From Salsa to Jazz and Back Again

Ernesto Lechner is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Salsa fans have been wondering why Eddie Palmieri hasn't released a dance-friendly record for the last 11 years. Well, you can blame the tepid salsa of the '90s for his retreat. With the introduction of new genres such as salsa romantica, "I knew that I just didn't fit in," says Palmieri.

Instead, the 62-year-old keyboardist-composer threw himself into the world of Latin jazz. "I found a niche where I could work at peace, since I happen to love the harmonics of jazz," he says.

For his latest project, Ralph Mercado, the owner of his label RMM, suggested an album that would include Latin jazz and salsa compositions. But when the sessions yielded nine smoking dance numbers, it was too late to change direction, and the album, titled "El Rumbero del Piano," became an all-salsa collection. It was released in late August.

"We call them all salsa, but in reality these are many different rhythmic patterns, like the guaguanco, the guajira, the guaracha and the rumba," explains the New York-based Palmieri. "My forte was always pleasing the dancers."

Indeed, Palmieri has always been at his best within the format of dance music, from 1965's breakthrough hit "Azucar" to Grammy-winning concept albums such as "The Sun of Latin Music" and "Unfinished Masterpiece."

The musician will be presenting his new material at the fifth annual Hollywood Salsa & Latin Jazz Festival on Oct. 3 at the Hollywood Bowl. His presence is certainly a boost to a lineup that so far appears weak compared to previous editions of the festival.

"Unfortunately for the other acts playing the Bowl, we will be performing the new stuff," says Palmieri, jokingly taking a jab at his colleagues. "I've put my whole soul into this record, and I want it to be an antidote for the tragic state of affairs in today's [salsa] radio.

"There are no exciting salsa orchestras in this country," he continues. "The groups that make you dance and sing and jump up and down are the Cuban ones. Here, you can't recognize one band from the other. They all sound the same and their musicianship is awful. I'm here to correct the rhythmic sins of those orchestras."

* The Hollywood Salsa & Latin Jazz Festival, with Eddie Palmieri, Albita, the Afro-Cuban All Stars, Gilberto Santa Rosa and Dark Latin Groove, Oct. 3 at the Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave. 7 p.m. $23-$128. (323) 850-2000.

SALSA RESURGENCE: Palmieri's new album arrives during a disappointing year for lovers of salsa, with no new records making a lasting impression. But there are signs that the veteran keyboardist is not alone in turning the tide.

Los Angeles label Ahi-Nama has just released singer Rolo Martinez's "Para Bailar Mi Son," another serious contender for salsa record of the year.

The collection, a fiery combination of traditional Cuban son and modern production techniques, is a stunning showcase for the raspy-voiced singer, who started his career 40 years ago and has released only three solo albums in that time.

Martinez, who in the '50s was a member of a spectacular orchestra led by Felix Chapottin, is aided this time around by the musical direction of pianist Lazaro Valdes, leader of the group Bamboleo.

Other noteworthy recent salsa recordings include the second album by Congo native Ricardo Lemvo, a live release by New York's Johnny Almendra and the latest from the more traditional Cuban band Arte Mixto.

"I'm really happy about the releases by Palmieri, Arte Mixto and [singer] Jerry Medina because so far this year has been really bad for salsa," says Rudy Mangual, editor and publisher of Latin Beat, one of the leading magazines in the world of Afro-Caribbean music.

"What I find ironic is the fact that at a time when I am really not happy with the current releases in the field, the rest of the world is finally enjoying salsa. Everywhere I go, there's salsa night at every club in town, people are learning how to dance and everybody's going crazy over [Afro-Cuban] music."

ROCK ROOTS: A sharp contrast to the lukewarm state of affairs in salsa is the creative surge of rock en espan~ol, which in the last two years has seen superb releases by such exciting groups as Aterciopelados, Fabulosos Cadillacs and Los Amigos Invisibles.

Now, PolyGram Latino is exploring the artists that took Latin rock to that level with "Los Clasicos del Rock en Espan~ol," a just-released series of albums compiling earlier material from a variety of famous and not-so-famous acts.

Only six of the 10 releases are compilations in the real sense of the word. The volume devoted to Fabulosos Cadillacs, for instance, is actually a reissue of the band's first album, "Bares y Fondas." The same applies for the disc on pop group Mana, while the albums covering the careers of rebellious Mexican group Botellita de Jerez and so-so Argentine rappers Illya Kuryaki & the Valderramas are actually live collections.

Other artists showcased in the series include Chile's techno group La Ley, pioneer rocker Charly Garcia and the excellent but relatively unknown group Divididos.

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