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Luis Perdomo: Venezuelan Connection


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[After studying with Roland Hanna,] I started thinking of the piano as an orchestra. Not just 88 keys. I started seeing it as 88 different instruments.
luis perdomo How do you get from Caracas, Venezuela to Carnegie Hall? Well, first you come to the States on vacation, win a full scholarship to a conservatory, study with legends like Roland Hanna, then... well, you get the idea.

That's the journey undertaken by pianist and composer Luis Perdomo. It's a trip that has taken him from Latin powerhouses like Timbalaye and Ray Barretto's band to more mainstream jazz groups led by folks like Ravi Coltrane and Brian Lynch. Perdomo has released two CD's of his own in the past two years, and AAJ contributor Jason Crane spoke with him recently about how many stamps he must have in his passport.

All About Jazz: I'd like to start by asking you about your dad. He had quite an effect on your early musical upbringing, didn't he?

Luis Perdomo: Yeah, definitely. I was very lucky to have access to a big record collection when I was growing up. My father, he's not a musician, but he plays a little piano by ear. He was very open-minded as far as the music he likes to listen to. We used to have a big record collection. You could find jazz, classical music, salsa music, Brazilian, traditional Venezuelan music, pop music, soul—you name it. You could find anything in there.

AAJ: You've said before that when you were a kid, you were also listening to a lot of very adventurous music that most kids your age weren't listening to.

LP: My teacher in Venezuela also had a big record collection with a lot of avant-garde music. I got introduced to a lot of Cecil Taylor, a lot of Ornette Coleman, Stockhausen, Schoenberg, recordings of Glen Gould playing Schoenberg, Paul Bley, Andrew Hill, Gunter Hampel, a lot of European avant-garde.

AAJ: Many adults find it hard to listen to that music and to understand what's going on. How did you have the tools to appreciate it at that young age?

LP: It's funny that you mention that, because in the beginning, when I first started piano, I didn't like jazz. It's not that I didn't like it—I didn't understand jazz, so I thought it was boring. My dad was always listening to Oscar Peterson and Bud Powell and Dizzy Gillespie. I would say, "Oh man, why are you listening to that?" At the time, I was listening to a lot of salsa music.

Also at that time, my teacher used to bring a piece of the Real Book to each one of my lessons. I guess at that time I heard a saxophonist from Venezuela playing one of the songs that my teacher had brought. It was "Pent-Up House by [saxophonist] Sonny Rollins. He was playing this song, which is a jazz song, with a Latin rhythm section. I thought that was great. That's how I started getting interested in jazz, through Latin jazz.

Right after that, I don't know how, but I jumped to avant-garde. I think it might have been the energy of the music that attracted me. Right after that, I was listening to [John Coltrane's] OM (Impulse!, 1965). I was listening to [Circle's] Paris Concert (ECM, 1971), this group with [pianist] Chick Corea, [saxophonist] Anthony Braxton, [bassist] Dave Holland and [drummer] Barry Altschul; the first Frank Right album [Frank Right Trio (ESP, 1965)], the first album he did for ESP; the New York Art Quartet. I just loved it. From the first time that I heard avant-garde music, I just loved it.

AAJ: You played your first professional gig when you were twelve years old. How did that happen?

LP: I had a band with a whole bunch of kids from my high school. We had a small salsa group with six people. We just played around little school reunions and stuff like that. I always said that it was my first official gig, because that was the first gig where I actually got paid some money.

It happened in a baseball stadium. Not a big baseball stadium, more like a stadium for kids. That's where my first gig was. And I just stayed playing music after that.

AAJ: By this time, were you starting to think about music as a career choice?

LP: No. I really liked it, but nobody in my family wanted me to be a musician, because musicians were seen as drug addicts and alcoholics. They were always running behind some women and getting in trouble. My dad wanted me to learn music to keep me off the streets, instead of just hanging around doing nothing. I don't really know when I started thinking about it in a serious way. It just happened. I don't think I ever really thought about it. The only thing I knew is that I just loved playing music. To this day I love it, and I wouldn't do anything else.

AAJ: At some point you decided to go to the States and learn more about the music. When did that transformation happen? When did you start to get really serious?

LP: That happened at about eighteen or nineteen. Right after I finished high school, I spent a year just practicing and listening to music. Then my dad started to get nervous. He said, "You've got to do something. Either go to school or to work, but you can't be here hanging out all day."

I got lucky because I got a job playing in Caracas' most famous jazz club, which is called the Juan Sebastian Bar. They have music from Monday through Saturday. I got a happy break there. In the beginning I was just a sub. I used to sub for the regular pianist. But then eventually when the guy left, he asked me, "Do you want the job?" I said, "Sure." I did that gig from Monday through Saturday for four years.

