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Lizz Wright and Danilo Perez Jazz 100 at the Merriam Theater

Victor L. Schermer By

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Lizz Wright, Vocalist; Danilo Perez, Pianist and Music Director
Jazz 100: The Music of Dizzy, Ella, Mongo & Monk
Merriam Theater
Kimmel Center Presents
Philadelphia, PA
September 30, 2016

This well conceived theme-based jazz show anticipated the 100th birthdays and celebrated the music of four jazz icons all coincidentally born in 1917: Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Mongo Santamaria and Thelonious Monk. Philadelphia welcomed back pianist Danilo Pérez, who for several years curated a top notch jazz series at the Kimmel Center, and vocalist Lizz Wright, who gave a command performance with the Count Basie Orchestra at the same venue in 2005. They coordinated an evening of music which emerged in the 1950s-60s at the intersection of swing and modern jazz, a la Fitzgerald and Monk, and the emergence of Afro-Cuban music propelled by Gillespie's big band and Santamaria's Grammy-winning percussion and original compositions.

The idea was to tell a story of people coming together in unity, whether in the Civil Rights movement or in Latin-jazz collaborations. A further aim was to capture the music and sentiments of the four icons while showing how far jazz has come since then. The instrumentalists were well-chosen for their grasp of the legacy while pushing the envelope in original and complex ways. The group included versatile and innovative post-Coltrane saxophonist Chris Potter, mind-blowing contemporary trumpeter Avishai Cohen; Wycliffe Gordon, a trombonist who is at home in virtually every genre; Ben Street, a consummate bassist and frequent collaborator with Perez; and the polyrhythmic artisan drummer Adam Cruz. All are virtuosos who have pushed the limits of their instruments and can adapt to almost any situation. Roman Diaz, a consummate Afro-Cuban percussionist transplanted from Havana to New York in the late 1990s, served not only in the rhythm section but also as a kind of "grand master," providing interludes of chants and drumming to remind everyone of the origins of jazz in African tribal music.

The concert began with a lazy romp, "Jessica's Day," a Quincy Jones composition arranged in a minimalist manner by bassist Street. Following Diaz' welcoming of the audience with a tribal invocation, the group came on strong with Dizzy Gillespie's "Cubana-Be, Cubana-Bop," an adventurous piece that initiated the Cuban-jazz collaboration. It provided a perfect composition for Diaz' Latin drums and Cohen's trumpet to interact in ways that recapitulated Gilliespie's improvisations with the Cuban musicians way back then. Gillespie's "OW," which featured the trombone section in the original big band arrangement, gave Gordon an opportunity to make the most of the expressive capabilities of the muted and un-muted trombone. Perez then picked up the microphone and spoke to the audience for the first time (it might have been useful for him to have introduced the Gillespie numbers earlier, since many listeners would not have been familiar with the Gillespie tunes.) He introduced Lizz Wright, who launched into Ella Fitzgerald's signature tune, "How High the Moon" in a subtle and sophisticated modern arrangement by Perez and Wright. It was followed by Frank Foster's "Shiny Stockings," which most listeners associate with Count Basie and which Fitzgerald recorded with Basie.

Perez' interpretations of Thelonious Sphere Monk, as evidenced in his recording Panamonk (Imoulse/GRC, 1996), are a cut above most recaps of Monk's spherical triangulations. Perez deeply understands Monk's creative thrusts and translates them into personal statements of his own with advanced harmonies and rhythmic inflections. Such was indeed the case with Perez' solo improvisations on "'Round Midnight," which gave renewed beauty to this overplayed standard. Chris Potter's arrangement and solos for another Monk standard, "Off Minor," honored Monk's extended stint with John Coltrane at the Five Spot in the1950s. After a pause, the resonant voice of Martin Luther King giving one of his famous sermons served as a segue to a Wright/Perez duet, "It's Up to Me and You," which Fitzgerald wrote and sung in response to King's death. The clear implication here was that the music emerged in the context of earth-shattering events in the Civil Rights movement, and King's message just prior to his death was to continue the work of equality and reconciliation that he and his cohorts had begun.

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