by James Halecopyright © 1998 James Hale
As a young boy studying music at the conservatory in Panama City, Danilo Perez traversed Central Avenue on a regular basis. He remembers it as a riot of cultures, languages and, most of all, music.
"There would be a Chinese guy speaking Chinese-Spanish and a Hindu merchant speaking an Indian dialect mixed with Spanish. At the next shop, something altogether different. Then, during carnival time, you could hear music from all over Panama. That diversity became normal for me."
Central Avenue, Perez's fourth album -- his second for the Impulse! label -- is named for Panama City's main concourse and takes its inspiration from the spirit of the street. Latin rhythms suffuse most tracks, but there is a depth and complexity to his music that is evident on even a casual listen. Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life" is voiced as an Argentinian folk rhythm, Coltrane's "Impressions" is reworked in 5/4, and there are some distinctive Spanish influences on Perez's own "Rhythm In Blue Suite." The pianist explains that Central Avenue is his attempt to find a "common denominator" between the musics of many countries with a shared heritage stretching back into antiquity in Africa and the Middle East.
"There has always been emphasis on the rhythm in Latin music, but I'm also interested in the melodies -- what (Jelly Roll Morton) called the 'Spanish tinge'. It's really that Sephardic element; people hear it and they identify it with flamenco or other Spanish music. It's music that's related to folk music, music of rural peoples. That music from rural areas -- music of love, music that's made where people gather to express what's in their hearts -- has the same thing no matter where you are. That's the link between the music of my country and the blues, you know, it's music of the people, music of the soul."
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Danilo Perez was born in Panama on December 29, 1966, and gravitated to music before he entered school. An uncle's gift of a keyboard instrument one Christmas in the early '70s brought out his latent talent as a pianist, and he was enrolled in the conservatory at age seven. Although the native rhythms of Panama and the cross-cultural stew of Central Avenue were the major non-classical influences during his early years, Perez recalls hearing Freddie Hubbard's Red Clay and other mainstream jazz, courtesy of his parents' neighbor. Pianist Victor Boa was another strong influence -- the first jazz musician Perez heard play in person. His first exposure to the rigors of jazz composition came at the age of nine when he began transcriping the music of local legend Pappo Lucca.
During his teens, Perez played percussion and synthesizer in his father's salsa band, but his mother was determined that music would be secondary to a career that offered greater stability. He arrived in the United States in the early '80s to study electronics but with the idea of eventually finding a place in the music industry -- a trade off with his practical-minded mother. An encounter with Chick Corea cemented his future.
"Seeing Chick play really turned me around and made me realize that I needed to express myself more fully. I knew then that I needed to play this music."
Perez transferred to Berklee as a Quincy Jones Scholar in 1985, and finished two semesters of jazz studies before leaving to work with singer Jon Hendricks. The veteran vocalese master was the first of three finishing schools. Two years with Hendricks was followed by a spell with saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera, and then four vital years with Dizzy Gillespie. The high profile of the trumpeter's small group and the United Nations Orchestra led to gigs at Manhattan clubs like Bradley's and a recording contract with RCA/Novus.
His two albums for the label -- Danilo Perez and The Journey -- allowed him to begin shaping his concept of a pan-Latin sound that samples elements from the entire African diaspora. This period also saw him return to the Boston area, where he joined the faculty of the New England Conservatory. In the last three years, his teaching career has become a major influence in itself.
"I gain a lot from listening to students. It's an exchange. When you teach, you learn. I don't feel like a professor; I feel more like a student. The atmosphere (at NEC) is just amazing. The students are challenging, and there's a real feeling of competition. The emphasis seems to have shifted to performance. Students are hooking up, putting bands together and playing. It keeps me on my toes, man. I feel blessed to be there, especially in the company of people like Joe Maneri, George Russell and Bob Brookmeyer.
"I think it's one of the most exciting places to be right now, not just for jazz but all types of creative music. The connection between the school and the Thelonious Monk Institute has been really important."
Perez's own connection to Monk was the focus of his previous recording -- the 1996 release called Panamonk. Monk's complex harmony and jagged rhythms provided an intriguing proving ground for the pianist's experimentations in melding cultural elements. The bassist for the project was the expressive Israeli musician Avishai Cohen -- another link back to the Sephardic tradition -- while the drum duties were shared by Terri Lyne Carrington and Jeff 'Tain' Watts.
Watts is a carry-over to two-thirds of the tracks on Central Avenue, where he splits the percussion role with Jeff Ballard. Perez feels that each drummer brings a different sound to the music, not just from their individual approaches to their instrument, but in the interaction between drums and piano.
"Tain brings out the African side of my playing. He makes me play more aggressive, like McCoy Tyner. Jeff Ballard brings out my lyrical side. He's a lot like Paul Motian in the way that he can mix Latin rhythms with jazz, and when I play with him I like to say that we sound like the Keith Jarrett Trio with rice and beans on the side."
Although he continues to work in a trio setting for live performances, Perez hopes that he will be able to expand his working group to encompass a broader range of musical traditions.
"When people hear me I want them to know that I've been here -- that I reflect the influence of McCoy, Keith, Bill Evans, Monk -- but also that I come from Panama. By including elements of our own culture into jazz, we can help this music to keep moving, to keep it challenging."