The legendary jazz saxophonist, Charlie “Yardbird” Parker, once said, “Music is your own experience, your thoughts, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.” With the amount of knowledge and dexterity that goes into forming a great jazzman, this quote is perhaps even more true of jazz music. For pianist and bandleader Eddie Palmieri, who has recently celebrated his 80th birthday and over six decades of work in the music industry, his latest album, Sabiduría (English: wisdom) comes across not so much as a celebration of his fruitful career, but as an amalgamation of the experiences, thoughts and wisdom garnered throughout his time working as a jazz composer. Over the course of his time writing music, Palmieri, himself of Puerto Rican descent, has set his sights on infusing Latin jazz with various styles of Afro-Caribbean music, most notably Afrobeat, Afropop and African jazz stylings, whilst using the emphasis on rhythm of such genres to guide the other influences that are peppered throughout his work, from funk to pop and from soul to salsa. As such, his illustrious time spent in the music world has raised the pianist to the status of a luminary for those interested in deconstructing the melodic and rhythmic structures of various forms of jazz, as a means of developing their craft in definitive and inventive ways. Palmieri’s forward-thinking take on composing jazz music, paired with his dynamic, and often times abrasive, attitude towards playing the piano, retains an instantly recognisable sense of urgency and danceability, and, in this regard, Sabiduría stands as perhaps one of the bandleader’s most pronounced and successful efforts in recent years.
Once again, the mission statement of Sabiduría seems to be to explore the melodic and rhythmic tropes of all manner of genres, whilst rooting them in the Latin jazz stylings consistent across Palmieri’s back-catalogue. Perhaps even more explicitly than usual, this leads to a diverse and eclectic range of sounds and styles featured across the tracklisting, which, with 12 pieces being spread across 74 minutes of material, ranks amongst the artist’s longest records. Very little time is wasted, however, with the composer spending a great deal of the album’s runtime exploring new ideas, whilst allowing the impressive array of collaborators employed for the project to translate many of their own unique approaches to performing jazz. This is evident right from the onset with the opening track, Cuerdas y Tumbao, which, as the title suggests, is a string-orientated piece that explores the various forms of tumbao, as defined by different cultures and styles of music. The double bass pattern that introduces the piece coincides with the definition of tumbao amongst Afro-Cuban styles of music, in contrast to Palmieri’s piano guajeos, which are referred to as tumbaos within the Cuban dance genre of timba, and the basic conga drum rhythm that reflects the North American application of the term. Not only is this concept of employing all the notions of ‘tumbao’, according to differing styles of music, an incredibly inventive way of fusing genres from various cultures, but it also provides a solid backdrop, atop which violinist and previous Palmieri collaborator, Alfredo de la Fé, is given free reign to flaunt his individual style of fluttering violin work. Even Palmieri’s percussive piano playing assumes a supportive role, simply guiding the band through the composition’s intertwining sections, whilst not detracting from the whirls of vibrant violin playing from de la Fé. The following track, Wise Bata Blues, gives the horns their turn at the wheel, with trumpeters Jonathon Powell and Jonathon Walsh and saxophonists Jeremy Powell and Louis Fouche trading off explosive solos, each performed in their own distinct styles, before Palmieri and drummer Obed Calvaire round things off with their own set of solos. When considering the funk-infused, guitar-driven arrangement of the title track, the vibraphone-heavy mambo beats of La Cancha, the beautifully harmonised horns and rumba rhythms of Spinal Volt, or any number of the distinguishing features that so many of these tracks have to offer, it’s easy to discern that Palmieri’s modus operandi is centred around exploring and experimenting with as many styles of music as he sees fit. Indeed, this is surely the greatest success of Sabiduría, with each composition retaining a selection of definitive characteristics that sets it apart from the surrounding pieces and showcasing the artist’s acquired wisdom in completely separate ways.
As briefly mentioned previously, another key strength of Sabiduría, that encompasses much of Palmieri’s eclectic wisdom, is his knowledge in understanding the musicians with whom he surrounds himself and their individual attitudes towards their respective instruments. This manifests itself in the way in which the bandleader employs his collaborators as to best boast their talents. Perhaps the best example of this comes in the form of saxophonist Donald Harrison’s feature on the track Augustine Parish. Palmieri has long been known to pull inspiration from styles of dance music from across the globe, whilst Harrison is famed for his development of the ‘Nouveau Swing’ style of jazz playing, which essentially fuses the propulsive rhythms of swing music with contemporary Western dance music. As such, the simple Afro-Caribbean dance rhythms laced throughout the composition’s numerous, weaving passages are incredibly effective in supporting Harrison’s tastefully soulful sax lines, whilst Palmieri’s stabs of percussive piano provide a degree of dynamism that boosts the overall flare of the piece with great force. In a similar fashion, Joe Locke’s dexterous vibraphone work is employed atop some Latin-based dance beats on La Cancha and Locked In, which effectively contrasts the rather standard jazz stylings of Locke’s playing with Palmieri’s eclectic rhythmic influences. Whether it be the flare of fiery funk guitar brought into the mix by David Spinozza on the title track or de la Fé’s quivering violin lines on La Cancha, Palmieri wastes not one of the special guests to join him on Sabiduría, but he is also sure to leave room for a burst of passion of his own. The central track on the album, Life, features only Palmieri at his piano for a fittingly lonely and pained serenade, with the piano microphone capturing the eerie, anguished cries of the composer as he plays, conveying him as some sort of grief-stricken old man. Given the title of the song, this may be exactly the reason for Palmieri’s moans. Despite the rest of the record being dedicated to a showcase of the composer’s wisdom resulting from his age, Life is perhaps the other side of the coin; a hushed meditation on mortality in the form of one of the most personal pieces Palmieri has yet recorded.
Ultimately, Sabiduría may be a very decadent record, employing as many exotic musical stylings as it does lauded guest musicians and busy timbres, but Palmieri justifies each and every indulgence through his extraordinary capabilities as both a composer and a bandleader. Over 60 years of experience, thoughts and wisdom have shaped Eddie Palmieri into the Latin jazz ringleader that he is today, and Sabiduría encapsulates his far-reaching influence like few other albums in his discography.
The Vinyl Verdict: 8/10