Party long enough and you get really, really good at it. Still, it’s amazing how fresh and vigorous Eddie Palmieri still is at age eighty. And much as he’s generous with solos, he didn’t let the band carry his show last evening at Lincoln Center, The atrium space was at absolute capacity for a crowd that was on the young side. Lincoln Center’s Viviana Benitez, who met the legendary latin jazz pianist during a sold-out run at the now-shuttered Subrosa, convinced him to come do a show for “The people, the music, the culture that we embrace.” And she got him. “As you can see it’s a very popular evening,” she said, working hard on trying to hold back a grin. Epic win in the booking department, epic fail at hiding raw bliss. Which mirrored how everybody in the packed house – as packed as this space has ever been, at least in the last five years – seemed to be feeling
Nobody in the world can make a simple two-chord vamp more interesting than Palmieri does. Obviously, there was a whole lot more to the show than that. The band didn’t even hit a salsa-clap rhythm until the bandleader himself lit into that familiar hip-grabbing syncopation about ten minutes into the show. The horns – trumpeter Jonathan Powell and tenor sax player Louis Fouché – would go out on a limb for what became longer and longer turns, then would converge tantalizingly, always with a new harmony that invariably took the music in a different and occasionally far darker direction.
Case in point: the closing number in the first set. Palmieri vocalizes off-mic while he plays, and that unmistakeable gruff voice wafted into the mix louder than ever as he played stabbing variations on a classic Cuban minor-key riff against the timbales. But instead of turning up the heat for the sake of the dancers, the band kept it murky, dropping to a ghostly, spare conga solo that finally picked up, Luques Curtis’ bass hinting at a psychedelic soul interlude before backing out. The horns diverged and then reconfigured, then hung back for Palmieri and the congas to channel some more black magic, deep ancient Africa via Cuba and then Spanish Harlem in the 70s.
Likewise, on the number before that, the bandleader went gritty with edgy close harmonies, counterrhythms and and a little extra growl. Powell took it to redline and stayed there, but by the end of the song, Palmieri was hitting on an unexpected minor chord, taking it out with a slightly more low-key, ominously boomy, shamanic semi-calm. There were many other interludes, none of them ever predictable, where Palmieri would shift the music into straight-ahead postbop jazz, bristling with polyrhythms, punchy dancing bass and biting chromatics.
Palmieri didn’t talk to the crowd much, dedicating a shapeshifting, hard-hitting Tito Puente number to a pal from his wayback days at the old Palladium Ballroom at 53rd and Broadway – less than ten blocks south of the site of this show. He saluted one of his mentors, Thelonious Monk with the first tune of the second set and drove that point home with a nifty, uneasy intro before making bouncy rhumba jazz out of it with some artfully placed, thundering thumps from the percussion – Xavier Rivera on congas and Camilo Molina on timbales – and then the bass during a fat solo midway through. Then Palmieri faked out the crowd, careening back and forth between crushing, shifting lefthand rhythms, tumbling swing and Monk.
A stormy conga break echoed by Curtis’ monsoon chords gave way to a slinky lowrider theme that Palmieri never let get too hypnotic. They closed with a rapturously dynamic, singalong take of the mighty, defiant minor-key anthem La Libertad, Curtis spiraling and counterpunching between the woodblock and the timbales, the congas channeling a long series of rhythmic conspiracies. A detour into Palmieri’s classic, fearlessly populist latin soul hit Harlem River Drive was inevitable at that point. There was less dancing than usual – everybody seemed to want to get an album full of pix
The next salsa dance party in Lincoln Center’s mostly-monthly Vaya 63 latin music series at the atrium space on Broadway south of 63rd St. is by superstar oldschool Fania-era salsa percussionist Eddie Montalvo and his band on April 20 at 7:30 PM. If tonight’s show was any indication, you REALLY have to get there early to get a seat.