It was in [the bar] that I met a lot of other musicians. I met this trumpet player who had an uncle who lived in Elizabeth, New Jersey. One time he said to me, "Hey, do you want to go to New York? Let's go to New York and see music." I saved some money, went to the American embassy and got my visa, and came to New York just to hang out.

AAJ: When was this?

LP: October of 1990. Then I met a saxophonist from Venezuela named Rolando Briceño. He was the one who told me to audition for the Manhattan School of Music. I think this was a couple years after my first time in New York. I just kept coming back to hang out. So that's when I auditioned for the Manhattan School of Music. At the time that I came, they were doing auditions. So I went with Rolando and he helped me to fill out the forms. They gave me a scholarship and I came back and stayed here [in New York].

AAJ: So you came to New York on vacation, auditioned for college, and got a full scholarship?

LP: Yeah. [laughs]

AAJ: I'm talking to you from Rochester, New York, which is currently where [pianist] Harold Danko teaches at the Eastman School of Music. You studied with him at Manhattan, right?

LP: Yeah. Definitely. I knew of Harold's playing because of a radio show [in Venezuela]. It's still there. [The host is] Jack Brownstein. He's had a radio show since 1955. I remember my dad used to listen to it a lot and he used to tape it. One time we were listening to it, and he played this record by Lee Konitz. It happened that Harold was the pianist. I think it might have been Rufus Reid on bass and Al Harewood on drums [Ideal Scene (Soul Note, 1986)].

Since that time, I kept thinking of Harold's playing. I used to play that tape and listen to it a lot, over and over and over. When I came to Manhattan and saw that he was a teacher there, I thought, "I have to study with this guy." He was there when I auditioned, and he was a real nice guy. He accepted me as a student.

AAJ: What did you get from studying with Harold?

LP: He knew a lot of harmony. I got introduced to the way Americans play. Down in Venezuela I was playing jazz, but I had a lot of other influences. I was playing jazz and Latin and Brazilian music. When I came here and I started listening to Harold and taking a couple lessons with the late [pianist] Jaki Byard, it was a realization to me. It was so different from the way we were playing down there in Venezuela. Harold's harmonic concept was so far advanced. I wish I could take lessons with him now, because I think I'm more prepared to understand what he was telling me than when I first came to New York.

luis perdomo AAJ: When you were at the Manhattan School, were you also studying classical piano?

LP: Yeah. I took some lessons with a pianist by the name of Martha Pestalozzi. She was a very beautiful lady, and she was very serious about music. It was great for me. It really helped my technique. I studied Chopin and Bach and Mozart with her. She also helped me a lot with my sight reading. I took classical lessons from her for all four years that I was at the Manhattan School of Music.

AAJ: Were you recording and playing gigs at this time?

LP: Not much. I was an international student, so I was required to take more than sixteen credits. At one point I was taking 20 or 21 credits, so I didn't have that much time to hang around. I played around school a lot, though. I played with Stefon Harris, who was at the school at the same time. He had a group and I was in it. But I wasn't playing that much. I was mainly going to school.

AAJ: And when you finished Manhattan, you went on for an advanced degree at Queens College?

LP: Yes. I had seen [pianist Sir] Roland Hanna playing at the Manhattan School of Music. He was a special guest with the Manhattan School's jazz orchestra. At one point, he played a couple tunes of solo piano. One of the songs was "Lush Life." Right away I said, "I've got to take lessons with this guy."

At the time, I was hearing in a more polyphonic way—not just harmonically, when you just hear vertical chords. I was hearing lines, melodic lines. Roland was the master of playing in that style. I found out that he was teaching at Queens College, so I auditioned and took two years of lessons with Roland Hanna.

Man, this guy was tough. That's the kind of teacher that I need—somebody who doesn't take any BS from me. With my teacher in Venezuela and with Harold, we were more like friends. Sometimes I wouldn't study the stuff I was supposed to prepare. I would come to the lesson unprepared, and I would tell Harold, "I didn't have time to practice." They were nice about it. They'd say, "We'll do it next week."

But with Roland? Forget it. I remember one time I was maybe twenty minutes late when I showed up to the lesson. He told me, "Man, you cannot be coming here this late. You're making me waste my time. I'm serious about this." He gave me a lecture for ten minutes, then told me, "We cannot do anything right now. Just come back next week for your lesson." After that, I practiced everything he told me to practice, and I was there on time. I didn't mess with Roland.

AAJ: You said that with Harold you were studying harmonic and chordal concepts. It sounds like Roland Hanna was the perfect complement to that.

LP: Absolutely. And with Roland, I did a lot of classical, even more than what I did at the Manhattan School of Music. I did tons of classical music, and I also went back and studied some earlier styles of jazz piano, like "Fats" Waller, Scott Joplin ragtime pieces. And a lot of Chopin etudes, a lot of Bach and Brahms. Roland was the first guy I heard talking about "half pedal" or "three-quarter pedal."

