Danilo Perez: Bridging Cultures and Dimensions of Jazz

Victor L. Schermer BY

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Whether with his own ensembles or as a sideman, Danilo Perez has long been an iconic jazz pianist, but above and beyond his success as a performer and recording artist, he has become a manifestation and symbol of cross-cultural dialogue. His music brings together mainstream and Latin influences in a unique way. He always brings something new into the mix, whether early on with Dizzy Gillespie, Jon Hendricks or Wynton Marsalis, his award-winning CD, Panamonk (Implulse, 1996), and more recently with the Wayne Shorter Quartet as well as his own groups featuring Brian Blade, John Patitucci, Ben Street, Adam Cruz, and others. His most recent recordings, Providencia (Mack Avenue, 2010) and Panama 500 (Mack Avenue, 2-14) are in homage to his home country of Panama, yet they incorporate elements of Cuba, straight ahead jazz, European impressionism, African, and other musical heritages. Perez sees music as a multi-dimensional bridge among peoples. He has dedicated himself to making a better world through his efforts as an Artist For Peace with UNESCO, Artistic director of the Berklee Global Jazz Institute, the Panama Jazz Festival, the Danilo Perez Foundation, and other organizations. In everything he does, Perez is always seeking unity, meaning, healing, and the betterment of mankind. He is truly a musical innovator and humanitarian, as this interview illustrates.

AAJ: We'll start with the desert island question. Which are the recordings you would take to that desert island, the favorites that come to your mind?

DP: Thelonious Alone in San Francisco (Riverside, 1959). That album had a huge influence on me. My Funny Valentine: Miles Davis in Concert (Columbia, 1964). The Amazing Bud Powell (Blue Note, 1964). There's a wonderful pianist from Puerto Rico, Enrique Papo Lucca. I still have his album called Conquista Musica (CD reissue on Fania, 2006), "The Musical Conquest," with a group known as La Sonora Poncena. Papo Lucca influenced me a lot. When I listen to that record, it brings back memories of my childhood in Panama and being with my father.

Right now, I'm currently listening to music of West Africa. And there's a great Italian classical pianist, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. I love hearing him play Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 4 and Debussy. Of course, I would take the Herbie Hancock album Adventures and Dimensions (Blue Note, 1963) and Wayne Shorter's Native Dancer (Columbia, 1974). And just one more album: Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely (Capitol, 1958). Nelson Riddle's arrangements are so beautiful: the harmonic sequence, the orchestration, everything he did became the soundtrack of the work. The connection between the lyrics of the songs and Riddle's orchestrations explodes at you.

Growing Up in Panama: A Cross-Cultural Musical Hub

AAJ: Your recent musical emphasis celebrating your home country of Panama, and your devotion to the people and music there, shows that your childhood experience is of great significance in your music and everything else you do. What music did you encounter in your youth? What did you hear in Panama that got you interested in jazz?

DP: First of all, my father was a singer and band leader. And he used to play many records in our home. When I was just a couple of years old, he'd play my favorite song, Miriam Makeba's "Pata Pata." And there was a lot of singing in my home, and percussion. My father gave me a pair of bongos. My parents later told me I was playing music before I could speak. My father presented music as tool to learn my subjects in school, like mathematics! So from then on, there was a component of games in the music, and there was a component of community. On holidays and special occasions, we would celebrate with music. He gave me a little keyboard, and I could play the holiday songs like "Silent Night" and "Jingle Bells." And then my father would play a lot of piano records. And eventually, I got to go to his rehearsals.

One time, we drove past the Panama Conservatory of Music, and my father told me that people who get serious about music go there. I exclaimed "Drive back there! I want to see it again!" I'm very emotional about this even now because the Conservatory is the same place where I'm currently involved in social work with my Foundation in Panama.

AAJ: What place did you grow up in?

DP: I was born in a town in Panama called Monte Oscuro, which means "Dark Mountain." Then we moved and I spent the first part of my life in Peublo Nuevo. Later, we lived in Altos de Cerrro Viento. That's where I lived all the way through high school. That's where I began to really learn music.

AAJ: When and how did jazz enter into your experience?

