Danilo Perez’s Motherland was named the top jazz album of 2000 by Ben Ratliff of the New York Times. A sprawling, highly ambitious piece of work, the disc took musical influences from Perez’s native Panama and wove them into a pan-African, pan-Latin, pan-jazz manifesto that leapt out of the speakers. It was the musical equivalent of an IMAX film, and it featured a large cast of guest musicians, including Claudia Acuña, Richard Bona, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Chris Potter, and many more. How would Perez ever pare the behemoth down to a live show?
The pianist answered this question with swaggering nonchalance when he brought his "Motherland Project" to the Village Vanguard last month. Joining the extroverted leader were Donny McCaslin on multiple reeds (he played mostly soprano sax during the set in question), Essiet Essiet on acoustic and electric bass, and Adam Cruz on drums and steel pan. This streamlined quartet cooked with an intensity that elicited heated vocal approbation from the crowd — not to mention Perez, who shouted with delight every time a soloist reached a new peak of creativity. All the forward-thinking conceptual underpinnings of Perez’s album were there, but the emphasis, of necessity, was on blowing rather than epic production. And blow they did. Astonishing lines and harmonies filled the room every time Perez laid hands on the keyboard. The leader’s interplay with Cruz was particularly inspired. And when Perez picked up the melodica, he transformed what is often seen as a silly novelty instrument into something most hip.
Perez and band drew from pieces found on Motherland, but these were launching pads for improvisation rather than explicit, by-the-book readings. Still, the melodies and riffs from "Suite for the Americas" and "Panama 2000" rang out, though fleeting and fragmentary. At this point in time, Perez’s live and studio concepts are poles apart, but a single vision animates them both. One only wishes that some of his sizzling live material could be experienced by a wider public. Alas, a live release from Verve probably isn’t in the cards, but one can hope.
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