Eddie Palmieri slid into a booth at the Copacabana, next to a column resembling a plaster cast of a palm tree. The décor was a throwback to this newly reopened Manhattan nightclub's namesake, a mid-20th-century hotspot. It recalled a moment when mambo was ascendant and the Afro-Cuban musical tradition deepend its elemental presence within New York's cultural identity.
"It was important that commercial radio played the Latin orchestras back then, which doesn't happen anymore," he said. "We could all hear the Machito Orchestra, the Tito Puente Orchestra and the Tito Rodriguez Orchestra—the three heavies—every day. I heard it when I was out playing stickball in the street."
Mr. Palmieri was born in Harlem to Puerto Rican parents, who moved the family to the Bronx when he was 6. His uncles played guitar and sang boleros. His father was an electrician, his mother a seamstress. The whole family invested in a luncheonette called El Mambo. "I manned the juke box," he said. "The best one in the neighborhood."
Mr. Palmieri, whose style as pianist is devastatingly percussive, first fell in love with the timbales, the metal-cased drums associated with Latin music. "I played timbales for a while," he said. "But my mother wanted me to be a pianist, so she bought me heavy metal cases to lug around the drums. She'd say: 'Your brother doesn't have to carry those cases. When will you learn?'"
Mr. Palmieri began, he said, as "Charlie's little brother." Nine years his senior and a distinctive pianist himself, Charlie was already playing with Tito Puente's orchestra when Mr. Palmieri was in his teens. It was Charlie who, in 1956, helped Mr. Palmieri gain the pianist spot in a group led by Vincentico Valdés, who had sung with Mr. Puente.
That's the moment originally intended for commemoration through a new "50th Anniversary DVD" (Eddie Palmieri Music), documenting a 2006 concert by Mr. Palmieri's orchestra at Bushnell Auditorium in Hartford, Conn. Though it was delayed due to technical issues, the DVD release works even better now, anniversary-wise: Leading his orchestra through two sets at the Copacabana on Tuesday night in celebration, Mr. Palmieri will mark 50 years since the formation of his first group, Conjunto La Perfecta.
With its unusual frontline of two trombones and a flute, La Perfecta announced a new sound—bold and hard-edged, in stark contrast to the plush Afro-Cuban orchestras and more courtly charangas, featuring violins and flutes, of the day. This instrumentation owed to practicality, said Mr. Palmieri; production budgets were limited and trumpeters (the more common lead horns) commanded high fees. But La Perfecta more reflected a partnership formed at a Bronx social club, Tritons, between Mr. Palmieri and trombonist Barry Rogers, whose own powerhouse playing matched the pianist's intensity. "He was a true genius," said Mr. Palmieri. "And our minds melded."
La Perfecta was innovative in other ways. The group shattered the recording format's customary 3½-minute barrier with its 8½-minute 1965 hit "Azúcar," one of several classics reprised on the new DVD. "We had no choice," said Mr. Palmieri. "It was already a hit in the streets for two years, so there was no way we were going to change the way we played it." By 1968, the group was gone (Mr. Palmieri has revived it, thrillingly and in slightly altered form, since 2002).
Mr. Palmieri's career traced a restless and inventive path without ever losing its footing in dance-oriented rhythms, always showcasing his remarkable piano playing—characterized by pungent harmonies, stinging dissonances and sheer power. Several of his recordings can be credited with helping develop nascent styles, from salsa to Latin jazz. And a 1981 album titled simply "Eddie Palmieri" (commonly called "The White Album") is a masterpiece that defies category, as beautifully orchestral (with arrangements that include French horn and bassoon) as it is hard-driving.
Though his music has long blended modern jazz with Afro-Cuban rhythms, jazz did not come easily to Mr. Palmieri. "I hated jazz when I was younger because I couldn't comprehend it," he said. Again, the relationship with Rogers was key, at first through exchanged albums. "I'd give him a Celia Cruz and he would give me a Thelonious Monk," he said. "I'd give him one by [Cuban trumpeter] Chappotín and he'd give me Miles Davis's 'Kind of Blue.'"
Once immersed, he found the challenge of Latin jazz daunting. "How do you satisfy the jazz musician's desire for harmonic complexity, what he needs to solo, while also getting the right reaction out of the rhythm section, which is an entirely different kind of complexity?" he asked. "How do you satisfy both, and not have one less important than the other?" He did so definitively with his 1994 album "Palmas," introducing what he calls his Afro-Caribbean jazz group, still the most elegant and forceful expression of such balance.
A 1975 Time magazine article on salsa music's rise began with an image of Mr. Palmieri at the piano. But for him, the word "salsa" is a misnomer. "It shows a lack of respect for specific rhythmic patterns that each have proper names," he said with a wince. He winced more deeply at the mention of the Grammy Awards, despite having won nine to date, including the first ever for Latin music, in 1975, for his album "The Sun of Latin Music." Regarding a recent decision by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences to eliminate 31 categories, including Latin jazz, he said: "It's an insult that hurts. It's a Grammy scar. And it makes no sense."
Yet his eyes brightened as the conversation returned to musicians—to, say, trumpeter Brian Lynch, with whom he's worked for more than 20 years, including the Grammy-winning 2006 collaboration "Simpático" ("he keeps pushing me to take more and more chances"), and to bassist Luques Curtis, whose performance on the DVD came early in his assocation with Mr. Palmieri. "He's filled up my soul in brand-new ways," he said of Mr. Curtis, "but I can't hold him. He's just that good."
Any conversation with Mr. Palmieri eventually gets around to musical theorist Joseph Schillinger, whose ideas he absorbed through studies with the singer and guitarist Bob Bianco. With animated gestures, Mr. Palmieri described mathematical principles underlying the manipulation of musical axes to establish balance and create imbalances. It took Schillinger's ideas, he said, to finally unlock for him the secrets of the classic Afro-Cuban dance orchestras. "What Schillinger helped me to understand is that there is a way to engineer excitement through musical structure. I don't guess that I'm going to excite you. I know it."