Eddie Palmieri

Spike Lee's new film Get on the Bus is the story of a bus full of men on their way to the Million Man March. But it has another very important character: an African drum that plays a key role as a link between generations living and dead. The drum plays a central role in pianist Eddie Palmieri's music too. As he explained in a recent talk at UCLA: "Our music, Latin jazz, is centered around the drum, around African rhythms that are 40,000 years old."

Palmieri went on to predict that Latin jazz would become the world's most popular music in the 21st Century "because it is the true embodiment of a world music." Before you dismiss that statement as science fiction, consider that the veteran bandleader has accomplished a feat that eluded everyone before him for nearly half a century: Palmieri has made jazz a dance music again, forcefully reminding us that jazz was at the top of the pops in the Thirties and Forties because it was a vehicle for dancing.

Palmieri, once a king of salsa, has dispensed with singers to focus on a unique blend of virtuoso jazz soloists and a full-scale riot of percussion. Like the riders of Get on the Bus, Palmieri's group is a mix of many generations. Eddie is a short, skinny, bald grandpa (a movie of his life would probably star Hector Elizondo), seemingly too small to generate the powerhouse musical ideas that fill his compositions. His horn players are on the cusp of middle age and his percussionists are young bloods not long out of their teens. Together, on Vortex, they work around the rhythms of the drum, whether in Beethoven's Minuet in G made into a danzon, the full-scale bandstand blast of "The Prez," or just the Afro-Cuban musical math in Eddie's solo sections.

This is wonderfully complex music that compels your body to move, music not only for the 21st Century but for the next 40,000 years.

-- Lee Ballinger

Martin Zellar and the Hardways
Martin Zellar and the Hardways

Ex-Gear Daddies lead singer/songwriter Martin Zellar has managed an impressive third incarnation fronting a solid band consolidated from the variety of ensembles that produced his solo debut. This is a jewel of an album, as arresting musically and lyrically as it is visually, seen in the jolt of the red dice against turquoise felt that adorn its cover, but is seriously marred by a one-song flaw.

Displaying a supple range reminiscent of Buck Owen's Buckeroos at one pole and Elvis Costello's Attractions at the other, the Hardways may be the finest band Zellar could ever have at his disposal. And with his new songs, Zellar builds on the strength that gained the Austin, Minnesota, Gear Daddies a cult following -- sure-footed portrayals of small-town alienation that tend to look uncomfortably deep within the soul to find the real problems. "Haunt My Dreams," a song about a crush on a younger woman, finds glory in the painful assurance that it's best she remain out of reach. "Ten Year Coin" captures Zellar's damning confessional power with lines such as "Even though they bought this good-guy bit/I'm a piece of shit and the whole thing's been a sham."

But Zellar is obviously a good guy, though achingly honest, and when he steps too far outside autobiography he can fall flat. Case in point is the problem song here: "Guilty Just the Same" offers up a smart but thoroughly unconvincing portrait of a killer that derails the momentum gained by everything that's gone before. "We Were Young," the final song, is a gorgeous save, but the damage has been done; the album feels ultimately less convincing, less important, than it might. Fortunately, a band and a songwriter this talented and well-matched reward repeat listenings and leave open the promise that their next move may be their greatest.

-- Danny Alexander

Various Artists
1975-1995 Independencia!

The sounds of freedom, longing, and release are captured on this astounding compilation of songs commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the independence of Portugal's African colonies. The disc rounds up tracks recorded as far back as 1968 and as recently as last year, and includes some of the same artists featured on the 1995 Luaka Bop disc Afropea 3: Telling Stories to the Sea, including Cape Verde's reigning chanteuse Cesaria Évora and the leather-lunged Bonga, the fiery political voice of Angola. Like Telling Stories, Independencia! defines masterfully the musics of Cape Verde, Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, and Sao Tome and Principe -- the moaning, percussive wallop of Netos Do N'Gumbe; the weary, plaintive call-and-response drama of Ruy Mingas; and the guitar-wobble atmospheria of Africa Negra. Although the liner notes are devoid of lyric translations, the passion and spirit of these Portuguese-sung tracks transcends that limitation. From the aching voice of Evora on the bittersweet "Fruto Proibido" to Bonga's gorgeous "Malembe Malembe," you can feel their relief and savor the sweetness of their liberation.

-- John Floyd

The Beatles
Anthology 3

It's a cliche already, but yes, this album could have been called Beatles Unplugged. Nothing wrong with that, if you like stripped-down demos and early takes of familiar songs. But Anthology 3's tameness wears a little thin. George Harrison's acoustic "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," for example, could use a jolt of electricity from, say, Eric Clapton.

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