In his storied 50-year career, Latin jazz pianist and bandleader Eddie Palmieri has released 36 albums and won nine Grammy Awards. Last week, he was dubbed an NEA Jazz Master at Lincoln Center, putting him in the same echelon as jazz greats Count Basie, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman and Ella Fitzgerald.
In the first of two sets Friday night at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, Palmieri’s virtuosic playing more than earned that company. But it was his infectious love of performing that brought hundreds of already adoring audience members to their feet.
Looking dapper in a gray suit and a red tie that would finish the set draped loosely around his neck, Palmieri took his seat at the piano and alighted on a delicate arpeggio. A slow smile crept across the 76-year-old’s face as lyrical phrases evolved into blues riffs, which then gave way to staccato splashes. Almost imperceptibly, bass player Luques Curtis and percussionist Jose Claussell chimed in, framing Palmieri’s free solo with cymbal crescendos and rhythmic bass notes. The theater hushed as one finger slid like silk over the keys, and Palmieri let out a soft cry. Suddenly, the song was off and running, with congas, bongos and timbales in full force at the helm of the Latin rhythm.
In those first few minutes, Palmieri demonstrated how playing the piano could be a whole-body affair. He manifested soaring scales with the touch of that one finger, pounded the keys with his elbows and forearms, shouted notes as he played them and even stood up to give the audience an endearing peek at his salsa dancing skills. For the most part, the other members of the ensemble were just as expressive; in particular, Claussell’s fancy footwork and ear-to-ear smile at the timbales complemented his exuberant solos on “Vanilla Extract” and “You Dig.”
Palmieri’s solos were tasteful and beautifully complex, but much of the time he was content to sit back and let the other musicians stake their claim. This particular septet lacked a trombone (Palmieri is famous for his two-trombone setup), so sax player Louis Fouche and trumpeter Jonathan Powell took on the lion’s share of solo work. It was a shame to miss most of Fouche’s muted first attempt on the opening song, but eventually the sound engineers made the necessary adjustments.
Between songs, audience members shouted requests, mostly for decades-old favorites. Palmieri resisted, using his one hour and 15 minutes on stage to play pieces he recorded in more recent years.
At the midpoint of the set, Palmieri paused to explain how tension and resistance are built into his Latin jazz repertoire. “If there’s any iota of wisdom that I have, it’s that I don’t think my music might excite you; I know it will,” he said.
True to his words, there was only one thing noticeably lacking from the show: an encore. Still, from start to finish, Palmieri had the audience dancing in their seats, delighting in the jubilance of the jazz master and his band.