DP: My father knew a lot of the jazz players from Panama, like pianist Victor Boa. My father always liked his playing. When my father was coming up as a musician in the 1960s, there were a lot of Cubans in Panama like great singer Beny More and pianist Pedro Peruchin Justiz to name a few. Beny Moré's improvisational abilities and the solos with jazzy riffs from Peruchin had a tremendous influence on my father, who learned a lot from their music and passed it on to me at early age. And then around when I was 6 years old, we heard Puerto Rican pianist Papo Lucca, whom I mentioned earlier as a desert island choice, my father found an album of his. Lucca was using a lot of lines from people like Bill Evans and Bud Powell, which he arranged in salsa style or son montuno from Cuba. The album was the one I mentioned earlier called Conquista Musica. That's when I first starting hearing some bebop and things like that in a salsa context.

My father had me transcribing all these cats, and we would spend all day doing it. I got familiar with some Panamanian jazz musicians like Bat Gordon, Victor Boa, trumpeter Jim White, Rubalegs, Danny Clovis, and Reggie Johnson, whom I worked with on percussion. Reggie was part of that group (the Edgardo Quintero Orchestra), and he would play jazz and salsa. When we played, I would hear his phrasing, which excited me and I really liked it. I was still a kid, but I dug it. When we moved to live in Cerro Viento, I was blessed to live near the home of a gentleman named Denis Noel (my neighbor in Altos De Cerro Viento) who had a fantastic jazz collection. He dropped them on all of us. Like he was playing CTI Records [a jazz label founded in 1967 by producer Creed Taylor—Eds.], George Benson, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, you name it! He was blasting all this music out of his house, and it was fascinating, I was recently in Memphis, and while there, I heard a lot of music by The Temptations and B.B. King. Well this guy Denis was playing all their stuff way back then!

So I think right then, I started absorbing the sounds of this music. At the same time, I was practicing with my father who has retired from professional singing at that time, playing Latin music, and so on. Then I tricked my father! When I was in Conservatory, a wonderful teacher named Edgardo Quintero was putting a band together for the classiest place in Panama called the Union Club. He needed a singer and asked me if my father still sang. So I said "yes" and arranged an audition for my father, he got the job, and I played bongos in that band for about five years. It was a very fruitful time for me.

In the late '70s and '80s disco came in, and there was lots of work. I started to form my own group, and develop a repertoire of Ruben Blades who was one of my favorites, along with Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye, and then we did stuff like playing conga, guitar , piano, singing duets and trio and all that became my upbringing. Plus I was working with my father in his wonderful band.

AAJ: It sounds pretty cool, like you might have wanted to stay in Panama. So what made you come to the United States?

The Move to the U.S. and Boston

DP: That's a good question. It was really cool in Panama, but we did some exchanges with heavy players from other countries. Like there was a great pianist named Jorge Dalto [Argentinian pianist who was also music director for George Benson—Eds.]. He came to Panama to play with another fantastic musician, a flautist named Mauricio Smith, who became my mentor. Dalto heard me when I was only 14, and he said, "Little boy, why don't you go to New York?" And then other famous singers came to Panama, like Danny Rivera from Puerto Rico, whom I accompanied. His arrangements were very jazzy in a way, with complex voices and so forth. So he came in to rehearse, and the promoter was freaking out and told him, "This little boy is going to play piano and I do not know how did this happen!" Rivera replied: "This little pinhead is going to play piano?" [Laughter.] Then he said, "Well, let's see if he can handle the job." And when he heard me, he really liked how I worked, and he called me again and again when he was in Panama.

So, around the same time, I started to work with many people, and there was a wonderful teacher and composer, Aristides Valderrama, who came from Berklee College of Music, and he brought all these arrangements that I found fascinating. At sixteen, I was already doing everything that a professional musician could accomplish in Panama. That's when I started to think about coming to the U.S. So I applied to the USA embassy in Panama and won a Fulbright scholarship to Indiana University of Pennsylvania. I was a student for a year there. It was wonderful. I had great professors. And then I had a friend from Berklee named Jorge Carrizo, and he started telling me how great it was in Boston. So I enthusiastically applied for a scholarship at Berklee, got accepted, and that's how I came to Boston.

