Circling Back: The endless possibilities of Eddie Palmieri

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Eighty-one and clearly not ready to slow down, legendary composer and bandleader Eddie Palmieri has a new album, a new record label, and even a new app—which is, if the press release is to be believed, the world’s first to be singularly devoted to the sounds of salsa. It’s the album, of course—titled Full Circle, and loaded from top to bottom with fire and funk—that yields the greatest rewards. The app, though, is curiously instructive. In it, disciples of El Maestro can assume control of Full Circle’s arrangements, choosing to mute, isolate, pan, or fade any given instrument, pulling at these songs like Jenga towers and marveling at Palmieri’s stalwart constructions. It’s a stark illumination into just how much these compositions exceed the sum of their parts; you can remove as many puzzle pieces as you want, trying to reverse-engineer Palmieri’s genius, and you’ll walk away from it with heightened respect for his precision and craft. No way it’s going to demystify the strange alchemy that makes Palmieri’s songs so combustible, though. The Bronx-born pianist has been an innovator since the early 1960s, a Thelonious Monk devotee who challenged salsa’s traditionalism with loose jazz improvisation; artisier even than his pioneering contemporary Willie Colón, Palmieri’s compositions balance body and mind, dancefloor accessibility with brainy musicality. 1969’s Justicia may be the peak of his freewheeling, casually integrative approach—its jams adherent to folk forms, but slyly eclectic in their nods to American rhythm and blues, Monk-style whimsy colliding with showtunes, drum circles, and socio-political topicality. And if that record was his most daring adventure, Full Circle is his richest unfolding of pure virtuosity, joyfully expounding every last lesson a man might learn over decades spent writing for a big band. It has everything you’d want from a salsa record: Moaning trombones, vocal chants, skittering hand percussion, piledriving momentum, and non-stop groove.

It also happens to be a songbook album, revisiting standout tracks from Palmieri’s earlier works. Everything here was recorded with his working tentet, a band of Latin jazz ringers who’ve studied the contours of these songs for decades. There’s real polish to these performances, befitting a band that’s spent so long inside the material—listen to how the wistful “Lindo Yambu,” comparatively brittle on Justicia, sounds so easygoing and lived-in here—yet there’s also an appealing rowdiness. All of the tracks make time for barnstorming solos, and you can often hear other band members grunting their encouragement in the background, even as the rhythm section keeps the beat going with unerring intensity. Full Circle’s defining feature is Palmieri’s mastery of time and space: On one explosive track after another he takes what ought to be a simple dancefloor theme and stretches it out for five, seven, sometimes upwards of 10 minutes, wringing out as much invention and color as he can, building and sustaining tension before letting the song burn itself to the ground. The tunes feel like magic tricks; they seem straightforward on the surface, but unfold with turns and surprises seemingly pulled from nowhere. “Azúcar,” which El Maestro has recorded multiple times since its 1965 debut, is the cleanest demonstration of Full Circle’s methodology. Palmieri leads the band through a few iterations of the main theme—the horn section charging head-long into big-band swing, jittery congas itching to break loose, vocalist Hermán Olivera rousing the group in spirited call-and-response. After two minutes, the horns drop out for a Palmieri solo that’s angular and driving, one minute playfully minimalistic, the next minute florid and rhapsodic. He tangles with the percussion section’s rolling thunder for a few moments, pushing the song toward an eruption that comes in the form of a howling blues from the sax player. The whole band sounds sure-footed in their high-wire act—a conga line on the edge of a volcano.

That these songs are all familiar is part of the point. El Maestro has rewritten the rules of the game over and over again, most recently on 2017’s heralded Sabiduria—an eclectic assembly of folklore, hard bop, and funk, recorded with roughly the same troupe found on Full Circle. That was an album about exploring new frontiers; this one’s about discovering endless possibilities within a tradition. Consider it a roots album, the great composer circling back to his canon with rekindled passion. It’s clear that these warhorses—even the ones he’s recorded over and over—still shake loose fresh ideas in Palmieri’s head. Listen to “Muñeca,” where Palmieri delivers a classically-embellished piano solo only to have the melody drop out completely, leaving drums, bass, and tres guitar to weave a hypnotic, low-end rumble. It’s also a record that derives immense pleasure from Palmieri’s command of the band in all its tones and colors: Notice how the breakneck “Óyelo Que Te Conviene” sounds positively soused in swaggering brass, or how the band navigates rhythmic lurches and hairpin turns throughout “Palo Pa’ Rumba,” never skipping a beat or letting the momentum flag. One of the greatest tricks on Full Circle is its inclusion of two bookending performances of “Vamonos Pa’l Monte,” first played with the regular band, then later with an extended orchestral lineup. It’s a song so good, you won’t mind hearing it played twice, and the forceful, robust sound of the second take is an album highlight. There’s visceral pleasure in the band’s mighty roar, but the pinnacle is when the horns drop out leaving Palmieri—over conga pops and snapping bass—to plunk out a solo, letting loose a fistful of chords and then pausing, savoring the space before his fingers dance over to the next key. He sounds like he’s a kid at play, feeling out musical possibilities as if for the first time.

