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Pop Music | Latin Pulse

Salsa Fans Get Two Legends, One 'Masterpiece'

August 06, 2000|ERNESTO LECHNER | Ernesto Lechner is a regular contributor to Calendar

When the news that Latin music legends Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri were recording together last year spread among Afro-Cuban music fans, the question on everybody's lips was:

Would their egos fit in the same room?

Timbalero Puente and eccentric keyboardist Palmieri had reputations as highly idiosyncratic bandleaders--brilliant, charismatic, stubborn and uncompromising.

But circumstances--ultimately tragic ones--allowed the two to work in harmony, according to Palmieri.

"There was never a question of ego," the 63-year old musician says. "Tito knew that I knew that he was going to die soon. His legs would fail him during the recording. He had postponed his heart surgery for years, because he was aware that he would never be the same after the procedure."

Puente didn't survive the surgery. He died May 31 at age 77, 2 1/2 weeks after completing the sessions with Palmieri.

The result of those sessions has just been released by RMM Records. Puente and Palmieri's "Masterpiece/Obra Maestra" is a superb, larger-than-life salsa collection, and a fitting finale to Puente's 100-plus-record discography.

It is no surprise that Puente and Palmieri hadn't recorded together until now. That the collaboration ended up working out so well borders on the miraculous.

In the '60s, the musicians' careers followed parallel paths. Both sought to delight the dancers who packed the Palladium in New York, but they also expanded the genre by experimenting with jazz (Puente) and unusual harmonies (Palmieri). Palmieri's "El Sonido Nuevo," a 1966 collaboration with vibraphonist Cal Tjader, included "Picadillo," a Puente composition. "Masterpiece" boasts a new version of that instrumental.

But as Palmieri's artistic quest became more rigorous, occasionally reaching the obscure and endangering his commercial viability, Puente transformed himself into an international showman, touring the world with his colorful orchestra and never failing to play his composition "Oye Como Va," which had become a pop hit for Santana.

"He decided to become the ambassador of Latin music, attending every party in sight and devoting his time to the world," says Palmieri. "I'm more antisocial. I've learned to love spending time alone. Loneliness is of essence if you want to delve deeply into your creativity."

*

During the better part of the '90s, Palmieri expressed his disgust about the state of contemporary salsa by retreating into the Latin jazz circuit. Puente concentrated on a dizzying concert schedule, interrupting his activities as composer and arranger--until Palmieri decided to do something about it.

"The secret was to take Puente back to the first 15 years of his career," he says. "The sound of pre-1960 Cuba was inside his ribs. If at one point or another he decided to abandon his original influences, that's his deal. I brought him back to them."

Rudy Mangual, editor of Latin Beat, a highly respected publication devoted to Afro-Cuban music, thinks the harmony was a result of the bandleaders' ages.

"You become softer when you get old," he says. "I think Palmieri and Puente realized it was time to leave the silly ego matters aside and do something the public had always wanted. I hear from people who were present during the sessions that it was a pretty relaxed affair."

The original idea for the project came from Palmieri, who envisioned a salsa album designed geographically, each one of its tunes devoted to a different country or culture.

Palmieri's globe-trotting concept works well because of the tight arrangements and the host of notable vocalists, which includes Oscar D'Leon, Pete "El Conde" Rodriguez, Jerry Medina and Herman Olivera, the former singer with Manny Oquendo's Libre and currently Palmieri's full-time vocalist.

There are nods to England, France, Germany and Puerto Rico. Mexico is represented with a mariachi medley that finds D'Leon interpreting "Cielito Lindo" with verve.

And salsa meets tango in the opening "La Ultima Copa," a daring stylistic experiment similar to one Palmieri attempted in his 1990 version of the Carlos Gardel standard "El Dia Que Me Quieras."

*

Although the spirit of Puente is present throughout the record, it is Palmieri's irrepressible musical personality that dominates the proceedings.

In fact, "Masterpiece" is a sequel of sorts to Palmieri's previous opus, 1998's "El Rumbero del Piano." Where that record explored the possibilities of a tropical conjunto (small ensemble), the new one transposes the same rhythmic and melodic dynamics to the lush setting of a large orchestra.

Through a career that has spanned close to 50 years and includes seminal works such as "The Sun of Latin Music" and "Unfinished Masterpiece," Palmieri has achieved a balance between an instinct for experimentation and a commercial understanding of what makes salsa dancers tick.

Besides the lesser-known Oquendo, Palmieri is probably the only veteran player in the genre who still remains at the top of his game.

Ultimately, the objective behind "Masterpiece" went beyond collaborating with Puente. For the last four years, Palmieri has been engaged in a veritable crusade to recover the original spirit of salsa. "The state of this music has been una tragedia ritmica," he says. "This new school of kindergarten arrangements has left the beat in the background, which is absurd. The drum imitates the pulse of life. It should always be the center of every Afro-Cuban composition."

Palmieri will present the new material in October during a tribute to Puente at the annual Hollywood Bowl Salsa and Latin Jazz Festival. He regrets that the timbalero won't be there to perform with him, but he is philosophical about his passing.

"I'm thankful that God decided to take Tito with him. If he had survived the operation but was unable to play his timbales, that would have given him an indescribable amount of suffering. In fact, seeing El Rey unable to perform would have killed us all."

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