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Friday, June 19, 2009

Last Night: Eddie Palmieri at Yoshi's

Posted By on Fri, Jun 19, 2009 at 11:06 AM

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The legendary Puerto Rican pianist and bandleader Eddie Palmieri, 73, began his first set of a four-day run at Yoshi's in San Francisco by introducing the five other musicians who made up the group of Eddie Palmieri All-Stars: Carlos Henriquez, 30, on bass; Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez, 45, on drums; David Sanchez, 40, on tenor sax; Brian Lynch, 53, on trumpet; and Giovanni Hidalgo, 46, on congas. Like Art Blakey before him, Eddie Palmieri, who's been leading salsa and jazz orchestras for over 50 years, likes to play with the hottest young guys. And his set last night was hot indeed.

The ad hoc group, also known as "The Pan-Carribean Summit," (members hail from Cuba as well as Puerto Rico -- and the Bronx and Urbana, Illinois!), didn't waste a second of their time on stage, swinging into irresistible propulsive action that instantly connected with the full house, who responded vocally.

Palmieri, playing on a gleaming Steinway baby grand with laid-back cool (reminding you why he's been called "the Thelonius Monk of Latin music"), gave his All-Stars (all of whom can have "Grammy-award-winning" appended to their names) plenty of room to swing in and out with long solos that both aroused and soothed.

It's hard to single out a favorite -- talk about evenly matched! -- but David Sanchez and Brian Lynch managed to sound like six horns in concert, and Giovanni Hidalgo's conga work was knowing and witty. Sometimes the four congas rang out like rifle shots, other times he stroked them like kittens. When he was on, he brought Havana into the house -- as did Horacio Hernandez, who looked like Daniel Day Lewis behind the drum set.

When Eddie Palmieri took over, especially in the third number of four (all unnamed, alas, for the lexicographer), his playing was mesmerizing, as well as were the guttural, Glenn-Gould-like sounds he uttered. ("The Blue Note doesn't have room for a piano like that!," one of my friends said.)

The floor of the club was crowded with tables, but a few couples couldn't resist and danced along the edges, wherever they could find a space. The only problem I could find with the superb, seamless hour-and-a-quarter set was that it was too short. In time-honored Yoshi's fashion, twenty people who'd paid for the first set were allowed to get in line to get in free for the second 10 p.m. show, and two of the six people I'd come with immediately did. The rest of us hatched a tentative plan to return for the final matinee performance on Sunday.

Critical bias: I don't get to hear live music enough, and Yoshi's is one of the best places in the world to do so -- great space, great stage (with long dramatic red-and-black velvet curtains sweeping up to the rafters behind the musicians), great acoustics. Having visited jazz clubs from the Village Vanguard in NY to Shelley's Manne-Hole in LA, I know what a rare jewel Yoshi's is. No wonder John Zorn calls it the "best club on the planet." One of my companions had heard Charlie Haden there, with two different groups, last week, and Haden told him, emotionally, that there's no place like it in the world.

I'm still perplexed by the disconnect between the pricey upscale Japanese fare in the restaurant, where we ate dinner, and the atmosphere in the club -- cool vs. hot. I was underwhelmed by my rather basic $32 sashimi plate (the uni was hovering on the freshness tip), and what I could glean from my five friends' plates. Lowest on the hit parade: the lobster tempura. Highest: two fish, one a collar, served in soy-flavored broth. And the service was lackadaisical. Next time we'll stay in the bar and have the Kobe burgers.

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Meredith Brody


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