Danilo Pérez: Putting Faces on the Notes
Life is music. That’s the mantra we’ve come to expect from serious-minded musicians whose unflinching commitment to excellence and insatiable pursuit of the ultimate masterpiece distinguishes them from plain craftsmen. Oftentimes, their romance with their art becomes so intense that their very existence depends heavily upon their ability to make music.
It’s easy to assume that Danilo Pérez is one such artist. As a pianist, composer, educator and a U.S. cultural ambassador to his homeland, Panama, he’s constantly involved with music. And he always brings a shimmering romanticism to multifarious musical affairs. When he talks about music, his body seems to glow and slightly levitate as he searches for the most poetic and precise words to describe an idea. His eyes twinkle, and his hands gesture passionately as he tries to articulate the beauty and intricacies of a composition.
Interestingly though, Pérez doesn’t live by a “Life is music” credo. “Literally, I wouldn’t suffer if I didn’t see myself playing,” he says. For Pérez, it’s the other way around. “Music is just a small drop of life. My mother, father, sister, friends, teaching and serving God—they are more important to me.
“This is something that we have to be careful with, nowadays,” he continues. “From teaching, I see parents who put a lot of expectations on their kids about being somebody. The music has to grow in relationship to your life. You have to be a person first. I always tell my students, ‘If you want to know about the world, read more. If you want to know about Brazilian music, eat the rice and beans.’ In other words, experience life. Then, the music will have what you think you are getting in school. For me, playing music is a chance for us to celebrate our existence.”
Pérez certainly has reason to celebrate. He’s been holding down the piano chair for the hottest small ensemble of the past two years, the Wayne Shorter Quartet. He also remains a vital component to the Roy Haynes Trio and plays regularly with Steve Lacy. In addition to his touring and teaching schedules, he’s commissioned numerous works on behalf of Panama, and now, after a three-year hiatus, he’s released his sixth solo CD …Till Then (Verve), a sparkling, mostly trio date.
On a drizzly, unseasonably cool early-June afternoon in Boston at the Doubletree Guest Suites hotel, we’re sitting in the dimly lit Sculler’s Jazz Club, hours before Pérez leaves for Highland Park, Ill., to conduct a residency with Ravinia Festival’s Steans Institute for Young Artists. A couple of days ago, he returned from a Chicago gig with Jack DeJohnette and Jerome Harris. Pérez doesn’t seem frazzled by his hectic schedule though. In conversation, he talks very much like he plays: invitingly. He draws you in, develops a rapport, and makes you feel like you’re one of the most important people in his life.
Many say that there’s nothing like a brush with death to put life’s most important things in proper perspective, and in the case for Pérez, he cites three significant events: the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama; a scary situation in London with Haynes and John Patitucci in which a bomb exploded very close to the club they were performing in; and the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. Pérez was scheduled to fly out of Boston to Los Angeles on that doomed flight for the Latin Grammys on that historic day, but at the last moment he decided not to attend. “I’ll never forget, being at the New England Conservatory and just hearing about [the attacks],” he recalls. “When I got home, I had about 20 messages. And, the first one was from Patitucci. He had such a beautiful message. He said, ‘Man, I hope you didn’t make that plane.’ He was really sad. It was so beautiful just to be a witness of the feeling of brotherhood. And at the same time, I was like, ‘Wow! I was this close.’ I think that more than anything else told me that this is a wake-up call.”
Those hairy moments sharpened Pérez’s focus in preparing for the new CD, but his research of various Latin American songwriters such as Chico Buarque, Silvio Rodriguez, Rubén Blades and Violeta Parra greatly shaped the body of …Till Then. “This record actually started with me going to Cuba and seeing how people there survive, regardless of what they have and what they don’t have,” he explains. “I had to do a record to celebrate the work of these people, who have through their songwriting fought for equality for many years. And they were able to transfer their ideologies to the point in which some of them were persecuted. They have inspired me a lot in my life. I just feel that there is a big part of me that needs to speak on these dreams. I chose the tunes for the colors, but the composers’ bodies of work encompass things that are very political.”
The central inspiration for …Till Then, however, and the major reason for its deep sense of longing is Pérez’s longtime friend, Mauricio Smith, who succumbed to cancer last year. “I think the feeling of my friend created such a quiet energy without really planning it that way,” he says. “When we got into the studio, there was really an intense sense of reflection. I think us playing Joni Mitchell’s ‘Fiddle and the Drum’ created the mood. When Lizz Wright and I did that duo on the first take, it established the vibe. And even though I think ‘happy’ is a way to celebrate, always being happy can be deceiving to you. On this record, we were celebrating and we were totally happy, but we all felt that there was this introspective, self-realization thought going on.
