There is nothing small about Danilo Perez’s ambitions. The pianist wants nothing less than to create a Panamanian style of jazz composition. And that means a lot more than just adding some congas to a bebop combo.
It’s easy to understand why American jazz musicians have seized upon rhythm as the defining element of Latin music, for that quality is the most exotic to their ears and the most useful to their purposes. But someone who grew up in the music, as Perez did, knows that Latin America in general and Panama in particular also have contributions to make in melody and harmony. To create an indigenous form of jazz composition, he will have to integrate those tunes and chord voicings into the music as well as the hand drums.
He demonstrates this on his new album, Providencia. In the press notes, he describes his new composition “Galactic Panama” as an omniscient view of his native land, as if invisible flying saucers were able to spy on the crowded sidewalks of Panama City. There pedestrians seem to move to the pulse of the national dance, the tamborito, firmly established by Perez’s regular triomates, bassist Ben Street and drummer Adam Cruz. But something else is happening on those streets as well, not just a fierce struggle for survival, represented by the pianist’s dense block chords, but also a resilient optimism, represented by the lilting melody introduced by Perez and amplified by alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa. The way those block chords jostle against the jaunty rhythm and the way that lyrical motif skips around the beat is foreign enough to American ears to sound new and yet familiar enough to be embraced.
The opening track, “Daniela’s Chronicles,” is a 10-minute, five-part suite written for Perez’s eldest daughter with one movement for each of her five years. The classical structure and classical echoes, especially in the first movement’s Mozart-ian ode to an infant, remind us that European art music has a more important presence in Spain’s former colonies than England’s. As the child starts to move around in her second year, so does the music, incorporating steel drums and hand percussion. As the child becomes more talkative in her third year, the piano begins to chatter, spinning variations on a third strong theme. Before long the child-like the nation-is finding ways to integrate her classical inheritance, her folkloric surroundings and her jazz strivings.
The classical influence is also obvious in “Bridge of Life,” a two-part composition for woodwind quartet and jazz piano trio. The title comes from Panama’s geographic position of dividing the Atlantic from the Pacific and connecting North America to South, and the tune highlights the connections and contrasts between the quartet’s marvelously counterpointed notation and the trio’s freewheeling improvisation. But Perez wants to link Panamanian jazz to Miles as well as Mozart. “Cobilla,” an uptempo Latin-jazz tune that premiered last year in a mostly acoustic arrangement on Jack DeJohnette’s Music We Are (featuring Perez), is given a new arrangement here that reminds one of Bitches Brew. Halfway through, Perez switches to a Fender Rhodes that he plays like a 1969 Chick Corea; Mahanthappa blows like a 1969 Wayne Shorter, and Cruz hammers like a 1969 DeJohnette. Underneath it all, however, is the original Panamanian composition.
The folklore is represented by two gorgeous ballads by earlier Panamanian keyboardists. Carlos Eleta Almaran’s “Historia de un Amor,” recorded by the likes of Oscar Peterson, Julio Iglesias and Nana Mouskouri, is a tender elegy for a dead lover, interrupted here by Perez’s anguished piano chords. Avelino Munoz’s “Irremediablemente Solo” (“Hopelessly Alone”), featured on Perez’s 1993 debut album, is reprised here as a melancholy duet for piano and bass. The intense romanticism of the Panamanian melodies is reflected in Perez’s title tune, which begins dreamily with Sara Serpa’s wordless soprano and then breaks into a joyful dance with Ernesto Diaz’s congas.
Perez lives in Boston, but he returns to his hometown every year to head up the impressively booked Panama Jazz Festival, and he runs the Fundacion Danilo Perez to encourage young Panamanian musicians. He’s not the first Panamanian jazz musician by any means-pianist Luis Russell played with Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton in the ’20s, while saxophonist Carlos Garnett played with Charles Mingus and Miles Davis in the ’70s-but Perez has doggedly built up a book of distinctively Panamanian jazz. He has recorded it, however, not with a Panamanian band but with an international cast that recalls his days with Dizzy Gillespie’s United Nation Orchestra. Street, Cruz and Mahanthappa are all American, Diaz is Colombian, and Serpa is Portuguese.
This makes sense, for if Perez is to fashion a Panamanian variation on the U.S.-born art form of jazz, he’ll have to include a lot of American influence. He named “The Oracle” after Charlie Banacos, his piano teacher at Berklee in Boston, and Perez builds the composition around the dialogue between the deliberate rhythms of his piano and the rambunctious rhythms of Cruz’s drums. And throughout the album, especially on their two unaccompanied duo improvs, Perez and Mahanthappa engage in simpatico conversation. It’s as if Perez has found a horn-playing partner to continue the dialogues he began with Wayne Shorter in the latter’s quartet.