Circling Back: The endless possibilities of Eddie Palmieri

full circle

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, kinetic energy, 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.

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