PortFolio Weekly
August 13, 2002

Heating Up the Night

by Jim Newsom

Many jazz greats have appeared through the years at the Town Point Jazz Festival. Herbie Mann, Earl Klugh, Hugh Masekela, Bob James, the Rippingtons and the Yellowjackets are just a few of the names who've graced the festival marquee. But where the festival was once a three-day event unto itself, it's now one evening in the weeklong Jazz Norfolk celebration put together by Festevents. And this year, it will be one fiery evening of hot, spicy Latin jazz delivered by Eddie Palmieri and Los Hombres Caliente.

Five-time Grammy winner Eddie Palmieri is a genuine living legend. In a career spanning forty years as a bandleader, Palmieri has become the embodiment of the Latin Jazz genre.

Born in New York's Spanish Harlem in 1936, Palmieri took up the piano at an early age, making his Carnegie Hall classical debut at age eleven. He played timbales in his uncle's orchestra as a teenager, but soon returned to the piano, where his percussive style still harkens back to those youthful days as a timbaluero.

He played in several Latin bands in the '50s, and began leading his own aggregation in 1961, La Perfecta. Palmieri established a unique sound with La Perfecta, putting a trombone/flute blend in the front line instead of trumpets, which were the standard Latin lead instruments of the time. The unusual lineup led to La Perfecta being nicknamed "the band with the crazy roaring elephants."

La Perfecta blazed a path through the 1960s, after which Palmieri continued to experiment with different lineups and explore new influences. He assimilated the sounds of jazz favorites McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Horace Silver and Biches Brew-era Miles Davis, and wrapped them all up in his own Afro-Cuban coating.

Palmieri's new album for Concord Picante Records, La Perfecta II, takes original La Perfecta material from long ago, adds some new pieces, and creates an update on his original Afro-Caribbean concept. Once again, trombones and flute lead the way, as bonemen Conrad Herwig, Reynaldo Jorge and Doug Beavers combine with flutists Eddy Zervigon and Dave Valentin to put the topping on the smoking Latin rhythms.

The pianist's liner notes on La Perfecta II state his mission plainly: "Let the energy of this band lead you to the dance floor and celebrate the sound, for in these uncertain times we must truly celebrate life itself."

On Saturday night, Eddie Palmieri and his band will fill Town Point Park with buoyant, joyous music that throbs with the same celebratory excitement he generated in New York's Palladium dance hall forty years ago.

While Eddie Palmieri is literally one of the inventors of modern Latin jazz, Los Hombres Calientes represents the new breed of rhythmic world music. In its brief four-year existence, the group has become recognized as one of the pre-eminent ensembles of the genre.

The genesis of the group came about when percussionist Bill Summers joined forces with a couple of young musicians who had come to him for lessons on traditional African bata drums, trumpeter Irvin Mayfield and drummer Jason Marsalis. The three discovered a mutual desire to blend the rhythmic African-derived sounds of Cuba and the Caribbean with the rich musical wealth of their native New Orleans, trying the concept out in a one-shot club appearance. The audience response that first night was overwhelming, the record company offers immediate. The band name, which translates as "The Hot Men" in English, stuck and the group was on its way.

Choosing to sign with a small New Orleans label, Basin Street Records, the band quickly recorded its first album at Summers' house, and four months later had the top selling CD at the 1998 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. That disc went on to be named the "Contemporary Latin Jazz Album of the Year" by Billboard magazine.

Marsalis is no longer with the Hombres, but Summers and Mayfield have assembled a crack group of groove merchants who never let up. Summers, a master percussionist who first surfaced thirty years ago as a member of Herbie Hancock's Headhunters, puts it this way: "Once we put everything together and get up on a stage, our goal is to have as much fun as a group of humans can possibly have at any given time."

The band's third album, Vol. 3: New Congo Square, was a Grammy nominee and Billboard Latin Music Award finalist earlier this year. Recorded in Brazil, Jamaica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and at home in the Big Easy, the disc reflects the musical influences percolating in each of these locales. Mayfield's trumpet skills are on vibrant display, and the multi-layered drum/percussion section cooks up a polyrhythmic gumbo full of hot spices and subtle herbs. It's a 79-minute musical cruise through the Caribbean, full of booty-shaking jazz funk, reggae, salsa and samba. There's some Jobim here, Bob Marley there, and a solid groove throughout.

While Los Hombres Calientes' three recordings have stirred up a firestorm of excitement, it's in live performance that the band really ignites. Seeing the band in concert is no passive listening experience, as audiences usually dance, chant and party along with the music.

With this much Latin fire and Afro-Caribbean rhythm snaking through Town Point Park, it's certain the Norfolk waterfront will come alive Saturday night. It'll be a great 20th birthday celebration for the Town Point Jazz Festival, and an exciting climax for Jazz Norfolk 2002.

The festivities begin at 5:00 pm Saturday night, with Los Hombres Calientes scheduled to begin at 6:00, and Eddie Palmieri due onstage around 8:15.

copyright 2002 Port Folio Weekly. Used by Permission.