AAJ: So that's when you started making contact with many American musicians.

DP: I got to interact with many of my favorite mentors. One was Donald Brown, who used to play with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. I just talked to him recently. He was very encouraging. He was one of the first to help me set a direction for myself. In fact, he got me my first audition with the singer Jon Hendricks. So after a semester and a half I was already in New York auditioning for bands, which was one of the best experiences I had at the time. I had some great teachers at Berklee, such as Herb Pomeroy, Phil Wilson, Hal Crook, and Ed Tomassi. And I got to work with Victor Mendoza, Claudio Ragazzi, Lee Konitz, Claudio Roditi, Slide Hampton, and Clark Terry. They all were very encouraging. So it was really wonderful how I kept finding great people in my life who were very supportive. Also I got to play with many fantastic students who nowadays are part of the creative scene in the music industry.

So then I went to audition with Jon Hendricks, and got the gig. He wanted me to start right away, but I was hesitant because I was in school. But I called my friend from Panama, Mauricio Smith, who was living in Brooklyn at the time, and he said, "That's great! Everybody wants to work with Jon Hendricks! You better take it!" So I took the gig! And it turned out to be really great training for me, because I had to pick up a lot of the music by ear rather than just charts. Jon Hendricks was very particular and knew all the parts very well. He was very serious about getting to the essence of the music. That experience with him was very important in my life. I really got acquainted with American jazz, since he had Count Basie "Jumpin' at the Woodside," and those kinds of charts. Then we got started with the whole repertoire of Nat King Cole. And I learned many details of the music, since Hendricks wanted it set up exactly as it was on the recordings, where he wanted me to play the parts of various instruments. And then he would change the key. So I learned so much. I was only nineteen and had so much responsibility!

Influences of Thelonious Monk, Wynton Marsalis, and Wayne Shorter

AAJ: So that was your introduction to the American jazz scene. Quite a leap for a kid from Panama! One of your big influences was the music of Thelonious Monk, and you eventually made the outstanding recording, Panamonk . Many musicians do a poor imitation of Monk, but you absorbed his music into your own playing in a beautiful, seamless way. Could you explain to us what Monk means to you musically, how he influenced you? Many think of Monk as an eccentric, but we know that he was a true genius and musical pioneer who profoundly influenced many musicians. What was his particular influence on you personally?

DP: That's a great question, because Monk was really crucial in my development when I was playing with Hendricks. But even more, when I was playing with Wynton Marsalis' band, and we were doing Monk tunes, and they added a New Orleans feel to it, I started to really "get it," because in a sense New Orleans brought it closer to Panama, and I was able to hear Monk for the first time connected to the music of my own country. So I began to hear those qualities which make Monk so important, and it all began to make sense to me, the sound of America, the sound of Africa. It was almost like hearing a "rumbero." I got into accompanying tap dancers at the time, and I could hear that rhythm in the Monk tunes. So when I listened to Monk in Wynton's band, something immediately shifted for me. Monk really connected me to jazz in a completely new way.

AAJ: Your roots in Panama are so important for your music. And recently you've dedicated your own compositions to Panama, as in the recent release Panama 500, in honor of the 500th anniversary of Balboa's discovery of Panama. The music in that album combines diverse geographical and cultural influences. And you coined the phrase "three-dimensional" music to describe the compositions. Can you tell us what that term means?

"Three-Dimensional" Music

DP: The number three is crucial for me. What I mean there is looking at the music from three different angles: the classical approach, the jazz approach, and the Latin approach. I also call it three dimensions because, in a lot of jazz, we're dealing with opposites. For example, when you hear a rumba, and you hear the percussion really going at it, firing away, that's one dimension. Then, on top of that, you hear a singer is slow, like singing a ballad. And then the third dimension is what I call the "harmonic rhythm," using all those elements to create curiosity and movement. Sometimes I compare it to the three elements, fire, earth, and water. I still have to work in the fourth element of "air." But that's the idea. It's really a contrapuntal idea.

AAJ: That all goes back to Johann Sebastian Bach.

