Eddie Palmieri's 'Mi Luz Mayor': A Love Story and Master Class in Latin Music

Eddie Palmieri
Erik Valind

Eddie Palmieri

“I don’t guess I’m going to excite you with my music,” the famed salsa and Latin jazz pianist says. “I know it.”

Tito Rodríguez, the mid-Century Manhattan legend who, together with Machito and Tito Puente, ruled the clubs when live Latin dance music was at its pinnacle in New York City, was Iraida González Planas’ favorite bandleader.

“Tito Rodríguez was the whole deal, the whole nine yards,” Eddie Palmieri says of the Puerto Rican singer whose orchestra his wife Iraida adored, and with whom he had his first big break, playing piano with the Tito Rodríguez Orchestra from 1958 to 1960 before founding his own explosive group, La Perfecta. “He always had the best musicians. I learned with the best, and then I went on my own," Palmieri tells Billboard.

“Tito was an immaculate dresser,” he adds, recalling the black-tie glamour of the period when he performed with Rodríguez’s band. He reveals that Iraida’s father --  who for four decades worked as a diamond cutter for Harry Winston -- had shaped stones for Rodríguez’s pinky ring.

Behind the passionate music of Palmieri’s time-bending new album, Mi Luz Mayor, are a lifetime of such anecdotes that tell the intertwining stories of the Spanish Harlem-born pianist and his Puerto Rico-born wife, and the story of the New York music -- Latin jazz and salsa -- that Palmieri -- genius, rebel and gentlemen -- has had a significant part in creating.

“The album is a love story dedicated to Iraida,” Palmieri, who will turn 82 this Saturday (Dec. 15), says during a bilingual phone conversation from his home in New Jersey. “That’s my girlfriend. She was everything to me in my life. She helped me throughout my complete career, the ups and downs of it, whatever we went through, she was there.”

Palmieri began work on the album before Iraida passed away from cancer in 2014. “It was a way to work through my grief,” he says. He credits his mother in-law with providing the name for the album and its emotional title track. “She once said to me ‘Iraida is tu luz mayor,’ your shining light, your eternal light. I never forgot that.”

He recorded Mi Luz Mayor with a big band of 20 top forward-thinking musicians whose names will widen the eyes of old school-style Latin dance music fans: trumpeter Brian Lynch, conguero “Little” Johnny Rivero, trombonists Jimmy Bosch and Conrad Herwig, and tres player Nelson Gonzalez, to name just a few. Celebrated vocalists Gilberto Santa Rosa and Hermán Olivera also sing on the album.

“Two great soneros like Santa Rosa and Hermán Olivera never sang together like this,” enthuses Palmieri. “In New York, that would have been if like Tito Rodríguez had sung with Machito on an album.”

Carlos Santana guests with a solo on the track “Mi Congo.” (“We recorded, and when my son went to give him his check, he gave it back and said, ‘I should be the one paying you guys,” Palmieri recounts.)

“No one records like this anymore,” says the musician and bandleader, whose career bridged New York’s mambo era at the Palladium with the rise of salsa: Palmieri was there when the Fania All Stars brought the then-new urban Latin sound to a boiling point at Manhattan’s Red Garter club. Over his career, the prolific Palmieri has recorded almost 40 albums and won 10 Grammy awards; Mi Luz Mayor is his second to be released this year, following Full Circle.

“No one comes near what we have here,” he says of his new album, which was released on Dec. 7. “It’s like it’s coming from another planet. It’s the best musicians in the world because this recording is coming out of the mecca of New York.”

Palmieri’s education started with piano lessons, which he took from a private teacher in a building next door to Carnegie Hall when he was a boy. But his education about the music of the New York Latin scene that he would become a crucial part of began on the streets of the Bronx:

“I was raised in the Bronx, and we played what we call stickball, that was how we imitated baseball with a rubber ball and a broom stick. At that time, the commercial radio was playing Machito and Tito Rodríguez every day, and all the bodegas used to play the music loud, so when I was playing stickball I was listening to all the new recordings that were coming out," he says.

Palmieri switched from piano to timbales. In an oft-told story that is hilarious when he tells it with his classic New York borscht-belt timing, his mother discouraged his dreams of being a percussionist by sneakily buying him a ridiculously heavy trunk to put his timbales in. He had to lug it to the gigs he played with a band led by his uncle when he was still a teen. Eddie went back to the piano.

He credits his brother, the great pianist Charlie Palmieri, with getting him every job he ever had. Eddie pays tribute to his brother on the album with “Abarriba Cumbiaremos” -- Charlie played on the classic Tito Rodríguez version of the song. The album also pays homage to René Hernández, the longtime pianist for Machito and his Afro-Cubans, who originally arranged “Abarriba Cumbiaremos” and other songs on Mi Luz Mayor.

Another great arranger, Ray Santos, who is now 90 years-old, worked with Palmieri on the new album. “Rene Hernandez was the mentor for Ray Santos,” he explains. “He played tenor with all the big bands, with Machito, Tito Rodriguez and Tito Puente. For Mi Luz Mayor, he embellished all the same arrangements [most done for trumpets alone], putting five saxophones and four trombones to the original arrangements of Rene Hernandez.”

Mi Luz Mayor homage to the power of the past’s Latin musicians also includes two classic songs by the Puerto Rican bolero singer Bobby Capó: “Soñando con Puerto Rico” and “Que Falta Tu Me Haces.”

 “I don’t guess I’m going to excite you with my music, I know it,” Palmieri says, when asked to define the secret of such music’s timelessness. “I learned it intuitively, listening to the Cuban music in the 50s and 60s, how they could excite me in less than two minutes and 45 seconds, that’s how you had to record then to put 12 compositions on an LP.  

“Our music must have that tension and resistance just like in sex,” he adds. “It’s an orgasm, but in music it’s the rhythmical combination that gives you the highest degree of a musical climax, and that’s called tension and resistance.” He has no love for the music that kids are listening to on the streets today.

“Now, all the recordings that you hear, it’s a disaster,” Palmieri says. “On commercial radio, you just hear the singer singing you never hear a piano solo, a bass solo, you don’t hear a bongo, a conga solo... it’s just a blend, it doesn’t go anywhere. “

Palmieri is currently on the faculty of Rutgers University, where he teaches master classes in the school’s Jazz Studies Institute. He hopes that Mi Luz Mayor will serve the same purpose. At the same time that Mi Luz Mayor honors his wife Iraida, Palmieri, he wants the album to help ensure the future of Latin music’s past.

“This is for students who want to know how to play our instruments,” he says.