Eddie Palmieri is adding film score to his long list of accomplishments with the soundtrack to an independent film.
The film is called Doin’ It in the Park and it’s a look at New York’s pick-up basketball scene.
In a video promoting the film, director Bobbitto Garcia talks about recruiting 77-year-old pianist and composer Eddie Palmieri to write a score matching the energy on screen.
“Eddie Palmieri – nine time Grammy Award winner, jazz master. And Eddie, amazingly, had never scored a film," Garcia said. "And so he loved the idea, he loves basketball.”
We reached Palmieri at his home studio in New Jersey.
“He (Bobbitto Garcia) knew that I had never written for any film or documentary or anything like that and I took it as a challenge and it turned out great. They always knew that I played ball, get it?” says Pamieri.
Palmieri’s full-court press, percussive piano technique, and that growling sound you hear him making; have earned him the nickname – “the madman of Latin music.” In fact the moaning and groaning created problems for record company executives during Palmieri’s first recording sessions in the early 1960s.
“They wanted to either gag me or put me in another room or something,” remembers Palmieri. “Then they said ‘listen, that’s the way he plays, just let him play, go ahead, let him moan and groan, whatever he wants to do.’”
Letting Palmieri do whatever he wants to do has resulted in some of the most significant recordings in Latin music over the past 50 years.
The Nuyorican, or New Yorker of Puerto Rican heritage, started his career in the 1950s playing with dance bands during the height of the mambo craze. Palmieri struck out on his own in the early ‘60s and hit it big with his band La Perfecta and tunes like this one – “Conmigo.”
That trombone-flute combination was an unusual sound in the early ‘60s because all the other Latin dance bands were led by trumpets.
“The two-trombone New York salsa sound and unbelievable technique on piano. Absolute master of this music bringing together jazz and the Afro-Cuban rhythms," says Jamie Dubberly a trombonist with the San Francisco-based Pacific Mambo Orchestra. The group won a Grammy Award this year for “Best Latin Tropical Album.” Percussionist Carlos Caro is also with the orchestra.
“Palmieri is a big influence. Every song he made was a hit.”
Not only was he a hit maker in the 60s and 70s, he was also active with social issues, performing benefit concerts for the Young Lords – a Puerto Rican nationalist group in New York City…as well as playing concerts in prisons such as Riker’s Island and Sing Sing. Palmieri’s 1972 album Recorded Live at Sing Sing with his group Harlem River Drive is a classic.
“It was a time of revolt in the streets,” explains Palmieri. “We had the Young Lords, you had the Black Panthers. I was in line with the Young Lords because I knew one of them. One of them was really close to me. When they put the flag around the eyes of the Statue of Liberty I’m the one that did a concert for them and bailed them out of jail at least with whatever I was able to bring out of the concert. But we blew them away. I had played Attica a couple of times, I did Lewisburg when they brought in the prisoners form Watergate. I did Sing Sing twice. I did Riker’s Island. Dizzy Gillespie was my MC. This was in Riker’s Island. He says ‘before I bring on my Latin soul brother – Eddie, have you ever seen such a captive audience?’”
Palmieri says from La Perfecta to “Doin’ It in the Park,” one thing ties his body of work together…a quality instilled in his musical DNA from the mambo days:
“They’re all danceable. And that comes from the old Palladium Ballroom with the great orchestras of Machito and his Afro Cubans, Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez.”
Palmieri’s music often gets labeled as “salsa” but he points out that the rhythms he plays all have their proper names such as: rhumba, guaguanco and montuno.
“All these rhythmical patterns that are African in origin, to lump that under one word – salsa – it’s blasphemy. And the best answer that we got was from the great Tito Puente. When they asked him ‘what do you think about salsa?’ He said ‘I put salsa on my spaghetti baby.’”
Palmieri says he’s still going strong after more than 60 years in the business because he has a passion for the music fueled by the musicians in his band – many of them young enough to be his grandchildren.
“You can’t get tired when you see these new, young players. It’s a young band, eager to play and I’m part of it.”
We recorded these interviews back in March as Palmieri and his young septet were prepairing to perform in Stockton Thursday, March 27 for a performance at San Joaquin Delta College and then following that up with the annual Brubeck Festival.