“Mauricio was a guy who was a mentor and teacher to me,” Pérez explains. “He actually opened his home for me to stay when I couldn’t afford housing. I was playing at the Village Gate and Bradley’s but was basically homeless. I lived there for a year before moving back to Boston. That’s how I was able to stay in New York.” Pérez’s first encounter with Smith was in Panama, where he was playing piano at a hotel, when he was only 14. At the time, Pérez didn’t have any serious aspirations to become a professional musician. He had hopes set on a career in electronics. But Smith noticed something in Pérez’s playing that if nurtured properly, would blossom into greatness. “He came to me and said, ‘You gotta practice. You’re going to be a musician.’ I was like, ‘Man, this is just a hobby.’ He said, ‘No man, you have talent.’ So, I owe him a big part of my decision to be serious about music.”
At the sessions of …Till Then, Pérez shared his feelings about the loss of his dear friend and explained the overall theme of the recording to his longtime trio mates Ben Street and Adam Cruz, as well as to his fellow Shorter Quartet members Patitucci and Brian Blade. Joining on a couple of tunes is saxophonist Donny McCaslin, who played regularly in Pérez’s Motherland Project band. “I was with Danilo on the road when Mauricio was in the hospital,” Patitucci recalls. “There was one particular tour with Wayne, and Danilo was worried. He said, ‘If Mauricio passes away in the middle of the tour, I’ll have to go back. I can’t stay out here.’ Emotionally, Danilo was drained. I think each of us [on the session] have dealt with some sorrow and pain in our lives. It’s easy for me to understand about death, because I lost my mother and grandfather a few years back. And even before that, my wife and I lost two babies. We weren’t strangers to dealing with those issues in life.
“Because of my Christian faith,” Patitucci continues, “I think you should be able to mourn with those who are suffering and be able to rejoice with people who are celebrating. You have to be able to do that with some people, almost simultaneously. Danilo was going through losing Mauricio and at the same time he was playing with Wayne. There were many things in his life that were going beyond his dreams. Very beautiful things were happening. Just dealing with both of those extremes was deep for him and for all of us.”
Pérez also recruited new singing sensation Lizz Wright for a couple of songs. He first met his labelmate at the Village Vanguard, but he didn’t hear her sing until he showed up to perform on her remarkable debut, Salt. “When I went to the studio, I had no idea how she sounded,” he says. “I just sat down to listen. When she opened her mouth, it felt like I was hearing 200 years of Earth. Then I heard something that she wrote and I was like, ‘Wow!’”
Pérez wrote the music for “…Till Then,” while en route to the hospital to visit Smith. In the melody, he heard Wright’s voice, both as a singer and songwriter. “I called her up and said that I had a dream of you writing lyrics for one of my pieces,” he remembers. “I sent her a tape and didn’t even worry about it. She was worried, though. I explained the whole thing about my friend, and that the lyrics didn’t literally have to be about Mauricio, it could be about love or a moment. But she had a vision and did it. I let her do her thing all the way to the end, and it was great.”
Listening to …Till Then in comparison to Pérez’s earlier works is like seeing someone for the first time who’s undergone a major physical fitness routine and a big psychic cleansing. It’s the same person, but his skin and muscles are well toned; his energy levels are balanced; and there’s calmness to his demeanor as if he’s unlocked the secrets to good living. Pérez’s playing has always been crisp, but on …Till Then there’s a higher degree of purpose. The notes and chords within his improvisations seem to be more carefully chosen, yet they unravel effortlessly. Back in the mid-’90s, Pérez used to dazzle listeners with his rhythmic acumen by having each band member play in different time signatures, while he furiously navigates through the mazes. Rhythm still plays a huge part in Pérez’s playing and composing, but on …Till Then the focus has shifted more on orchestration and melody, resulting in his most revelatory, emotionally gripping work yet.
“That’s a very common compliment that I’ve been getting,” Pérez says, blushing. “I think what is happening is that I’m becoming an adult. I think all my experiences with Wayne have enabled me to polish my own perception about life, in a way that’s becoming much clearer. It’s showed me to be more concise. With Wayne, I’ve been learning more about creating a story. He’s taught me the importance of melody and harmony. It wasn’t like I just decided to practice new things. I was ready to say something different. These pieces are so melodic and so beautiful. And sometimes it’s really hard to make them new. That was part of my challenge. But I tell you, being in the Wayne Shorter group has revealed my weaknesses and my strengths.”
“I think what’s happened with Danilo,” Patitucci says, “is that he’s so strong rhythmically that sometimes people don’t even realize that he’s lyrical and melodic. He’s also expanded harmonically over the last six or seven years. I think his harmonic thing is expanding at a faster rate, and he’s orchestrating more than ever before, which is one of the things that he does better than most cats. There aren’t that many guys that play the piano and use it like an orchestra like he does. His writing and playing have expanded, just like anybody’s would, just being around Wayne. I think being around Wayne has taught all of us how to edit ourselves.”
