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Eddie Palmieri Trio; Roberto Roena and Chino Nuez; Live Latin events

Eddie Palmieri Trio: Iridium Jazz Club

It began as an experiment at the San Francisco Jazz Festival last year: Eddie Palmieri—the maestro of the Latin piano—and 38-year-old saxophonist David Sanchez jammed.

"It was a duo. Believe it or not, it was better because it was freer," says Sanchez, making noises as if being blown away: "It was ... libre, libre."

At age 70, the piano giant isn't done experimenting. Palmieri added 23-year-old bassist Luques Curtis to make it a trio for this limited engagement in June at New York's Iridium Jazz Club. The trio is chevere, opines Sanchez—cool—but different. Even with bass this time, it's the first time Palmieri has performed with such a minimal rhythm section.

"You've got three generations of Puerto Rican musicians on one stage," remarks Palmieri's son and manager, Eddie Palmieri II, as we settle in for this final gig's first set. Producer and author Ned Sublette and pianist Edsel Gomez are here tonight, just several among the many musical interesati who've turned up during the four-day run.

The first set has a melodic, rambling character—Debussy-like, with lots of space for Palmieri to dialogue and invent with his younger cohorts. "Bianca's Waltz," "Bolero Dos" and "Iraida" (written for Palmieri's wife) are among the tunes. The old Palmieri is recognizable, with his warhorse montunos and looping introductions, but tonight there is a lightness and focus. This trio sounds like pure fun.

"It's a different approach to the instrument, naturally," says Palmieri between sets. "We reflect from each other whatever we're doing, and we find each other within the groove, so to speak. So it's an interesting time on the bandstand because of the exchange of ideas. It's exciting, not as rigid as when you've got to play with the orchestra, playing the arrangements. This is more free-form, so it's nice."

Sublette, the author of Cuba and its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo and The World That Made New Orleans, is certainly engaged by the interplay: "It's really impressive to see how Luques Curtis stayed locked in, no matter what time paradox Eddie throws at him," he says after the set. "I was looking to see if he was cabled in somehow."

"Eddie's been one of our heroes for, like, forever," says Curtis' brother Damien, a pianist who's also in the crowd. "We've all known Eddie since we were young." Growing up in Hartford, Conn., the Curtis brothers enjoyed mentoring from another set of musical brothers—Andy and Jerry Gonzalez. Luques earned his performance degree at Berklee and now plays in New York with Shawn Jones and Christian Scott, as well as his family's Latin jazz band, Insight.

Like Curtis, Sanchez first played with Palmieri as a youngster in Puerto Rico, and he also comes from an artistic and musical family. He is set to go into the studio in August to record his latest composition, "La Leyenda del Cañaveral," based on an epic poem his sister wrote in response to Sanchez' own album, Melaza. The new work, scheduled for its New York debut in Carnegie Hall on Oct. 18, will close the circle of influence.

Sanchez says he took rhythms for "La Leyenda" from the rhythm of his sister's words. I can believe this as I listen to the trio's second (and ultimate) set, which turns up the gas on some of Eddie's hotter salsa tunes like "Puerto Rico." Sanchez seems to be speaking the name of the enchanted island with his horn.

There are welcome surprises once again, as Palmieri finds new ways of replicating the hair-raising highs achieved by his dance band without coros or drums. Sanchez floats on top of these tunes for the most part, with the dark colors and elegant speed for which he is known.

"This is something quite special. We're talking about the possibility of doing something together," says Palmieri about recording the trio. One can only hope.

Roberto Roena, Chino Nuñez: Lehman Center

With his bongos, his bells, his incomprehensibly gruff voice and his blazing skill as a rumba dancer, Roberto Roena is a maverick in the salsa pantheon: His band, Apollo Sound, is based in Puerto Rico rather than New York. In the 1970s, he strung hits like pearls on albums named simply by number: 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, Lucky 7 and so on. This night in June, they are headlining at the Bronx's Lehman Center, their first New York appearance in 18 years.

Chino Nuñez and Friends, a young New York band with fresh energy, opens. The timbalero heavyweight parted ways with Spanish Harlem Orchestra last year to devote his energy to his own group full time. Tonight, Eddie Montalvo and Gilberto "Pulpo" Colon join Nuñez for a tribute to the late Héctor Lavoe, the Puerto Rican singer portrayed by Marc Anthony in the flick El Cantante opening (finally) Aug. 3. Frankie Vazquez is in great form taking lead vocals on a Lavoe medley that includes "Periodico de Ayer," and singer Yoko pulls off a swinging version of La Lupe's "La Tirana."

Backstage, the Puerto Rican Apollo Sound is all hustle and bustle getting ready for their big entrance: Rumor has it, Roena will be lifted like a rock star on the rising orchestra pit amid smoke effects. The musicians' monochrome suits in a range of Easter colors look bold in the garish hallway light, but soften into choreographed pastels on stage. Robin's egg blue delineates the horns, peach marks the rhythm section, lavender for the four singers (appearing rinsed by the spotlights into the purest white), and the subtlest baby blue for the man himself, his microphone set waist high to catch the sound of his bells.

The cowbell in rock 'n' roll, now a minor cultural icon thanks to a parody sketch on Saturday Night Live, never reached this divine lilt. It's the secret of the Puerto Rican swing. Now, this cheesy rock star entrance comes off to the delight of fans: Roena, cowbell god, flanked by minor divinities on a cloud of glory.

Live Latin Events

click to enlarge Santino returns to Cary for Festival Ritmo Latino. - PHOTO COURTESY OF SANTINO
  • Photo courtesy of Santino
  • Santino returns to Cary for Festival Ritmo Latino.

Friday, July 20: 9 p.m.: Tiempo Libre at the Empire Ballroom, Greensboro. Grammy-nominated timba band from Cuba via Miami; part of the Eastern Music Festival's Fringe Festival. www.easternmusicfestival.org. $20-25.

Friday, July 20: 12:30-6 p.m.: Colombian Independence Day celebration with DJ, folkloric dance, food vendors. Lake Wheeler Park, Raleigh. 249-6105. Free.

Friday-Saturday, July 20-21: Descarga Caribe dance party, workshop and performances. Workshop for salsa and mambo dancers who want to integrate jazz technique into their dancing, taught by visiting instructor Sekou McMiller. Weekend begins with a dance party at Touch Ultra Lounge at Carmen's Cuban Café in Morrisville Friday night. The workshop from noon-4 p.m. on Saturday at the Triangle Dance Studio in Durham will be followed by performances that evening at the Fred Astaire Dance Studio, also in Durham. Workshop is $60 in advance; full weekend package of $70 available through July 18, $90 after. www.mambodinamico.com.

Friday, July 27: 7:30 p.m.: Carnavalito. Starlight Concert Series. On the lawn at the Page-Walker Arts Center, Cary. 460-4963, www.townofcary.org. Free.

Saturday, July 28: noon-6 p.m.: Pasadia Puertorriqueña. Live bomba and plena music, plus food vendors. Lake Wheeler Park, Raleigh. Free.

Saturday, July 28: 10 p.m.-1 a.m.: Havana Nights Cuban Salsa Party. 501 Washington St. Raleigh. www.stepbystepsalsa.com. $8.

Sunday, Aug. 5: 1-6 p.m.: Festival Ritmo Latino. Santino (Latin rock), Rey Norteño (Mexican regional), Orquesta Gardel (salsa), crafts and food vendors, kids activities, more. Fred G. Bond Metro Park, Cary. 852-0075, www.diamanteinc.org. Free.

  • Eddie Palmieri Trio; Roberto Roena and Chino Nuñez; Live Latin events

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