Souza, Palmieri, McGinniss
January 1, 1970Three pieces this week: a review of Boston trumpeter's celebration of the city in a concert at Ryles; a profile of Latin jazz king Eddie Palmieri; and a review of big-name journalist Joe McGinniss's book on the state of horseracing at Saratoga and elsewhere, "The Big Horse."
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Jazz trumpeter Souza pays tribute to the Hub of his heart
By Bill Beuttler, Globe Correspondent | September 4, 2004
"Meet Me in the City" is the name of Johnny Souza's new CD. On Thursday night at Ryles, the Boston trumpeter/vocalist met a roomful of fans, friends, and family in the Inman Square club for an enjoyable, unashamedly boosterish celebration of the city that inspired it.
Souza launched his opening set with the Alan Jay Lerner/Frederick Loewe staple "On the Street Where You Live," backed by his usual collaborators, the Ray Santisi Trio. He sang and scatted in his pleasant tenor, then blew a lovely muted trumpet solo that was reminiscent of Miles Davis's "Birth of the Cool" days.
Santisi and Barry Smith followed with piano and bass solos, respectively, and drummer Gene Roma propelled everyone along with his brushes.
A Souza original, "Big Dig Blues," came next and proved a high point of the set. Guest alto saxophonist Greg Abate joined Souza for a run-through of the tune's Horace Silver-ish hard bop theme, which led to a dazzling unmuted solo by Souza.
Less successful was the group's take on Davis's "All Blues," with Oscar Brown Jr.'s trite added lyrics and superfluous scatting by Souza. Smith was granted a pair of competent but not particularly inspired bass solos, and Santisi followed the first of them with an overly chipper solo on piano.
Abate breathed a little fire and bluesy lyricism into the piece with his alto. But what was the song's connection to Boston? (A reference to the perennial disappointments endured by Red Sox fanatics?)
Two more Souza originals followed, their Boston connections spelled out loud and clear in their titles. "Back Bay Bossa" featured Abate and Souza switching to flute and fluegelhorn. "Boston (Hub of My Heart)" included a swinging trumpet solo by the leader's son, guest soloist Johnny Souza III. The tune's lyrics, built around the city's touristy selling points, delighted the partisan crowd despite their corniness. ("Please visit our harbor, but don't ask for tea./I'd suggest you order the lobster and a bowl of chowder just for me!")
Horace Silver's familiar "Song for My Father" was up next, with Souza-penned lyrics sung as a duet with his daughter, Leah Souza. Her voice overpowered her dad's, and the lyrics were sometimes hard to decipher. But the song's sweet story line, when discernible, made this revisiting of a jazz classic work nicely.
All told, it was a fun night made all the better for this crowd by the sight of the Red Sox polishing off Anaheim on the television set over the bar.
At: Ryles, first set, Thursday night
© Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company
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Legendary pianist revisits his roots
By Bill Beuttler, Globe Correspondent | September 3, 2004
Pianist Eddie Palmieri, the reigning king of bona fide Latin jazz, made his name by ceaselessly testing the limits of the genre. It was Palmieri, 67, who adapted the harmonics of pianists such as Thelonious Monk and McCoy Tyner to traditional Afro-Caribbean rhythms; who demonstrated that Latin jazz tunes could remain danceable for longer than three minutes at a clip; who built his great '60s band La Perfecta around a front line of two trombones and a flute — unheard of at the time.
Lately, however, Palmieri, who plays the Tanglewood Jazz Festival tonight, is embracing more than ever the style's roots, and is emerging as one of Latin jazz's most committed guardians. Can an innovator also be a conservator? Maybe that's less a contradiction than it seems.
One of his greatest attributes, says trombonist Conrad Herwig, who still occasionally performs with Palmieri's bands, "is that he's the keeper of the flame of the traditional forms, but he's open-minded in looking to the future at the same time."
Two events have led Palmieri to emphasize his traditional side. First was the death of Tito Puente in May 2000, a few days after he and Palmieri had recorded their first CD together, which left Palmieri the best-known figure in Latin jazz.
Second, Palmieri switched record labels, to Concord Picante, and agreed to record a CD looking back at his La Perfecta heyday. He did so both to honor the memory of late trombonist Barry Rogers and to remind people what Latin jazz is supposed to be about — the use of Caribbean percussion and instrumental firepower to make people want to get up and dance.
