Danilo Perez and Somi at the Kimmel Center

Victor L. Schermer By

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Verizon Hall
The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts
March 19, 2010

In this concert, the performance by Danilo Pérez' group (entitled "Things to Come: 21st Century Dizzy") was supplemented with an opening set by the up-and-coming vocalist Somi, making for an interesting combination of diverse jazz flavorings. Somi's unique African-based renderings was followed by compositions dedicated to or written by Dizzy Gillespie, which were energetically executed with distinctly postmodern arrangements and interpretations.

Somi is a remarkable singer. Her range goes as low as Nina Simone's and as high as Roberta Gambarini's, echoing styles from singers as varied as Sarah Vaughan and folksinger Miriam Makeba. As Somi's All About Jazz biography states, "A true multicultural woman, Somi was born in Illinois to immigrants from Rwanda and Uganda, then spent her early childhood in Zambia." She composes many of her songs and achieves a successful integration of American jazz and blues with African expressions and modal scales. This style exemplifies the "world music" notions of John Coltrane and others, which also may presage things to come.

With her strong personality and resilient voice, she bears the true marks of a great jazz singer. Musically, Somi goes wherever she wants, conveying strong feelings, yet staying within a distinct form and style that she then makes her own by utilizing the form in her own unique way. The form Somi uses is a that of a story, myth or legend expressed in an eclectic mix of African song and dance seamlessly integrated with blues, gospel and modern jazz idioms, which, of course, all ultimately were derived from African sources. For instance, a hypnotic original composition called "Quietly," began in a soft, contemplative way, as if on an African plain at twilight. Gradually, like Ravel's "Bolero," it built into a passionate trance-like expression of irrepressible eroticism and love. Metaphysical presences of "light, water, and air" appeared, echoing Dave Liebman's album, The Elements: Water (Arkadia, 1997). As the love-obsessed soul of the singer unraveled, it told a story that traveled both inside and outside the mind. Somi weaves complex plots and subplots the way that only a handful of jazz musicians have done—Liebman,Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Coltrane and Wayne Shorter come immediately to mind.

In the song "Most Beloved," she used modal improvisation to express an entrancing emotion. This was highlighted and contrasted with a highly-charged, rapid-fire, single-line, right-hand improvisation by her pianist Tori Dodo, as if to evoke the animus, the shadow-side of love. The title song of Somi's album, If the Rains Come First (2009, ObliqSound), begins with a mountainous cadenza by bassist Michael Olatuja, and manifests Somi's resilience in using the elements of the human voice to evoke elements in nature and the words of the ancestors. Bebop phrases are seamlessly woven into the African tribal fabric. Both John and Alice Coltrane would have loved Somi's finale at the concert, "African Lady (The Anti-Domestic Violence Anthem)"—Alice for its liberating message and 'Trane for its fervent voice of the preacher, its rapid, sometimes twisting scat choruses, and its periodic use of intervals reminiscent of "Giant Steps."

Akin to the creative and envelope-pushing male vocalist JD Walter, Somi is extending the limits of jazz singing. Since she also has the cachet of a true "diva," she is going to blow music lovers away. It should also be said that her backup group of piano, guitar, bass and drums did a superb job of bringing out their own individual musical qualities while supporting Somi and never getting in her way.

After intermission, a power-packed group recruited by pianist Danilo Perez delivered a tribute to Dizzy Gillespie with new arrangements that resonated with the rhythmic bebop pulsations of Dizzy and his bands, of which Perez was a member, while experimenting with dissonances and shifts in mood and tempo that were implied by the subtitle "21st Century Dizzy." Nearly all the rhythms were Latin-based, reminiscent of the Gillespie band's extended stints in South America and the influence of his one-time band member from Cuba, Paquito D'Rivera—with some resonances of Chick Corea as well. The Latinate "rhythm-a-ning" (Thelonious Monk's neologism) of Adam Cruz on the drum set was supplemented by the great Jamey Haddad on a collection of percussion instruments. Haddad created Stravinsky-like pulsations that drove Perez, the horn players and legendary bassistJohn Patitucci into powerful choruses that broke the boundaries of the melodies and harmonies of each composition. The magnificence of their performance was inspired in large measure by alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, who took the saxophone beyond even Michael Brecker's boundaries into the stratosphere of virtuosity and brilliant, insightful improvising. One wouldn't want to be a saxophonist sharing the stage with this living giant of a player! David Sanchez on tenor saxophone did so, however, with personal grace and some great licks of his own. And trumpeter Amir ElSaffar, complementing both of them well, did some heavy solos as well.

Illustrative of the entire set was the group's rendering of the Dizzy Gillespie/Kenny Clarke classic "Salt Peanuts," based as it is on a simple four-bar phrase whose rhythm caught the essence of bebop. Starting and ending with unison horn statements of the melody, quite possibly transcribed from Gillespie's recordings, the rhythm section invoked Dizzy-ing salutations to the bebop off-beat that changed the face of jazz. Each group member did a solo update, just as the progenitors of bebop used the simple tune as a showpiece for their musical wares. Similar contemporary complexities were woven into the Gillespie classics "Manteca," which culminated in a fireworks percussion solo by Haddad, and "Con Alma," with Perez' arranging and the group's extended choruses creating a virtual symphonic tribute to Dizzy. In between these Gillespie originals, Perez inserted Thelonious Monk's classic "'Round Midnight," which Perez indicated was one of Dizzy's favorites. The unfortunate mistake was Perez' failure to realize that the only one who could take this tune into the nether regions was Monk himself. All others must proceed with caution and stay close to the shoreline! Perez sought to go out on a 21st-Century limb with his arrangement, an act of hubris that evoked the wrath of the gods, or at least of this reviewer.

Perez is a superb pianist and band leader, and one of the most productive musicians in the business. He put together a fabulous group for this occasion and let them go all out. However, exception can be taken to the way he tried to warm up the audience by getting them to clap and sing on several occasions. It is not the sort of thing to do with the likes of Haddad and Mahanthappa playing. They are not your ordinary salsa band! While these gentlemen took the campy gesture with grace, the world needs frequent reminders that jazz music can be as holy and heavenly as classical music and should be listened to with as much reverence, especially with such brilliant and creative musicians performing.

Another somewhat distressing note was that the concert occurred amidst talk that the Kimmel Center, due to the economics of the recession, let go of its vice president for programming, Tom Warner, who is a dear friend of jazz, not to mention all music that meets high standards. Coincidentally there are rumors that the "Jazz Fridays" Program, of which this concert was part, is being disbanded. This is virtually the only series in Philadelphia that features high-profile jazz players on a regular basis. Given that the stated mission of the Kimmel Center is to serve the community, it appears that the jazz flank of that community is being short-changed. All jazz lovers in this city and its suburbs should contact the Kimmel Center and make known the inestimable value of the Friday Night Jazz series, expressing hope that it will continue.


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