In his storied 50-year career, Latin jazz pianist and bandleader Eddie Palmieri has released 36 albums and won nine Grammy Awards. Last week, he was dubbed an NEA Jazz Master at Lincoln Center, putting him in the same echelon as jazz greats Count Basie, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman and Ella Fitzgerald.
In the first of two sets Friday night at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, Palmieri’s virtuosic playing more than earned that company. But it was his infectious love of performing that brought hundreds of already adoring audience members to their feet.
Looking dapper in a gray suit and a red tie that would finish the set draped loosely around his neck, Palmieri took his seat at the piano and alighted on a delicate arpeggio. A slow smile crept across the 76-year-old’s face as lyrical phrases evolved into blues riffs, which then gave way to staccato splashes. Almost imperceptibly, bass player Luques Curtis and percussionist Jose Claussell chimed in, framing Palmieri’s free solo with cymbal crescendos and rhythmic bass notes. The theater hushed as one finger slid like silk over the keys, and Palmieri let out a soft cry. Suddenly, the song was off and running, with congas, bongos and timbales in full force at the helm of the Latin rhythm.