Pérez entered Shorter’s world through the recommendation of the saxophonist’s confidantè, Terri Lyne Carrington. Shorter was in the preparing for the recording sessions of his latest CD, Alegría (which took place before the Footprints—Live! tour), when she brought Pérez to his attention. Before that, Shorter had never heard him play. “Wayne likes musicians that don’t play from a conventional repertoire or don’t use the standard musical vocabulary like bebop licks,” Carrington says. “Danilo has never really played like that. He listens really well and comes up with whatever’s needed at that moment. And he plays harmonically in way that I thought would fit Wayne’s acoustic project.”
He may have known some hip harmonies prior to the Alegría sessions, but Pérez still wasn’t quite prepared to deal with a musical genius like Shorter, who often talks in elliptical imagery. While Pérez was playing various piano parts, Shorter intoned from the microphone, “Danilo, I need water chords.” Pérez was nervous. “I just said, ‘Oh, shit!’” Pérez recalls. “It was such a drastic change from people telling you to put this note there, and what have you.” He fumbled through various chords but couldn’t create the evocative voicings that Shorter was looking for, so they moved on to the next piece. Understandably, Pérez thought he lost the gig.
Later that evening, Pérez worked manically and devised 15 new chords. He was going to be ready for Shorter the next day. “We went to the same part, and I played some chords, and Shorter said, ‘Now, we’re talking, but the water has to be clean,’” Pérez laughs. “Right then, I said, ‘I’m ready. This is going to be a trip like going to another planet.’”
Pérez’s decision to join Shorter’s quartet happened at a pivotal point, when it seemed that he should have focused more on his own solo career. In 2000, he had been appointed cultural ambassador of Panama and just released his ambitious Motherland, a rousing Pan-American tour de force. “I dragged the moment; I started to get too attached,” Pérez reflects. “The Wayne Shorter thing came in and I was like, ‘This is it. This is where I’m going.’ It wasn’t that Motherland was stopped; it was put on hiatus. I was like, ‘Don’t get too attached to this feeling. Let’s see what happens in my growth through my experiences with Wayne.’”
And even before the Motherland Project, Pérez was turning heads through his various commissioned works and his collaborations with another iconic saxophonist and composer, Steve Lacy. As he does with Shorter, Pérez describes Lacy as an “architect of sound. The first time I played with Steve, I noticed that if I wanted to address the music, it was going to take my composing skills to really get into the sound. Because, he quantifies what you bring to the music. For instance, it’s a G minor, but is that the G minor that fits into this character of sound that I have? He really makes you research yourself.”
Danilo Pérez’s busy tenures with Shorter and Haynes’ ensembles, his duos with Lacy, his teaching career at the New England Conservatory and his own solo career haven’t diminished his activities as cultural ambassador of Panama. For him, the appointment is no mere rubber stamp. He’s currently working on launching the first Annual Panamanian Jazz Festival (hopefully to begin fall of this year). Even before Pérez became ambassador, he played a vital role for nine years in an annual Panama City program called Jamboree, which for four days allows him and other world-renowned musicians to interact with many of the city’s underprivileged youth. “We did a program that allowed kids to pay only $1.50 to get in touch with great musicians,” he enthuses. “It was done by great people who believed that if you gave alternatives to the youth, they’ll choose other things rather than drugs and crime.”
No stranger to poverty, Pérez remembers his parents’ measly teaching salaries while growing up in Panama City. But it was family that taught him the value of social activism. “I saw them working away and opening the doors for me and my sister,” he reflects. “They start out with salaries like $30 a month. These are people who are in charge with the minds of the future. They have to be compensated a little better than that. In my country, you can’t really aspire to retire on a teacher’s salary.” Pérez, nevertheless, describes his childhood as normal. “My parents didn’t tell me, ‘You’re going to be a musician.’ Actually, I was a good baseball player. But I’ve always been around great music. My father, who also sang, allowed me to be exposed all these great musicians. That’s why I keep reminding myself that I didn’t come to this like music, music, music.”
Humility is a significant quality to Pérez’s character. Despite his high-profile, multifaceted career, he remains astonishingly accessible. “That’s because of my faith,” he explains. “Every time I get a chance to play with a great musician, I try not to forget that. Sometimes, you get into a scene and you take things for granted. I don’t because I came from a place where this stuff seems very far away. Living in Boston has been very helpful. In my free time, I put all my energy into serving people through education. When I’m here I hardly have time to practice. Just being able to help someone a little in their life is humbling, because at that moment, it’s not about me, it’s about them.”
He’s a pure people person whose love for life resonates brilliantly through music. Pérez reiterates something a friend once imparted onto him: “You have to put faces on the notes; then it’s life.”
“I’m listening to a lot of different kinds of music. I’m listening to Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli play Beethoven, John McLaughin’s Shakti, John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and Hermeto Pascoal.”
He endorses Yamaha.
Originally published in October 2003