’ve been sitting in all of these years.
BL: I told Eddie that great Art Blakey story about Stanley Clarke at the Village Gate, where Art had cut his bass player loose after the bassist had asked for more money. So somebody in the band recommended Stanley; but after two weeks he hadn’t gotten paid. When his friend in the band asked Art about it, Art said, “I thought he was sitting in.”
Well, when Brian began to “sit in,” you involved some other jazz players as well – Conrad Herwig, Donald Harrison…
EP: Brian brought Donald in.
BL: Donald and I had been doing a few things together, a couple of Blakey tribute tours based on our time in his band. After one of those tours, Eddie mentioned adding a saxophone player, and Donald just fit right into the middle of what we had developed. He made the whole thing work.
EP: Brian had joined the larger Latin band, and little by little something started to happen. So my son, Eddie, Jr., arranged to have us record the Latin jazz ensemble, where the challenge for me became writing in a way that would fulfill the jazz improvisers while at the same time sustaining the percussion and the dance focus, like those “instrumental mambos” that I was weaned on. And, from the beginning of our relationship, I could see that Brian was digging deeply into the Latin element. He made it his business to find out what was going on, the wonderful secrets of phrasing that make up the Latin idiom. After Palmas, we did two more CDs with Donald added.
Those albums were watersheds of sorts, even given the fact that Latin and jazz players had interacted in the past. Traditionally, though, either a jazz player was taking a Latin gig or vice versa. Then you guys presented something where whether you called it one thing or the other became irrelevant.
BL: What those recordings demonstrate is how comfortably the concepts in Eddie’s music fit in with those of, say, the Jazz Messengers. Conrad and I had gained so much experience in different bands, and Donald knew so much intuitively just coming from New Orleans and appreciating the role of the drums. When I was playing with both Eddie and Art, it struck me that this was the same thing. For me, genre just fades away. The feeling, the swing, the power and the soulfulness come to the fore. I often say that Eddie is the ultimate jazz gig. Even with the big band and a singer, I always feel that I can go as far out as Miles or anyone else did in the ‘60s. We did some gigs early on where I was the only horn in the small group, and playing over Eddie and Giovanni Hidalgo was just amazing.
A great example of what the two of you continue to create is Simpatico, by the Brian Lynch/Eddie Palmieri Project. It won this year’s Latin Grammy, and it contains every bit of music that we discussed today. I’m sure that you can get a copy after the concert.
BL: I’m not sure. They’ve run out and are printing more.
EP: I bought them all!
BL: We collaborated on several compositions, and in one amazing afternoon we wrote three tunes.
EP: Brian did some incredible arrangements, in addition to his playing. He definitely deserved that Grammy.