DP: Exactly! The dimensions make sense separately and in combination. For example, the melody is easy and accessible, and then the complicated harmonic movement comes into play.

AAJ: Explain "harmonic movement." Those sound like two opposites in themselves.

DP: I learned from Wayne Shorter how a simple melody becomes the "window" to discover all the rhythmic and harmonic possibilities. The melody, even a single note, can become many things all at once. A prime example is in a section of the "Reflections on the South Sea" movement in Panama 500, where a haunting melody is counterposed with the percussion, and then you follow the bass walking in half time. And every time you repeat the melody, you go to a different place rhythmically and harmonically. So it all becomes like a musical lens to look at life itself.

AAJ: That is a very good way to look at musical development in general. It explains a great deal of what you hear in jazz.

DP: Wayne explained to me that when you're supporting another musician, you're also soloing. One way to acquire that ability is to practice tunes in different ways. Like you can practice Charlie Parker's upbeat "Confirmation" as a slow ballad, and you hear different things when you do that. Same with "Donna Lee"—try to hear that as a ballad. That's the kind of practice that it takes—it develops your imagination as to what's possible in a tune.

AAJ: Hearing and transforming all the possibilities in the music. That's really what improvising is about.

DP: Exactly!

AAJ: Speaking of Wayne Shorter, I always wondered how he rehearses his bands. He's so original in his ideas, that I wonder how he gets it across to the other players.

DP: Rehearsing with Wayne was what gave me the idea for these concepts. Usually, we develop our skills by practicing, and we develop a commitment to our playing by practicing over and over again. Wayne wanted us to work from another angle, by dealing with what we don't know. He wanted us to really expose ourselves in the most open way right then in front of people— without hiding behind the things we already learned and knew we were going to do.

Music Tells a Story about Life

DP: It's all about expressing that human part of you, of sharing a musical experience equal to a life experience. That's the heaviest lesson I learned from Wayne. He encouraged us to do the music from the human aspect, and then the music becomes a way of telling stories. One day, Wayne heard me practicing Chopin Etudes, and he said, "You know, you can improvise on that!" And he said, "Play and write music the way you want the world to be like." That was another crucial moment for me. He'd say, "Tell what you love about life." I started thinking, I love Panama. There's something I've been wanting to say about Panama for years. I love that we're a bridge between two oceans and worlds, this equality, they've become a symbol of what I want to write and play musically. The whole idea of making what you do have a meaning with what you think.

Wayne wanted us to capture that first essence of discovery, finding out what it's all about. It was just like when I played Monk with Wynton, What I also learned from Wayne was not to hide behind the instrument, but play like you never learned this instrument. He made me capture the first essence of finding new things, exploring and bringing joy to that space. When we rehearse with Wayne, we have the most delicious sound checks ever. We go through a couple of bars of four or five tunes that he wrote. He was very conscious of all of us, and our struggles.

AAJ: What you are saying is that your intentions in music and your purpose in life overlap. Can you give us a brief picture of what your life is about above and beyond the music as such?

DP: Wayne helped me realize that when you perform, you tell stories about yourself and what's important to you. More and more, I try to unite everything I do. I really love the therapy in the music. I love the capacity we have to create antidotes against violence, create a vaccination, and create practical things that help humanity. I love the aspect of music that deals with human development. I'm always open to documenting things that are important to me. And I love to encourage my colleagues to look at music as a therapeutic tool, to help us to become better human beings. Music reveals things that are completely invisible. It's not about ego: "Oh man, I'm jive!" Music, especially jazz and improvisation, reveals everything that you're working for in life. So I'm completely committed to the idea that music can be a great tool for human development.

I travel a lot. I'm going to Africa next week, and all that traveling can become tedious, but it's all become one for me now: Africa, Panama, The Berklee Global Jazz Institute, the Panama 500 band, the Wayne Shorter Quartet, and my whole family, especially my wife and kids. We're all united by this idea of human development through music. Music is a form of social activism. Helping people. Music can provide values for society, to end violence, to help people to concentrate, and to relate to others from different cultures.

Photo Credit: Raj Naik

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