The Harlem-born pianist, composer and bandleader Eddie Palmieri simply has no peer when it comes to cross-pollinating salsa and hard-bop jazz with torrid, original tunes full of improvisational zest.
After reinvestigating his pioneering salsa roots for most of his past two discs, Palmieri's latest, "Listen Here!," is probably the most purposeful jazz record of his prolific 50-year career. The Afro-Caribbean Jazz Octet he formed a dozen years ago has been reconvened; a bevy of high-profile guests have been enlisted; and for the first time, Palmieri supplements his own compositions with some classics from the jazz repertory. The results are frequently scintillating, occasionally glorious and, ultimately, not as much of a stylistic departure as one might expect.
Palmieri loves to start strong, and "In Flight" delivers, featuring violinist Regina Carter soaring like a mutant horn player over brass chordal fanfares. Then a pair of alumni from Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers -- trumpeter Brian Lynch and alto saxophonist Donald Harrison -- trade leads with the giddy aplomb of the Harlem Globetrotters on a fast break, culminating in a series of high trills that Carter snatches and matches at the top of the scale as she swoops and glides through a second solo. Carter also takes an elegant turn -- bowed and pizzicato -- alongside guest trumpeter Nicholas Payton and the octet on a slightly staid and somewhat disjointed arrangement of Horace Silver's "Nica's Dream."
But the three other cover songs are uniformly splendid. Palmieri's rhythmic pivots and intrepid approach to harmony on the keyboard often provoke comparisons to Thelonious Monk, but his take on Monk's "In Walked Bud" is most notable for the contrast between the horns frothing the creamy melody and the crackerjack bass-drums-congas rhythm section providing furious Latin polyrhythms.
On Eddie Harris's '60s "hit" title track, tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker nails the composer's suave, funky swagger before Palmieri gooses the intensity with a boldly crisscrossing, Monkish solo that inspires Brecker into one of his John Coltrane-like fusillades. And that's Christian McBride's rubber-tone soul (sole?) laying down the rapidly walking bass line.
A rendition of the Dizzy Gillespie staple "Tin Tin Deo" rounds out the covers. Guest tenor saxophonist David Sanchez alternately rags the beat and surges ahead of it before Palmieri imposes the disc's purest clave rhythm and master conguero Giovanni Hidalgo ably honors the spirit of Gillespie's Cuban conga cohort (and "Tin Tin Deo" co-composer) Chano Pozo.
As is usually the case on Palmieri outings, the slower songs are less reliable. The flamenco-tinged "La Gitana," featuring guitarist John Scofield with the pianist and bassist John Benitez, is by turns delicate and harshly dynamic, and requires patience and the right mood for maximum enjoyment. "Tema Para Eydie," a bolero duet with Benitez, has an air of Euro-classical muzak. But "Mira Flores" is a gorgeous waltz, with Brecker and McBride executing restrained but simmering treatments of Palmieri's graceful melody in a drummerless context.
That leads into the barn-burning finale, the self-descriptive "EP Blues." It bristles with the sort of ecstatic gusto that occurs when seasoned, redoubtable horn players such as Payton, Lynch and Harrison realize that Palmieri and the rest of this rhythm section can gird, buoy and propel the most adventurous improvisations, then tear up the tune in their own right. It's salsa and jazz, blurred into one. And at 68, Palmieri sounds like he has at least a decade or two left of it in him.
Eddie Palmieri is performing at Blues Alley tonight through Sunday.