Luis Perdomo: A Bandleader Made, Not Born

“It just feels right” to emerge as leader, says the pianist

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Luis Perdomo
By Christopher Chu
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Luis Perdomo
By Louis Walthall

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Although pianist and composer Luis Perdomo has already released several critically acclaimed discs under his own name, he has until now chosen not to focus on his work as a leader. Instead, he was content with making invaluable contributions to others’ ensembles—especially those led by Ravi Coltrane and Miguel Zenón.

Perdomo, who was recognized as a child prodigy in his native Venezuela before moving to New York to attend Manhattan School on a full scholarship, says that concentrating on being a great sideman freed him from the often-frustrating logistical responsibilities associated with fronting a group: No checks or travel arrangements to worry about, no difficult personalities to manage. Besides, he didn’t much care for being in the spotlight, anyway.

But when Coltrane recently decided to make some personnel changes in his quartet, the pianist, 40, saw it as the perfect opportunity to step up his own game. “Now that I have the time, I just have the urge to do my own gigs,” Perdomo says. “A lot of people have been asking me lately about me having my own projects. It just feels right.”

Zenón, in whose quartet Perdomo continues to perform, believes the pianist has the necessary skill set. “He’s played with so many different people that he’s got enough of an idea of what he wants to do and what he doesn’t want to do as a bandleader,” Zenón says. “I think what Luis enjoys most when putting his own music together is the opportunity for the unexpected. He’ll have the music rehearsed so that we can play it. But he does want stuff that happens out of the blue.”

Perdomo, the bandleader, may be a late-bloomer. But Perdomo, the composer, has been building an impressive body of original music since his 2005 debut, Focus Point. If he’s lucky enough to gig with the star power that accompanies him on his fourth disc, Universal Mind (RKM), Perdomo will have fully arrived. The album, recorded in 2009 and scheduled for February release, finds Perdomo in a trio setting, playing with a longtime collaborator from Coltrane’s band, bassist Drew Gress, and drum hero Jack DeJohnette.

The three forge a bracing accord that sounds as if they’ve been a working group for years; it helps that DeJohnette and Gress developed a bristling rhythmic rapport with John Surman on the British saxophonist’s 2009 disc, Brewster’s Rooster. Perdomo says he’s been preparing to record with DeJohnette nearly all his professional career. He’s been a fan of the drummer ever since he heard him on Keith Jarrett’s 1983 LP, Standards, Vol. 2, and Joe Farrell’s 1972 LP, Moon Germs.

Universal Mind includes interpretations of Joe Henderson’s “Tetragon” and “Dance of the Elephants,” a graceful ballad written by Perdomo’s bass-playing wife, Miriam Sullivan. But Perdomo composed most of the music on his new record, with Gress and DeJohnette in mind. “There were no rehearsals,” Perdomo says. “When we got to the studio, we basically started rolling. From the beginning there was a hook-up. It might have been from all the years I’ve been listening to Jack.”

Two of the most revealing tracks on Universal Mind are “Unified Path I” and “Unified Path II,” both of which are thrilling duets between Perdomo and DeJohnette. They highlight Perdomo’s knack for daring improvisations that nudge toward the avant-garde, as well as DeJohnette’s melodic sensibility on drums. “The way that you hear it on the record is the way that it was recorded,” says Perdomo. “There are no overdubs; there are no fixings of anything. Everything is just as is.

“I was very impressed with the way that Jack listens to the music,” he continues. “He listens to every single detail. The moment that you make a change in your playing, he’s right there with you. The same thing with Drew Gress; he listens very effectively.” Another highlight is DeJohnette’s devilish composition “Tin Can Alley,” dramatically overhauled.

When asked about his experiences playing with Perdomo, DeJohnette praises him as an “accomplished player” who made the sessions very comfortable. “He listens really well,” the drummer says. “I’ve worked with a lot of piano players; I make adjustments to each and every one of them with whatever happens in that moment. Luis is consistent. I think he has a good future ahead.”

Originally published in January/February 2012

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