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Danilo Perez: Bridging Cultures and Dimensions of Jazz

Victor L. Schermer By

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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.

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