The Runners-Up is a monthly column, which we first tried in 2013, wherein we will analyze an album that isn’t the consensus first choice or most canonical title by a given artist, but is one worthy of more attention than it’s received to date. The album we’ll look at this month is…Eddie Palmieri‘s 1975 album, Unfinished Masterpiece.
A vast number of musicians appear on Unfinished Masterpiece: on most tracks, Palmieri is joined by Victor Paz on trumpet, Barry Rogers on trombone, Peter Gordon on French horn, Tony Price on tuba, Lou Marini (“Blue Lou” from the Blues Brothers band) on alto sax, Lou Orenstein on tenor sax, Mario Rivera on tenor and baritone saxes, Ronnie Cuber on baritone sax and flute, Alfredo de la Fe on violin, Andy Gonzalez on bass, Tommy Lopez Jr. on bongos, Eladio Perez and Jerry Gonzalez on congas, and Nicky Marrero on timbales. The lead vocals are handled by Lalo Rodriguez, with backing vocals by Ismael Quintana, Jimmy Sabater, and Willie Torres.
Palmieri, who was a guest on the BA podcast in 2018 (listen to that here), jumped from label to label during Latin music’s heyday in the 1960s and 1970s. He started out on Alegre, then recorded a long string of albums for Tico, but also put out albums on Roulette and even Verve (a collaboration with vibraphonist Cal Tjader). By the early ’70s, he was mixing commercial success with political engagement and musical experimentation, making the album Justicia in 1969, forming the Latin-soul-funk band Harlem River Drive the following year and recording a concert at Sing Sing, the upstate New York prison. He also performed at the University of Puerto Rico during a riotous student demonstration. Between 1969 and 1971, he made a series of albums — Justicia, Superimposition, and Vamonos Pa’l Monte — that incorporated nearly avant-garde jazz improvisation and production techniques borrowed from psychedelic rock in order to break down the walls hemming Latin music in. The Sun of Latin Music, from 1974, was just as thrilling and exploratory.
Unfinished Masterpiece was clearly intended to be the next step in Palmieri’s musical evolution. It’s a journey out. It begins with the churning, blaring “Un Puesto Vacante,” which sounds like fairly traditional salsa, the horns blaring atop the slapping, rattling percussion and the lead and backing vocalists in full flight from the first note. Palmieri’s piano and Gonzalez’ bass are the engine driving it all, and while the energy level is in the red throughout, it doesn’t get crazy until almost the three-minute mark, when, after a timbale solo, the leader strikes a series of huge, clanging/crashing piano chords that almost sound like a metal shelving unit falling to the floor in the studio. That triggers a baritone sax eruption, even greater passion from the singers, and the whole thing ends with a blast of energy that should almost finish the album right there. But we’re just beginning.
“Kinkamache” is a straightforward number clearly intended for dancing, at least to start, but the way the flute manages to overpower the fierce horns gives it an almost disorienting effect, and Palmieri’s piano solo is so harsh and abstract, it threatens to become free jazz. The album’s first side concludes with the manic but lush big-band orchestrations and passionate vocal cries of “Oyelo Que Te Conviene.” Even that track goes wild, though; around the halfway mark, the percussion and bass take over in a booming mix worthy of Lee Perry, with Palmieri’s keyboard seemingly struggling to break through.
The second half of Unfinished Masterpiece is where it really starts to live up to its title. Superimposition had established Palmieri as someone happy to split albums in two; its first side was relatively traditional, while its second contained improvisatory jams. Similarly, the nearly 11-minute “Cobarde” is a swirling, almost hallucinatory suite that combines some of Palmieri’s wildest, most virtuosic yet pounding piano, Latin rhythms, orchestration and compositional complexity worthy of prog rock, free jazz horn fervor, an electric bass solo that’ll bounce you out of your chair, bizarre vocal scats and growls, stabs of funk-rock guitar…it’s got everything you can imagine, and that’s what makes it glorious. That’s followed by the solo piano showcase (with little bits of bass and percussion in the background) “Random Thoughts.” The album ends with “Resemblance,” a modal jazz tune featuring Mike Lawrence on flugelhorn, Jeremy Steig on flute, three trombonists (Ed Bryne, Barry Rogers, and Lynn Welshman), Eddie Martinez on electric piano, Ron Carter on bass and Steve Gadd on drums. The horns still come charging in from time to time, but for the most part it’s a moody, late-night groove with sensitive flute and flugelhorn solos, the electric piano keeping things on track as Gadd delivers ultra-precise fills not unlike what he’d do two years later on Steely Dan‘s “Aja.”
Unfinished Masterpiece‘s title is literal; Palmieri didn’t think it was done, at least not to his satisfaction, but Coco put it out anyway, causing a rift between him and the label. In some ways, it marked the end of his golden era; he signed with Epic in 1978, making one extremely ambitious and worthwhile album, Lucumi, Macumba, Voodoo, but as time went on, the audience got more conservative and he moved deeper into the realm of Latin jazz, still capable of getting dancers on the floor but more interested in complex charts and florid arrangements. So while Unfinished Masterpiece may not have the reputation that Vamonos Pa’l Monte or The Sun of Latin Music do, it’s very much worth hearing, the sound of a maverick genius at the peak of his powers. Honestly, I can’t imagine what else he thought it needed.