It's not hard to see why Eddie Palmieri was once dubbed salsa's answer to Duke Ellington; to borrow a favorite Ellington encomium, Palmieri's music often is indeed "beyond category." Like Ellington, Palmieri is a pianist, composer, and bandleader, and like Ellington he generates a remarkable and unquestionably artistic excitement: it stems not from synthetic pseudo-Latin rhythms, but rather from a synthesis of complex percussion, his own romantic but iconoclastic piano work, and a unique stamp on the traditional brass-heavy salsa sound. For many American listeners these qualities all came together on our first exposure to Palmieri, a 1974 release titled The Sun of Latin Music: it contained something akin to a Latin-jazz piano concerto, "Un Dia Bonito," which still leaps out of the box with the fresh audacity of unbound conception. And Palmieri's most recent album (Sueno, on Capitol/Intuition) showed him still excelling at large-form big-band writing. That was three years ago: unfortunately, throughout a tempestuous career, Palmieri's recordings have appeared as infrequently as he himself, making his Chicago visit (with a 14-piece orchestra) even more noteworthy. In the words of record producer Kip Hanrahan--a man notorious for his lack of restraint, but in this case right on the mark--"Nobody can play a band, nobody can play an audience, nobody can play the night" like Eddie Palmieri. The band Seis del Solar, usually heard behind Ruben Blades, opens the show. Friday, 7:30 PM, China Club, 616 W. Fulton; 466-0400 or 466-0812.