Latin jazz, to hear Palmieri tell it, has been threatened on a pair of fronts since the 1980s. Jazz itself has captured the imaginations of many of the best musicians coming out of Latin America in recent years, de-emphasizing those sacred Caribbean rhythms in the process.
"Their recordings go into another direction, which I call 'jazz Latin,'" says Palmieri by phone from California. "They've been weaned more to jazz, and they became great talents, but they had no interest, let's put it that way, in the Latin orchestras or full Latin rhythm sections.
"See, I'm used to the Latin jazz that was known as instrumental mambos — it comes down from musicians like Tito Puente and Machito — which means that it's danceable. The concept behind the arrangement of the composition is that it can be danceable. The young players, there is no concept of dance within their structure."
There's nothing wrong with that, he says. But to him, Latin jazz requires a full Afro-Caribbean rhythm section of timbales, conga, and bongo. The younger, jazz-oriented musicians often build their groups around nothing more than a drum set.
He hastens to add, however, that he finds much to admire in the best of these musicians. "David Sanchez is the pride of Puerto Rico," he says. Palmieri is also a fan of Miguel Zenon, who will lead a quartet at Tanglewood on Sunday afternoon and is another jazz-oriented saxophonist from Puerto Rico.
"I don't know him personally," says Palmieri, himself the son of Puerto Rican immigrants, "but he is an incredible young genius of a player."
Less impressive, and more threatening to Palmieri's brand of music, was the emergence of salsa romantica as the dominant form of Latin dance music in the 1980s and 1990s. That's when good-looking young balladeers began shoving the sacred rhythms of the Caribbean into the background. Latin dance music "started to lose its excitement," Palmieri said. "And that's of course because the tension and resistance have been taken away from the composition itself. It's just from top to bottom the singer sings, and the rhythm is just accompanying him — it never gets primary position."
"That's the way everybody was recording," he adds, "including some top artists that knew better. But you can't fight success, so they joined the bandwagon so to speak, no?"
Where once Latin jazz and Latin dance music were one and the same (much as swing music had been the popular dance music of the '30s and '40s), salsa romantica came along as a separate, blander form of dance music.
Its dominance drove many talented Latin musicians into the arms of American jazz, and caused the general public to forget what was exciting about Latin dance music in the first place — the all-important rhythms of hard-core salsa.
Luckily, Palmieri says, he sees signs here and there that this is changing; certain bands are re-emphasizing traditional Latin percussion. "I believe it's turning around," he says. "The Spanish Harlem Orchestra, for example, is doing very well under the leadership of Oscar Hernandez. Even Jimmy Bosch, who's traveling with us, he's just recorded an album [that] went in that direction. It's a direction that I've never [departed from], with the excitement of a dance orchestra really letting you have it. My forte has always been that I'm a dance orchestra leader."
At Tanglewood, Palmieri's dance orchestra, an updated version of his '60s band called La Perfecta II, will include Bosch and Doug Beavers on trombones, Karen Joseph on flute, Johnny Rivero on conga, Orlando Vega on bongo, Jose Claussell on timbales, and vocalist Herman Olivera. It's an ensemble guaranteed to get people moving.
"Oh, if they want to get up and dance, they could certainly do it," Palmieri says. "I don't guess I'm going to excite you with the band. I know it."
© Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company
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A colloquial, well-paced account of a gifted horse, his trainer, and the racing series
By Bill Beuttler | August 29, 2004
The Big Horse
By Joe McGinniss
Simon & Schuster, 263 pp.,
Joe McGinniss made his reputation while still in his 20s with "The Selling of the President, 1968," his account of the public-relations makeover given Richard Nixon by Republican strategists for his presidential campaign. Since then McGinniss, 61, has become even better known — notorious, actually — for three fat, controversial bestsellers: the true-crime excavations "Fatal Vision" and "Blind Faith," and his early '90s look at this state's senior senator, "The Last Brother: The Rise and Fall of Teddy Kennedy."
"Fatal Vision" famously begat a book of its own — Janet Malcolm's "The Journalist and the Murderer," which used McGinniss as the poster boy for journalists' willingness to mislead and exploit sources — and the Kennedy book was widely denounced for taking liberties with private thoughts and conversations of Kennedy's that McGinniss allegedly could never have had access to.
