Monday, December 2, 2013

El Maestro: Eddie Palmieri

I was recently told by a friend that the SF Jazz Center was stunning. Yesterday, on a perfect Bay Area Sunday afternoon, I confirmed this by hopping on my bike from Oakland and braving the BART filled with Niners fans to emerge from the Civic Center station, ride through the farmer’s market past City Hall, the Symphony, the Nourse Center, and down the street to the SF Jazz Center to see John Santos in conversation with El Maestro: Eddie Palmieri.
I’ve known Palmieri since I was a kid. Papi would play his records, and “Puerto Rico” is an anthem to any any boricua’s ears. ( I have seen Mr. Palmieri in concert three times. His hands are powerful instruments upon the piano. His joy for music explodes on stage with his performance. His face morphs from deep concentration to cheshire grins that light up the stage. He invites us to take a ride with him.

Yesterday, in the glass enclosed Henderson Lab, Palmieri and John Santos had a conversation where we were invited to hear a brief history of la musica nuestra. He was dressed casually: baseball cap, sweater, leather jacket, jeans, and white sneakers. His laughter reminds me of my tios. His stories are woven with enough yarn to keep us engaged, while warming up some deeper truths.

Palmieri is a nine-time grammy winner. Within his nuyorican accent he wraps his knowledge of the Fibonacci elements of music. He recommended several tomes, including one on the theory of rhythm and the other on the mathematical basics of the arts. I hung on the edge of my seat, wide-eyed that this man who sounded like my tios, was dropping some mad philosophical knowledge.

With regard to composition, he said: “Sex and danger are the exciters…that must be in every composition to create tension and resistance.” Never having actually put music in those terms on a conscious level, I feverishly took scratchy notes trying to keep up with the ebb and flow of his rap.

The audience was mostly boomers, with a few on the younger side, and me. Hard to tell the Latinos in the crowd, since we’re camouflaged and can look like anybody. However the comunidad of music was definitely in the room.

He gave credit to his wife of fifty-eight years for knowing more jazz than he did when they met, because while she was going to shows, he was outside playing stickball in the street. We can give her credit the piece “Ira, ira.” She inspired it. She also acts as his musical editor. If he noodles around with a piece he’s written before, she makes sure to let him know it. She’s his second pair of ears.

We were treated to stories of the Palladium and the incredible conjuntos that would jam together then. Palmieri joked, “I was a fan of Tito Puente when I was young and I was born in 1878…” The Palladium was considered “the epicenter of mambo.” Folks like Marlon Brandon would be in the audience and had a reputation among the musicians to want to get up and play the bongos. Palmieri chuckled that they’d say, “Here comes Marlon Brandon, hide the bongos!” Santos replied, “Nowadays it would be Andy Garcia…” Palmeiri’s eyes got wide and he jokingly said, “Don’t go there!” We all laughed at that. Imagine, Andy Garcia elbowing his way onstage to put in some bongo time with Palmieri? Yeah, neither can I.

Apparently there was an order to the week at the Palladium: Wednesday was mainly Jewish. Friday was the Latin gamblers, and Saturday was the Puerto Rican blue collar workers. This lead to a diatribe about how Puerto Ricans are second to Russians in alcohol consumption. After he summed up the work week and the holidays (of which MLK Day is apparently a particular favorite on the island), Palmieri exclaimed, “Puerto Rico functions on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.” We broke out into laughter at this as well. He tells his stories with great humor and love, and with enough sabor to keep us going.

Santos played a piece and Palmieri immediately closed his eyes, almost seeing the music in his mind. He recounted his memory of creating the piece so joyfully. Nostalgia painted his face. “El dia que me quiera” has a beautiful piano solo in it…his hands are doing two completely different dances on the keyboard. The audience gently shimmied their shoulders in unison, listening, and quite a few toes are tapping. We want to dance, although this lecture is not the time or place to dance. Palmieri happily translates the lyrics for all, nothing the beauty of the words and pausing so we can soak them in. We are all dancing mambo in our minds. Eso se nota en las caras de todos aqui.

Santos takes the conversation into another direction by bringing up the 1960s and the civil rights movement. Mr. Palmieri’s music was apparently associated with the uprising in Mozambique and the Weathermen at the time. His producer received not one, but two visits from the CIA! He laughs at these events. He had no idea his music had causing a stir in the ears of the CIA, but with rumblings in Mozambique and el Barrio and the Ghetto at the time, you can understand if the CIA checked a lead that indicated what was high on the Weatherman’s playlist: Harlem River Drive.

Whereas he found the piano, some of his peers found jail. He played concerts on Rikers Island. The musical director of the facility invited him to play. This made me wonder how amazing a correctional facility could be to invite music inside for the inmates! Why not? Johnny Cash did the same think at Folsom Prison. Dizzie Gillespie emceed for the event, calling Palmieri onto the stage. His stories go on and on, mentioning one musical great after another without a hint of self-importance. He simply is talking about his community of musicians. I loved it.

Santos praised Palmieri on giving percussionists a place to play. “A lot of leaders were intimidated…I expect my percussionists to steal the show…” Santos listed percussion virtuoso upon virtuoso that has played with Palmieri. I just caught four names: Tommy Lopez, Chucky Lopez, Charlie Cotto, and most recently Camolo Molina. Palmieri states, “I’m a percussionist at heart.”

I had to leave early for another engagement before the end of the discussion, but not before the Maestro switched his seat to the piano bench. It was a black baby grand. He touched his fingers to it to do a little improvisation and then explained a technique to develop the independence of each finger on the keyboard and explaining his yoga practice to stretch the back. He said it was most important to keep the back long so that the nerve center at the base of the spine could talk to its sister nerves in the body. In no way did I expect to come to a talk with this man and weave my love of music with my love of anatomy, mathematics, and literature. I have a lot of homework to do and I will do it gladly to gain further insight into El Maestro.