To enter the sonic universe of legendary Afro-Caribbean pianist and bandleader Eddie Palmieri is to enter a bizarro landscape where Eddie the Mad Genius might just be looming around the corner, ready to throw listeners off balance with his eccentric choices. For Palmieri can clearly appreciate the beauty of sounds that common listeners fail to comprehend. The keyboardist’s first set at Catalina Bar & Grill was a typically bewildering Palmieri experience, irritating and enlightening at the same time.
First there was the unaccompanied solo. A long solo. A really long solo. Palmieri kept at it for more than 30 minutes, developing gentle melodic patterns only to destroy them with violent clusters of dissonance, switching from delicate mannerism to random chaos in a nanosecond.
All along, he growled and hummed to himself like a happy drunkard lost in a dark alley somewhere in the Caribbean. For a moment, he stopped and burst out laughing — then began again, completely enveloped in the power of his own trance.
Then, as soon as Palmieri’s sextet came onstage and launched into a powerful version of Tito Puente’s “Picadillo,” the maestro suddenly became joyful and accessible.
As performed by Puente, “Picadillo” was a textbook sample of vintage tropical music — polished, elegant, refined. In the hands of Palmieri, the tune becomes a funk cookout, fueled by the maestro’s menacing piano lines and timbalist Jose Claussell’s impossibly syncopated rhythms.
Incomprehensible was the keyboardist’s decision to end the set after a scant three tunes, just when the music had picked up momentum. He also chose not to preview his soon-to-be-released new album “Ritmo Caliente,” one of the strongest collections of dance material he has recorded in years.