Luis Perdomo: Venezuelan Connection

Jason Crane By

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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.
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