AAJ: Explain what those terms mean.

LP: When you play piano, a lot of people just stomp on the sustain pedal. You press it all the way down and then release it. But Roland had a way of pressing the pedal just a quarter of the way, and he would get this echo in the piano. It was great the way his pedaling was. He would play loud, but it wasn't the kind of loud that would make you say, "Stop!" It was a nice, big sound.

And sometimes he would tell me, "Luis, you're playing a lot. You're making a little money. It would be good if you went to Carnegie Hall or Alice Tully Hall [at Lincoln Center] and started checking out different piano players. Classical piano players. Buy a ticket and sit right in front of the pianist so that you can really see what they're doing with the pedals and hear all the tone that they're getting out of the piano."

It was an experience for me to study with Roland because he opened my eyes to the full possibility of the piano. Before, I would sit there and press the keys down and it makes a sound and that's it. Roland said, "No, now you've got to play the bass and make the bass sing." I started thinking of the piano as an orchestra, not just 88 keys. I started seeing it as 88 different instruments.

After I graduated from Queens College, Roland told me, "Now you're getting your degree and you might think that you're ready, but you're not. If you have the time, keep coming to your lessons." He gave me free lessons every week for a year. That was the kind of teacher that Roland was.

luis perdomo

Luis Perdomo (left) with Ravi Coltrane

AAJ: When you graduated, did you start getting calls right away and increasing the number of gigs you were playing?

LP: I guess I really started playing a lot in 2001, which is about the time that I finished taking lessons with Roland. In 2001 I started playing with [saxophonist] Ravi Coltrane. I also started playing with [percussionist] Ray Barretto. I guess at the time, I was also doing some gigs with John Patitucci.

AAJ: How did you meet all these people?

LP: There was friend of mine, a percussionist from Venezuela, named Roberto Quintero. He came to New York and he was playing in a salsa band with La India, the singer. At some point they needed a pianist. He knew I was in New York—this was in 1996. So he introduced me to the musical director. That's how I got the gig with La India. I played salsa for about a year, which was good for me because I wasn't making much money. After that, [Quintero] introduced me to Marlon Simon, [pianist] Ed Simon's brother, who is a drummer. He also introduced me to Ralph Irizarry, who's a percussion player.

AAJ: He's the leader of Timbalaye, right?

LP: Yeah. After I met Ralphie, he called me and asked me to join Timbalaye. I was in Timbalaye for eight years. We did three CD's and a whole bunch of tours in Europe. With Marlon we did a record called Rumba a la Patato (Cubop, 2000). I was in Marlon's band for a while. Playing with Marlon, I got introduced to [trumpeter] Brian Lynch, who was also playing with Marlon. Through Brian Lynch I got introduced to [drummer] Dafnis Prieto and [saxophonist] Yosvany Terry. Playing with Yosvany Terry, I got introduced to [singer] Claudia Acuña and [pianist] Jason Lindner. At some point, Jason needed a sub in Claudia's band, so I subbed. We went to Japan. That's where I met John Patitucci. It all goes like that. It's not like I went to places and said, "Hey, I'm a pianist. Call me." It takes longer this way, but that's the way it works for me.

AAJ: You've been working quite a bit in recent years with two saxophone players: Ravi Coltrane and Miguel Zenón.

LP: Right. I met Ravi playing with Dafnis. And I did a recording with bassist John Benitez called Descarga In New York (Khaeon, 2001); Ravi was on that record. That might have been in April of 2001, and I've been playing with him since.

As for Miguel, the bassist in Miguel's band is Hans Glawischnig. We went to school together. We had a trio and we used to play all the time at Hans's Place, which was around the corner from the Manhattan School of Music. One day the drummer, who was also going to Manhattan, said, "There's this guy at school named Miguel. You should check him out." So Miguel came to Hans's place and we played, and he became a regular. Then we started doing jam session with Miguel, Hans, myself, and Danny Weiss, the drummer. Danny plays with saxophonist David Binney. That's how we all met.

At the time that Miguel started getting his own gigs, he just called Hans and me right away because we knew the music. I've been playing with Miguel since 1999. It's been a while.

AAJ: And you've made three records together.

LP: Three records, and we're about to do another one.

AAJ: I have to ask one question that I probably wouldn't ask if Ravi Coltrane were here. You said the first record you ever bought with your own money was John Coltrane's OM, and now you're playing with Coltrane's son. That must seem like a long way from being a kid on the bus with your Walkman.