It may be no surprise, then, that lately McGinniss seems to have been going out of his way to avoid such controversy, by choosing less ambitious, quasi-autobiographical projects and focusing his undeniable skills as a storyteller on two sports, soccer and horse racing, that are generally off the radar of most Americans.
"The Big Horse" is the second of these, and it's a nicely matched pairing of author and subject matter. McGinniss was a horse-racing buff throughout his young manhood. The second book of his career was a novel about the sport, set at Hialeah, Fla., and he'd begun work on a nonfiction book on horse racing in 1971 that he set aside suddenly when his father was diagnosed with a fatal brain tumor.
McGinniss's decision to spend last year's August racing season at the famous track in Saratoga, N.Y., was that of a 60-year-old man returning to an old flame. The sport itself, meanwhile, had changed a great deal in the intervening three decades, and was now in danger of sputtering out. As McGinniss puts it: "By 2003, horse racing was no longer a vibrant part of America's sporting scene, but rather a faded relic of a bygone age. Far more people would go to a movie about a horse that raced more than fifty years ago than would watch a real horse race."
That "Seabiscuit" summer was also the one in which Kentucky Derby winner Funny Cide was slated for a highly anticipated rematch with Empire Maker at Saratoga. So McGinniss rented a cottage for the summer and settled in to research his long-delayed Saratoga book. What he hadn't expected was meeting P. G. Johnson, the shrewd, plain-talking Hall of Fame trainer, now 78, who becomes his book's main character.
As a result, this little volume turns out to be several books in one. It's part autobiography, with McGinniss describing how he rebelled against his mother's notion of horse tracks being even more sordid than what she called "gin mills." ("In response, I developed an extravagant fantasy life, in which I lived in a gin mill next to a racetrack, dividing my time equally between them.") By the time he got to college in Central Massachusetts, he was hitting tracks from Saratoga to Suffolk Downs whenever possible.
The book is also part evaluation of the current health of horse racing, with McGinniss offering nine specific reasons that hardly anyone comes to the track anymore. One biggie: "More efficient and faster-paced means of gambling (and not only on horses) became widely available to the common man." Another: "Most of the people who used to go to the racetrack were dead."
The most satisfying part of the book is the condensed history of American horse racing that emerges from McGinniss's capsule life of Johnson, much of it told in P.G.'s own voice as McGinniss apparently makes like Studs Terkel with a tape recorder. The Johnson-narrated chapters describe how he went from his beginnings in horse racing as a Chicago teenager to building himself a career as a trainer and breeder, specializing in matching less-than-perfect horses with promise to create talented progeny on the cheap.
Johnson's top achievement in that line is Volponi, the big horse of the book's title. On October 26, 2002, Volponi had won the annual Breeders' Cup Classic, besting that year's Kentucky Derby winner, War Emblem, and overcoming odds of roughly 40 to 1 against him. Johnson's share of the $4 million purse was more than $2 million, Volponi was thought to be likely to fetch as much as $8 million when Johnson sold him for stud work, and Johnson had the added satisfaction of the event having been held for the first time that year at Arlington Park, Ill., outside his hometown. It was a story fit for Hollywood, and Disney actually came along and optioned the screen rights to it.
The narrative tension in McGinniss's book is in seeing whether Volponi can score another big win at the 2003 Saratoga Breeders' Cup Handicap or afterward. For all Johnson's high hopes and confidence in his big horse, McGinniss tells us, in horse racing 90 percent of the game is disappointment.
McGinniss propels his story along with casual charm. His reporting, in fact, will likely be too casual for some. He covers a couple of Volponi's more important races by TV and cellphone, whereas most authors would be expected to bestir themselves to do so in person. He also passes along rumors about a rival trainer doping horses without bothering to investigate matters himself, other than quoting the trainer's offhand denial of those rumors at a press conference.
But "The Big Horse" isn't meant to be investigative journalism. As a quick, highly readable look at the status of present-day horse racing, it succeeds quite admirably. And Johnson gives McGinniss a hero his earlier books have rarely had: one who holds his admiration from start to finish.
Bill Beuttler teaches feature writing at Boston University. He sometimes went with his father to watch the horses run at Arlington Park while growing up near Chicago.
© Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company