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Luis Perdomo: Walking Towards the Light

R.J. DeLuke By

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Pianist Luis Perdomo's fingers dart across the keys, eloquently telling the stories that traverse his mind in that instant; doing so in a manner that enraptures an audience. He moves people, and does so in a manner that appears, on the surface, easy. Like great athletes. Like other great musicians. This is one of the finer pianists out there, playing music from his heart and with plentiful chops and great vision.

Perdomo's name—he hails from Venezuela—at times has placed him, in the eyes of some, in the Latino bag. Not that there's anything wrong with that. That music is in him, but only part of the influences that have formed with remarkable musician. He's made a living playing with Latin musicians in his homeland, and spent about a decade in the midst of the volcanic improvisations of saxophonist Ravi Coltrane's band. He was brought to jazz by icons like Bud Powell and Oscar Peterson, but the first CD he ever bought, in his high school years, was John Coltrane's raucous Om (Impulse, 1968), and in that period spent a lot of time with Albert Ayler's Spiritual Unity (ESP, 1964). Not your usual stuff for musicians in their early stages. This cat comes completely assembled.

He's played with John Patitucci, Ray Barretto, Alice Coltrane, Brian Lynch, David Sanchez, Dafnis Prieto, Yosvany Terry and many more. But his time may yet be coming. With the Ravi Coltrane quartet that included himself, bassist Drew Gress and drummer E.J. Strickland at an end—or at least on hiatus—Perdomo is eyeing more work as a leader. It's time.

"I'm going to try to concentrate on my music," he explains. "Since I'm not playing with Ravi, I find myself with all this free time on my hands. I'm 40. I have already played with tons of bands. What's the next step for me? I'm thinking this and looking at a stack of music right near the piano that I have written that never gets played ... OK. Time to concentrate on my music. It feels very natural for me. I don't feel like someone's forcing me to do all these gigs with a band, nobody's forcing me to write all this music. Right now, it feels very natural."

He doesn't need a kickoff point for being a leader. He's earned it. But his new recording, 2012's Universal Mind on Coltrane's RKM label, is an exclamation point for his talents. It's a trio outing with longtime accomplice Gress and the brilliant Jack DeJohnette on drums. And it's a gem. Wonderfully cohesive and expansive. The trio engages in jazz conversations that are sophisticated and accessible.

The recording is a personal thrill for Perdomo, because it turns out that DeJohnette has been a strong influence going back many years. There's been a connection even before the two met at Freihofer's Saratoga Jazz Festival in 2007. It shows. DeJohnette is fantastic and the pair is propelled to impressive heights throughout the disk, with Gress equal to the task all the way.

Luis Perdomo Awareness"The first time I heard Jack play, I was still living in Venezuela and I bought a CD by Keith Jarrett," says Perdomo. Actually, an LP. Standards, Vol. 2 (ECM, 1985). I was very impressed by the way Jack played. It sounded very dense to me. That was the first time I heard somebody playing like that. It was also so musical. Everything that he did, musically, had to do with what the piano was playing, what the bass was playing. From there I started buying anything he was on. Every CD I bought that he was on was real killing. From that time on, I became a fan of his. When I moved to New York, I knew that he was here. But at the same time it was kind of like a dream. He's a guy that's played with most piano players that have influenced me. The idea I had was to get to see him a lot here. That was one of the things when I first moved to New York. To this day I always listen to recordings he's on just for inspiration."

Meanwhile, two people—randomly—mentioned that hooking up with DeJohnette should be in Perdomo's future.

"One time I went to see Richie Beirach at Birdland. I had given Richie one of my CDs. We were talking backstage and he was telling me, 'You would really sound good with Jack DeJohnette.' Jack and Dave Holland. He was the first one to mention that to me. Ravi also said I should play with Jack. But it wasn't until many years later I was able to say, 'Why not? Why shouldn't I play with Jack?' I was playing with Ravi. We were in France. After the gig, we were sitting at the hotel. We were outside and the weather was real nice and we were just talking. I said to Ravi, 'How about if we make a CD?' He made it happen."

He notes, "I'm super proud of that CD. Not because it's mine. But the whole thing came out real good." It's drawn high praise from critics and musicians.

Perdomo wrote most of the music and did so with Gress and DeJohnette in mind. "I wanted to write music that featured the best in these two artists. When you have people like that, you don't really need to write that much direction. I wanted to leave a lot of room for stuff to happen in the studio. I wanted to just have a sketch that we could play the melody and go from there without too much written stuff or rehearsal. I didn't want music that was too complicated and have to be stressful in the studio." He adds, in his good-natured fashion, "This is the kind of thing you find out when you're 40 years old. You know better. If I'd have done this record 20 years ago, I probably would have written a lot of music and have a real stressed-out environment in the studio. But now ... make music ... just relax and let it happen."

The project was done in two days. After listening to the drummer for so many years, it was a special time for Perdomo. "From the beginning, when Jack started testing his drums, I was like, 'Wow. That's Jack DeJohnette.'" The pianist had to suppress some of those feelings of awe, so as to not be overwhelmed. "I just went up there and started playing. Right from the first moment there was a hookup. It might have been from all the years that I've been listening to him. I was very familiar with his style."

DeJohnette's stature on his instrument and in the jazz community could have resulted in a drum-dominated record. It didn't. Perdomo says that's another positive attribute of the drummer. "We had a conversation about music. He found out the kind of stuff that I like. He realized that I actually heard him and had listened to all his music. When we went back to record, that's when he brought his A-game. He just went for it. I was in heaven. When I heard that, I was like, 'Yes!' [But] that really impressed me is that Jack has a way he plays. He played, but he never took over the whole session. He just added to it. And made everything musically get to the highest level possible. Not at any moment did I feel like I have to adapt to him. I felt completely free to play the way I play. We were listening to each other, the three of us, very attentively. It was really cool."

Perdomo produced the session, but label owner Coltrane is the executive producer and the pianist credits him as a major reason for the CD's sound.

"He pays attention to little details, sound-wise," says Perdomo of Coltrane wearing a producer's hat. "He's an excellent sound engineer himself. He knows all about the mics. The sound board. What kind of mic should be used on each instrument. He listens to the way the piano sounds in the room. Then, according to that, he figures out the best way to mic the piano, the best way to mic the bass, the drums. Everything. He pays attention to every little detail, as you can hear in the recording. The sound is incredible. A lot of that is because of him."

Luis Perdomo AwarenessPerdomo was also allowed free creative rein. "The first time I was offered to make a CD, the promoters wanted me to do a Latin thing. They wanted to tell me, 'You should do this and you should do that.' A lot of the stuff was stuff I wasn't really into. Ravi was the first one who told me, 'Record whatever you want, musically. You be in charge of the music.' That's why I said, 'OK. Let's make a CD.' Every time he has done my CDs, he's the best producer you can get ... From the point of view of the music, he gives very little advice. But whatever he says really makes sense. I totally trust him, blindly. I've played in his band for so many years. He knows what I like, musically. When we're in the studio and he's up there listening, I know he's in touch with what I want to express musically."

With the stellar recording out in 2012, Perdomo is trying to get more gigs as a leader. Naturally, because DeJohnette has his own special career, Perdomo will be playing music with other personnel. He would also like to lead a quartet or quintet when the circumstances allow. But, like many sidemen who try to come to the forefront, the footing can be difficult at first. "Even though people know me at most festivals around the world, when you come with your own project, they don't know you. You've still got to prove yourself. A lot of the fees are not the best thing, and I like to pay decent to my musicians. The trio is the best thing for me to do at this time."
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