LP: It's funny, but I don't really see Ravi as related to John Coltrane. He's just Ravi. We'll be on the road, drinking some beers, and he's Ravi. The only time I realize he's related is when I go to his house and he's got all these pictures that you've never seen because they're personal pictures, and you think, "Oh wow, this guy is related to John Coltrane." And sometimes it sounds funny when we go somewhere and we get to the hotel to check in and they say, "You're with the Coltrane quartet." [We say,] "No, we're with Ravi's quartet. We're not with the Coltrane quartet."

AAJ: "Yeah, it's me and Elvin and Jimmy."

LP: Right. [laughs] But Ravi's music is so different. He's got his own thing happening.

AAJ: Let's talk about your own music. You've released two really fine records: one called Focus Point (RKM, 2005) and a new record called Awareness (RKM, 2006). I want to talk about Focus Point first. It actually brings together many of the people you've just been talking about—Miguel is on the record, Ravi is on the record, Roberto Quintero. Talk about how you got to make this recording and how you chose the band.

LP: I'd been offered [the chance] to do a few records in the past, but usually the people that asked me wanted me to do a straight Latin record. A lot of them even said who should be on the record, the instrumentation, and the tunes that I should play. That stuff is great and I grew up playing it and I know it inside out, but that's not what I want to be doing. I don't want to do a record just playing Latin jazz standards. A lot of people used to say, "You said 'no' to a record date? You must be crazy!" I said, "I might be crazy, I might be wasting a good opportunity for myself, but that's not what I want to do." It felt good saying no.

When Ravi got his record label, I don't know if I asked him or he asked me, but he was the first guy to say, "You want to do a record? Cool. Do what you want. Choose the music that you're going to play and the people that you're going to play with. Rehearse the music and let's get together and do it."

AAJ: All but two of the compositions on Focus Point are your compositions. That must have felt good.

LP: A lot of the music I'd written when I was going to the Manhattan School of Music, I didn't just want to put it away. I wanted to put it on record. When I wrote that music, I might have written it for a combo concert or something, so we got to play it only once. I also had some music that I wrote when I was going to Queens College.

AAJ: Let's talk about the new record, Awareness. Hans Glawishnig is on bass and Eric McPherson is on drums. On about half the record, it's almost a double trio, except with just one pianist. There's Nasheet Waits on drums and then—one of the most amazing stories to come out of the jazz world in recent memory—Henry Grimes on bass. He's back after being literally missing for decades. Where did the "double trio" idea come from?

luis perdomo LP: I always loved the sound of two basses. I think the first time I heard two basses interacting with each other was when I was fifteen and my teacher leant me a record by Cecil Taylor called Conquistador (Blue Note, 1966). It's funny because Henry Grimes plays on that record. That was the first time that I heard two basses and the first time that I heard Henry Grimes play.

For this record it wasn't something that I was thinking about for a long time. It just occurred to me one night to do something with two bassists and two drummers. I thought of the trio that I was using at the time, which was going to be Hans and Eric, but when I was thinking of the double trio, I either thought of [bassist] Alan Silva or Henry Grimes. I wanted Hans to be laying down the groove and somebody else floating on top of it.

I had just seen a concert with Henry Grimes and [bassists] William Parker and Alan Silva and Sirone. Four bass players and the saxophonist Charles Gayle. I saw Henry and kept it in my mind that I wanted to play with Henry Grimes. I called him and he agreed to do the record. He was very nice. I spoke to his partner; they were both very gracious.

As for Nasheet, I had heard Eric and Nasheet play together many times. They grew up together in New York. So when I thought of the second drummer, Nasheet was a natural. I wanted the two drums to sound like one big drummer with four hands and four feet. And I wanted one bass to be laying down the groove and one just floating around. Then I had the choice of playing with the groove or out, playing free or with the changes. It worked out real well.

When I told Ravi, he said right away, "Great, let's do it." In the beginning, I was a little bit concerned whether it would work out. But I had a feeling that it was going to work out. It worked out real well.

Selected Discography

Greg Tardy, Steps Of Faith (Steeplechase, 2007)

Brian Lynch, Spheres Of Influence Suite (Ewe, 2006)

Luis Perdomo, Awareness (RKM, 2006)

Yosvany Terry, Metamorphosis (Kindred Rhythm, 2006)

Brian Lynch, Conclave (Criss Cross, 2005)

Luis Perdomo, Focus Point (RKM, 2005)

Dafnis Prieto, About The Monks (Zoho Music, 2005)

Ravi Coltrane, In Flux (Savoy Jazz, 2005)

Miguel Zenón, Jibaro (Marsalis Music, 2005)

Miguel Zenón, Ceremonial (Marsalis Music, 2004)

Ray Barretto, Homage to Art Blakey (Sunnyside, 2003)

Miguel Zenón, Looking Forward (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2001)

Photo Credits

Top, Third Photos: Courtesy of Luis Perdomo

Second Photo: Mariah Wilkins Artist Management

Bottom Photo: Marek Lazarski

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