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Tito Puente Tribute

Eddie Palmieri

When Latin music began making inroads into the American consciousness it was typically in the form of a dance orchestra with a bandleader who was also a featured performer. Fifty years ago, at the height of the Big Band era, this dovetailed with the expectations of American audiences-no matter how exotic Latin orchestras sounded, they presented themselves in a familiar form. The overwhelming majority of bandleaders were players, usually percussionists, and often the best musicians in the house. Even if the instrument was mostly a prop-think Desi Arnaz on congas-it was a defining element in the way Latin groups were presented. Nowadays however, Latin music is a kaleidoscope, and the dominance of the old traditionally constituted ensembles is waning. With the passing of Tito Puente in August of this year, the end of an era was in sight and the instrumentalist/bandleader took its place on the list of endangered species.

Shortly before his death Tito completed work on a studio album entitled "Masterpiece". It was a collaborative effort instigated and guided by Eddie Palmieri, the only other bandleader of similar stature. In the overall scheme of things, if Tito was the King, then Eddie was the High Prince.

Martin Cohen first saw Eddie Palmieri perform in 1967 at the Palladium and admits to being a diehard Palmieri fan ever since. When the two sat down for an interview there was an awful lot of history on the table. (Who else but Eddie would know, for example, that the Palladium was formerly an Irish ballroom purchased in the 40's by Max Hyman whose wife was an heiress to the Otis elevator fortune). The first thing Martin did was to acknowledge the obvious: "With Tito gone there's no question-you're the number one, the leading Latin bandleader." Then there was the amazing requiem that the "Masterpiece" CD had become, almost spooky in its timing, with Tito's death taking place just days after its completion. How did this recording come about Martin asked?

"We'd been talking about going into the studio together for years but it had never happened. I had given him some scores and ideas for the recording over a year ago but nothing had been firmed up. And then we met in the airport in Puerto Rico, and as soon as I saw him I knew he was ready to record. But then the scheduling was very hard because you know, he traveled all over the world. And we weren't standing still either. As a matter of fact, I picked a lot of the material geographically, to highlight countries where we'd been well received. I mean, between Tito and I, we've probably been to a hundred countries. I've been to 45 and Tito, well forget about it!"

Martin asked about the difficulties in accommodating so much talent on one recording. For instance, How were the singers chosen given that so many great vocalists wanted to take part?

"Let me put it this way: The singers who thought they were going to sing, never sang. The ones who thought they were going to replace the ones that never sang, they never sang either. The ones that had no idea they were going to sing on this CD, they sang."

A lot of the music had been in Eddie's head for a long time, but bringing conceptualization down to notes on a page required some interesting problem solving as well as the ability to constantly change and adjust to the moment. Rather than working from a rigid framework, everyone found a way to go beyond a script, to flow with the opportunities. And the fluidity and respect that characterized the recording itself is also plainly audible in the beauty of the result.

"Our motto for the recording was, 'If love and skill work together, expect a masterpiece'. Tito himself worked very hard on the CD, he was in love with it. He knew I had structured it for him--remember, he was my mentor. In the end it took 200 hours and cost $250,000 to finish the CD. And I tell everyone how Ralph Mercado so graciously opened up his money pouch to make it happen. I also think that one of the loveliest epitaphs for Tito came from Puerto Rico. When his death was announced there someone said, What complications did he have with his heart, what problems did he have, when he gave his heart to all of us."

In the overall scheme of things, if Tito was the King, then Eddie Palmieri was the High Prince. He was born in 1936 in New York at 60 East 112th Street between Madison and Park. His brother Charlie, a piano player who Eddie cites as his main musical influence was born nine years earlier. By the time Eddie was 11 his brother was already playing with Tito Puente. Eddie began as a timbalero working with a group featuring two of his uncles-bandleader and conga player respectively-and remembers his first paycheck was $1.25. It wasn't long before he was leading his own group.

"I had been working with the Eddie Forester Band. Eddie played trumpet and Manny Bonilla played congas. Then Eddie goes out of the business for awhile and I go to the Sunnyside Gardens, which was an old boxing venue where Eddie used to work, and I go see the owner, a guy named Manny Heckling. And he remembers me so I tell him I've got a band now and could we play here. And he says, yeah, sure. And I made a great deal too-I charged him $100 for a nine-piece band! But there was one problem-my name. He had another group working there, the Al Lombardi Band, and he said if he listed Eddie Palmieri, people would think there were two Italian bands working there. So he says we'll change your name to Edualdo Palmos.Well my father almost killed me, and he wanted to strangle Manny Heckling. The whole thing was crazy. And that's when my wife met me as well, under the name Edualdo Palmos.

The music world knows Eddie Palmieri as a brilliant and creative piano player. What prompted the switch from drums Martin asked?

