“It’s time to imagine a place where we can come together,” Danilo Pérez said from the hallowed stage of Washington, D.C.’s historic Sixth & I Synagogue this past April 30. “Everyone come together within this new space, the new planet called Crisálida.” The “planet” the 56-year-old Panamanian pianist was referring to is the musical but also spiritual space that he and his Global Jazz Messengers, a band of Berklee College of Music Global Jazz Institute alumni hailing mostly from the Mediterranean and Arab world, create with the material from their new album Crisálida, released earlier this year on Mack Avenue Records. That space is, as D.C.’s favorite son Duke Ellington would say in highest praise, “beyond category.”
While the music Pérez makes with his Messengers—Palestinian percussionist Tareq Rantisi, Palestinian cellist Naseem Alatrash, Iraqi-Jordanian violinist Layth Sidiq, and Greek laouto player Vasilis Kostas—surely is rooted in the jazz idiom, it evolves well beyond jazz forms and ideas. There is also the intimate compositional focus of chamber music; the rich harmonic palette of orchestral composers like Tchaikovsky or Joe Hisaishi; the input of the folk traditions each player brings from their home country; and the fearless drive for exploration that Pérez has inherited from Wayne Shorter (and ultimately Miles Davis). Although that might all sound heady, the music itself is accessible, welcoming, and organic, a mutual expression of common feeling rather than an intellectual exercise.
It was an apt concert for International Jazz Day in more ways than one. Besides the obvious diversity of the group, it also represented the more genre-agnostic spaces some “jazz” musicians are pushing into these days (accordionist/composer Simone Baron, for example): a trend both current and futuristic.
Most of the set came from the two suites that make up the Crisálida album: “La Muralla (Glass Walls)” and “Fronteras (Borders)”—two subjects D.C. has had enough caterwauling about from a resident of its White House. One major factor separating the recording from the live performance was that American vocalist Farayi Malek, an integral part of the album’s sound, timbre and texture, was unable to join the group that night. What that allowed was a greater focus on the instrumentalists’ dynamics, and the new ways they could create around absence. For example, in the second movement of “La Muralla,” titled “Monopatia (Pathways),” Kostas introduced a melody on laouto alone before Pérez’s piano splashed harmonies around like puddles in a Monet painting. The rest of the instruments then rode the melody out, leaving Pérez and Kostas to perform a tango-like duet, full of sensuality. Later, during the fourth movement “Muropatía,” Alatrash broke off from the quieting ensemble into a sprightly yet forceful solo. Pérez responded with laughter before encouraging him, “Stay there, stay there—that’s nice,” then set about figuring how he fit into this new melodic and harmonic direction. The band followed suit, and the music had evolved again.
As much as spaces in the music like these (and there were many) emphasized ebullience, the way Pérez and the Global Jazz Messengers played the pieces showcased a subtle tightrope walk between grief and joy. Much of that dynamic came from the strings, but especially from Layth Sidiq. In the set’s opener, “Rise from Love,” the first movement of “Glass Walls,” his sweeping violin melody embodied the high lonesome keen of the fiddle from Appalachia to Ireland to Iraq, a sound as old as humanity that speaks to the delicate balance we achieve each day between making merry and wailing. Called up for vocal duty, Sidiq sang wordlessly on “Rise” and sporadically throughout the set, each time crying out like the adhan: sorrowful, beautiful, deeply felt by all.
What was also deeply felt by all was the final number, a non-album cut called “Impressions of La Denesa.” Pérez introduced it as a tribute to the Panamanian dance form (and a small contingent of his fellow countrymen helped lead the crowd in a simple sing-along near the end), but truly this was a moment where the global nature of the Global Jazz Messengers coalesced. While Pérez rooted the piano in Panama, the laouto conjured flamenco and Roma music; the violin soared high with a whirling rhythm; the cello brought something courtlier. All these sounds, styles, and rhythms emerged individually, but all merged into a coherent, vital tune that got the whole congregation shimmying in its pews. Pérez had certainly accomplished his goal of creating a space for us all to come together—a goal that, far from being his alone, is the true aim of jazz.