Blues & Roots: On the crossed paths of Charles Lloyd and Lucinda Williams

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There is no need for Lucinda Williams to prove anything to us by making a quote-unquote jazz album; for decades now, she has exhibited formal command of an American roots mélange that’s borderless and boundary-free. She’s beyond category, and—in the cool tones of West and the limber jams of Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone—she’s convincingly jazz-conversant. And there is certainly no need for Charles Lloyd to prove his country-blues bona fides; now well into his 80s, the guru-level sax master has developed a signature sound that’s earthbound and ecstatic at the same time, jazz improvisations shaded and textured by rustic folk vernaculars. The achievement of Vanished Gardens—their first on-record collaboration, released on the Blue Note label—is something far more rarified, its ambition far more sophisticated, than any exercise in the mechanics of genre. What this album proves is the insolubility of American song; it embodies traditions that have only ever existed in conversation with one another, whose threads can never be fully untangled.

Its crossed paths and cross-pollinations extend to the players themselves: Lloyd and Williams share a common language in the Bob Dylan songbook (Lloyd and his Marvels played an ebullient “Masters of War” on 2016’s I Long to See You; Williams has been performing that same song for decades). They share a few other commonalities, as well—including a couple of guitar players, Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz, who fill Vanished Gardens with electric thrum and ghostly twang. More than anything, they share an affinity for earthy music that borrows indiscriminately from American song styles. Their summit meeting on Vanished Gardens is equally split between instrumental numbers and Williams showcases; it includes new songs, standards, and reimaginings of the Williams songbook; and it’s powered by The Marvels (Frisell, Leisz, bassist Reuben Rogers, drummer Eric Harland), a loose and rangy troupe whose jazz credentials just happen to include collaborations with fellow category-killers Willie Nelson and Norah Jones. Together, they play music steeped in southern soil, but abloom with the questing, exploratory spirit of jazz. Put it on the shelf with Nelson’s Stardust, Allen Toussaint’s The Bright Mississippi, even Dylan’s Triplicate—jubilant excavations that embrace American music traditions for their emotional precision and abiding mystery, upholding folk forms even while bursting them at the seams.

Presupposing that the past is never truly past, Lloyd and Williams reopen several pages from the communal songbook. The Marvels offer a delicate reading of “Monk’s Mood,” emphasizing its wistful romance over its whimsy, the guitarists adding cowboy licks while Lloyd goes full Johnny Hodges in his rhapsodic solo. There are also relitigations of old Williams tunes—all of them chosen by Lloyd, it should be noted, with whom they proved resonant. These performances capture one of the chief delights of American folk music—the eagerness with which it reshapes and retells its stories time and time again. This rambler’s spirit animates “Ventura,” which bears witness both to Williams’ elegant formalism—the song’s as sleek and as plainspoken as a standard—but also to The Marvels’ interpretive gifts; they convey the desolation of the original, but allow the chorus to open up with hope and desire. Meanwhile, “Dust,” which chronicles the ravages of dementia, is played with verve, connecting it to the great blues tradition of resolute joy in the face of eternity. “Even your thoughts are dust,” Williams warns, and Lloyd howls his rebuttal into the void.

Vanished Gardens also upholds the folk tradition of topicality. The one new Williams composition here, “We’ve Come Too Far to Turn Around,” opens with wordless supplication from Lloyd before transforming into a kind of updated Staples Singers number; it’s a Civil Rights song born of gospel hope, clear-eyed both in its measure of progress and in its reckoning with the devil who still sits at our table. Lloyd’s sax solo toward the song’s end sounds as though it’s wafting down the hall from Charles Mingus’ Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting, and Harland’s drumming, all pops and crashes, imbues crackling electricity. It’s of a piece with the opening instrumental, “Defiant,” where Lloyd builds a searching, Sonny Rollins-style solo from the ground up, then lets it snake through a thicket of high-and-lonesome pedal steel from Leisz. By maintaining its clarity of vision and its purposeful momentum through every twist and turn, the song reiterates an important civics lesson from the American canon: Keep your eye on the prize.

The band’s archivist spirit is balanced by their explorer’s zeal; they’re not here to recite but to discover, something you can hear in their burnished reading of the standard “Ballad of a Sad Young Man,” where country-Western guitars adorn a deep midnight blues, stretched out to something so sumptuous and slow it almost qualifies as ambient music. (It captures some of the same strange weather as The Milk Carton Kids’ “One More for the Road”—a hushed saloon song turned into an impressionistic American epic.) If that song maps out the solitude implicit to so much American folklore, the original instrumental “Blues for Langston and LaRue” captures the inverse, Lloyd summoning Rat Pack nonchalance as he walks his flute atop an ambling beat, careless and cool. And then there are times when everyone just loses themselves in the music. It happens in the title song, mutant bebop that lurches and howls before settling into a trance-like cool-down. And it happens most epically on “Unsuffer Me,” six minutes when Williams first recorded it on West but 11 here, an extended vamp where Williams begs and pleads, then leaves it to the guttural articulations of Lloyd’s horn to say what she can’t. Together, the players lift up one of the most hallowed and ancient set-ups of all—the yearning for redemption. All our crossed paths lead back to it eventually.