An unpredictable Afro-Caribbean genius if there ever was one, 67-year-old Nuyorican keyboardist Eddie Palmieri divides his time between brainy Latin jazz concerts and joyful salsa gigs. And because the man’s penchant for anarchic experimentation works best within the structured confines of traditional tropical music, his dance-friendly evening at the Conga Room was a glowing example of Palmieri at his very best.
Unlike most of the tropical giants from the past who continue touring to this day (think Ray Barretto or Willie Colon), Palmieri has never stopped making interesting albums. His latest venture? Resurrecting La Perfecta, his apocalyptic, trombone-heavy orchestra from the ’60s, but with tighter arrangements and longer improvisations.
Displaying his longstanding talent for surrounding himself with the best possible collaborators, Palmieri performed with a peerless nonet that included the fiery trombone of Jimmy Bosch and the macho vocalizing of Herman Olivera — one of the few from a younger generation of singers who is close to matching the level of a Hector Lavoe or a Ruben Blades.
Palmieri’s jams are not for the faint of heart. On the revised version of the Cuban oldie “Lazaro y su microfono,” a dense, typically rhythmic keyboard solo (you can tell this is a pianist who began his career as a percussionist) gave way to an orgasmic entrance of the brass section, the two trombones creating a majestic cushion of sound while Olivera unleashed a thunderous vocal improvisation.
You don’t need to be a fancy salsa dancer for this music to ignite your soul. Toward the end of the 90-minute set, when the mischievous Papa Palmieri delivered old hits such as “Puerto Rico” and the anthemic “Azucar,” you could feel the crowd held hostage by every carefully calibrated timbale accent or dissonant piano chord. Palmieri has always been an expert manipulator, and his performances are one of the reasons why salsa continues to be one of Latin music’s most reliable genres.