By the mid-1960s, Latin-jazz was in rapid transition. Americans' appetite for Cuban dance music had cooled as tensions between Fidel Castro and the United States heated up in the early 1960s. At the same time, new forms of Latin music were emerging from the Puerto Rican neighborhoods of New York's Spanish Harlem and South Bronx. Largely influenced by the surging popularity of soul and funk, this new Latin music featured chunkier beats and new instrument configurations. The sound would eventually become known as salsa in the early 1970s. An early pioneer of this music was pianist Eddie Palmieri [pictured], who introduced a new lyrical and rhythmic tension to Latin jazz.
Palmieri was a piano prodigy who began his recording career in 1961 after forming Conjunto La Perfecta ("The Perfect Group"). La Perfecta specialized mostly in the Charanga dance rhythm, which featured a piercing flute. But Palmieri replaced the traditional trumpets found in most Latin bands at the time with wailing trombones, and La Perfecta becoming known as "the band with the crazy roaring elephants." Palmieri also favored arranging melodies around hypnotic riffs that served as the basis for his percussive keyboard technique. Palmieri's fifth album with La Perfecta was Azucar Pa' Ti (Sugar for You). Recorded in 1965, the album was perhaps the finest expression by this group to date, featuring sophisticated boleros (ballads) and energetic son (up-tempo songs with near-shouting vocals first popularized by Benny More in the 1950s).
What makes Azucar Pa' Ti so fascinating is its varied mix of songs, fresh beats, exciting arrangements and timing. When this album was released in 1965, Latin-funk had become the rage, sparked in 1963 by Ray Barretto's [pictured] El Watusi and Mongo Santamaria's Watermelon Man. This Latin-funk (eventually coined "the boogaloo") would, of course, play a major role in the development of jazz-soul fusion on the Blue Note label when Lee Morgan's boogaloo hit, The Sidewinder, entered Billboard's Top Pop chart in 1964. But rather than swing pop, Palmieri resisted the trend to Latin-funk and instead created a glossier sound complete with a wide range of riffs and contagious beats.
Surprisingly, Azucar Pa' Ti opens slow with a bolero (ballad)—Solo Pensar En Ti ("Thinking Only of You"). The sultry composition with Ismael "Pat" Quintana [pictured] on vocal is haunting and sensual, with Barry Rogers' trombone and Palmieri's piano playing off each other in hushed conversation. Azucar is a mambo, and Los Cueros Me Llaman and Oyelo Que Te Conviene are up-tempo guaguanco tracks and emblematic of Palmieri's new sound. Lots of action up top with a steady washing-machine riff at the base.
Other highlights on the album include Cuidate Compay ("Take Care, Friend"), a Charanga-chachacha and one of the album's catchiest tunes. Tema Del Apollo ("The Apollo Theme") is a funky cha-cha-cha that grinds, catching the early feel of the boogaloo. Palmieri composed it in honor of the Apollo Theater fans. Trombonist Rogers [pictured] and timbalero Manny Oquendo with Palmieri's piano turn out a potent track.
Azucar Pa 'Ti is a historic Latin-jazz recording for several reasons. The album broke new rhythmic and vocal ground while retaining the music's sensual past. The album also marks the first recording of Palmieri playing his trademark montuno (repeated syncopated vamp) with one hand while soloing with the other. Most of all, Azucar Pa 'Ti launched a form of music that trombonist Willie Colon and singer Hector Lavoe [pictured, left and right] would leverage two years later to develop what is now known as arena salsa in the 1970s.
JazzWax tracks: Eddie Palmieri's Azucar Pa' Ti is a mid-1960s Latin-jazz classic and has recently been given a beautiful remastering. The album is available at iTunes and Amazon as a download. Or it's here on CD.
JazzWax clip: Here's Eddie Palmieri and his group La Perfecta II (featuring Karen Joseph on flute) at the 2004 North Sea Jazz Festival playing Cuidate Compay, originally recorded on the 1965 album above...