"It came about because of my mother. She was brilliant, still is at 95, and she got me this huge metal case for the timbales, must have weighed more than several drums. And she'd wait till my uncle would be downstairs honking and I'd be trying to pick up that case with the timbales and she'd let me have it: "Edualdo, don't you see how beautiful your brother looks going to work and not having to carry an instrument? When will you learn?" And I'd be struggling to pick that case up and I'd say, "I'm learning mom!" And this was tough to acknowledge because I really wanted to be my brother Charlie's drummer-that was my whole thing. But then he tells me, If you're going to play drums you have to play all the drums. That meant bass drum, tom-toms, everything. And it wasn't like nowadays where drummers just walk around with their drum pouch. You had to carry everything yourself. But I started studying piano when I was eight. By the time I was eleven I'd already studied with Margaret Bonds whose in the history books. Her studio was in the Carnegie building and she had been my brother's teacher and he recommended me. Then I met Carlos Savada who graduated from the Brooklyn Conservatory and he showed me a technique that to this day, I still use."

You can tell a lot about the stature of a musician by the dedication to their art, the desire to keep growing, keep learning. This restlessness has always been a part of Eddie's outlook musically, looking for new challenges and ways to express what he feels as a composer.

"Where I'd like to go now is from a piano player to a pianist, moving from semi-classical pieces to classical pieces with full symphonic orchestration. My son, who is handling things, has already booked me with the National Orchestra of Washington DC."

Early on, part of Eddie's signature sound was the use of trombones in his orchestration rather than the more traditional trumpets. Martin asked where had this innovation come from?

Eddie rehearsing on September 8, 2000 for the concert at Madison Square Garden, which took place on September 9, 2000.

"It was 1960 and I had a small group. At first I wanted to get that sound like the early Tito Puente, those cojuntos with trumpets and no saxophone. But at the same time I wanted something else but I hadn't heard it yet. Then I go to this place called the Tritons where they used to have a jam session on Tuesdays, and I see Barry Rogers playing trombone. And the sound just floors me. So I ask him if he wants to get together and play sometime. And when we do I know this is it. So that's how we got started. Initially it was Chickie Perris playing congas, Mike Coyasso on timbales, Joe Rivera on bass, myself on piano, Ismael Quitana doing vocals, Barry Rogers on trombone, and George Castro on flute."

With the addition of a second trombonist in the person of Jose Rodrigues, Eddie had the band he'd been looking for and the exciting and highly original sound of La Perfecta was born.

Since that time, Eddie has been one of the movers and shakers of the industry. As such he has a unique understanding of the events that have been most important to the worldwide success of Latin music. One of these was the recordings created by Martin Cohen at LP® in the late 70's and more importantly, the European tours Martin organized around the same time.

"There wasn't really anything happening for Latin music in Europe until you sent that incredible group with Tito over there. That opened up the way for the music to be recognized. If you really analyze it, that opened up things for all of us, not just Tito. And the effect of what you did still goes on to this day."

The upshot was that within a few years no one could any longer deny what Martin was the first to grasp: That there was a bigger audience out there for Latin music than just dance venues in Queens.

Very few musicians have melded intuition and musical intellect as successfully as Eddie Palmieri. In a career that spans half a century and counting, he has consistently been an antidote to musical complacency. He is extremely knowledgeable about the antecedents and genealogy of the music he plays and much of his gift is in combining a grasp of the music's history with an instinctive feel for innovation.

"I have all these 78's and 45's from Cuba before the takeover. Everything I know is from 1898 to 1960. After the change everything was disrupted there. We were cut off from the music and the musicians there and they were cut off from us. It was not good for them and not good for us. Now every orchestra there sounds like the others. As far as the structures for dance that existed before, that's over. That knowledge had to be given from relative to relative to relative, and that ended after 1960. In my opinion, the distinctions that existed between the great orchestras in Cuba were lost after the doctrine changed."

Eddie performing at the Tito Puente Tribute concert at Madison Square Garden on September 9, 2000.

For the foreseeable future one of Eddie's main efforts will be continuing the Tribute to Tito Puente. Initially it was to be a limited run, but demand has been such that the show will begin touring worldwide this year.

Much was made of the fact that Eddie wore gloves when he took a timbale solo during the Tribute for Tito at the Garden. He did it to protect his hands since he is first and foremost a piano player. But there's another version of why Eddie wore gloves that will probably be making the rounds for years to come. It seems that when he came off the stage he encountered Frankie Morales who had been blown away by the timbale solo. He said, I didn't know you played timbales, and Eddie, leaning in close as if imparting some great secret, replied, It's the gloves, Tito gave them to me before he died and told me to just put them on and I wouldn't believe what would happen. And Frankie's eyes got big and he said, Really. Now, the fact that someone would believe in such a possibility, even for a second, is a sign of the respect, as well as a measure of the magic in the music of Eddie Palmieri. The King is dead. Long live the Prince.

All quotes taken from an interview conducted by Martin Cohen on September 7, 2000.

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