Last month the legendary Eddie Palmieri turned 76-years-old and to celebrate, he performed at Lincoln Center backed by a hugely talented band of musicians. We grabbed a couple photos and some insight from our writer who was front row for this incredible celebration.

Photo by Anthony Rodriguez

To see Palmieri and his fine band perform was both special and rare in that I was able to share that experience with my friend, trumpeter Christian Scott, who actually worked with Palmieri’s band early on in his career. Scott showed me the rhythmic pattern, the force behind Palmieri’s genius in keeping his large ensemble in sync, with a simple handclap: 1-2, 1, 2, 3. It was soon after that moment that I discovered that the history of this pattern runs long and deep.

Photo by Frank Stewart

From Bo Diddley to Palmieri, the clave, which means “key” in Spanish, is an important component in much of African-derived music. Although our ears have grown accustomed to hearing this syncopated rhythm in the music, there is still a lack of understanding in terms of the role that it plays. During the evening’s pre-concert talk with Palmieri’s bandmates at Lincoln Center, an older woman in the audience stated matter-of-factly that she had no idea what the clave was and asked if it could be both explained and demonstrated. Judging from the laughter and applause after she finished speaking, it was safe to assume that she was not alone and that we were all somewhat relieved by her courage to ask the question.

Percussionist Johnny Rivero demonstrated the “3/2” (popularized by the “Bo Diddley Beat”) and “2/3” claves in handclaps while trumpeter Brian Lynch described it as the “organizing rhythmic principle of Afro-Cuban music.” Essentially it acts as a timekeeper for the music and the clave chosen depends on the melody. Having a keen understanding of this certainly made a huge impact on what would follow.

Photo by Frank Stewart

Palmieri showed us his more contemplative side, a succession of lingering tones that filled the room, as he kicked things off on Friday night. McCoy Tyner and Thelonious Monk were clear influences in his percussive touch on the piano, coupled with his background on the timbales. “I’m a frustrated percussionist, so I take it out on the piano,” said Palmieri. With each abrupt stop or pause, Palmieri filled the space with imaginative trills you don’t see coming.

Photo by Frank Stewart

“Tomorrow, I will be 26 years old,” Palmieri announced to the crowd. In fact, it was the eve of his 76th birthday, but according to a trumpeter he once worked with, after 50, you start to count by one again. Clearly that principle has agreed with him and judging from his beaming, Cheshire-like smile, you are clearly as young and energetic as you feel.

Words by Shannon Effinger (@ShannonEffinger)

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