Even though he is new to the Latin jazz music scene, Panamanian-born Danilo Perez is considered one of the finest contemporary pianists and jazz composers. Born in 1966 in Panama, his father, dance band singer Danilo Sr., wasted no time in starting his son on his musical path. At three, he gave Danilo Jr. his first set of bongos. Perez now holds a degree in jazz composition from Boston’s Berklee College of Music and serves as professor at the New England Conservatory of Music.
While growing up in Panama, Perez’s early influences included Gershwin, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, and his mentor in spirit and composition Thelonious Monk. Perez’s album for Impulse! records, PanaMonk, is a study of and tribute to Monk.
When Perez went to the United States to study jazz, his knowledge of jazz musicians expanded immensely. Living jazz legends played key roles in the shaping of the young pianist. Wynton Marsalis asked Perez to tour Poland with his band in 1995. The young Perez was the first Latin artist to perform with Marsalis. For the 1996 Summer Olympics, Perez and Marsalis played together again.
Perhaps Perez’s biggest influence in terms of style and thought was Dizzy Gillespie. Perez performed with Gillespie and his United Nations Orchestra from 1989 until the band leaders death in 1992. “One of the things Dizzy taught me was to learn about my own heritage even more than I knew already. He said it was more important for jazz for you to get to what your roots are, than to learn about other things,” Perez told Phil Johnson of the Independent.
It was shortly after that, in 1993, when Perez released his first album, Danilo Perez, on the Novus label. In 1994, at the age of 27, Perez released what is considered his most personal album, The Journey, a musical account of the torturous trip African slaves made across the oceans in the hulls of the slave ships. The album made it to the top ten jazz lists of New York’s Village Voice, the New York Times, Billboard Magazine, and the Boston Globe. It also allowed Perez to become a recognizable name in the jazz community.
Critics have hailed The Journey, Perez’s second recording, for its quality of composition and incorporation of Afro-Cuban influences into a jazz context. Perez set up the album as a dream series tracing the route of slaves, stolen or sold from their homes and transported across the sea. The Journey begins with “The Capture,” makes it way through the “The Taking,” “Chains,” The Voyage,” and finishes with “Libre Spiritus.” Renowned saxophonist David Sanchez and percussionist Giovani Hildalgo play on the album, which was recorded in two days at the Power Station in New York City.
According to Minstrel Music Network, “On The Journey, Perez… seeks to blur the distinctions between musical styles, through his all-encompassing vision, and (by implication) to eradicate the distinctions between those people native to the Americas, and the Africans and Europeanswho mixed with them to cast the alloy of multiculturalism.”
On his third album, PanaMonk, Perez paid tribute to Thelonious Monk as well as all the other musicians he had been in contact with up to that point. An almost entirely wordless album, PanaMonk lets the music speak for itself. A listener can hear the appreciation and love Perez has for improvisational playing and composing, all of which Monk was revered for. Perez told JazzTimes Magazine, “His (Monk’s) music was the epitome of small group playing, the epitome of jazz music. If you really want to know about jazz and swing, he’s one of the best to go to.”
After an extensive world tour, Perez released Central Avenue in 1998. In this album, his fourth, “Perez is pausing to re-examine his roots, sum up his discoveries and chart his future path,” wrote Fernando Gonzalez in the liner notes for the album. Central Avenue is a blend of blues, folk songs, a sprinkling of Caribbean influence
Born 1966 in Panama. Education —Graduated from Berklee School of Music, Boston.
Toured the world extensively, usually with different musicians; played piano with Dizzie Gillespie, Wynton Marsalis, and David Sanchez; played to crowds as large as the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta in and to more intimate groups, like the one that gathered for President Clinton’s Inuagural Ball; recorded Panamonk, 1996, and Central Avenue, 1998.
Addresses: Record Club —Impulse! Records, 555 West 57th Street, New York, NY, 10019. Website— Record company: www.mca.com/grp/impulse.
and some Middle Eastern melodies thrown in for added spice. Tommy LiPuma, who worked with Perez on PanaMonk, produced the album.
The album is, according to Perez, the combination of all the cultures he would see on any major thoroughfare in any big city. “Central Avenue is a street in Panama, which is like a melting pot of many cultures. As a child, I could see people from all over the world there, from all social levels. The new album is like Central Avenue, because I was trying to find common musical ground between my own culture and the music I discovered when I came to the United States,” he explained to Steve Graybow in a 1998 Billboard interview.
He arranged a worthy ensemble, including bassists John Pattutucci and Avishai Cohen, and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts, whom he played with on PanaMonk. His inspirationfora multicultural band came from Gillespie’s United Nations band. Recorded in New York, most songs on the album were done in one take, so as not to lose the spontaneity and freshness of the session.
The only song not done in one take was “Panama Blues.” For that song, which features Panamanian folk singer Raul Vital, Perez recorded the folksinger and his chorus of mejorana singers in the mountain regions of Panama and then brought the recording back to New York where he and his ensemble added their musical touch. Mejorana is an improvisational style of singing where the singers can go on for hours, especially when supplied with alcohol. Perez told Graybow of Billboard, “[I heard] the blues in their voices, much like the blues down in Mississippi,” and instantly wanted to record them. But, Perez didn’t want to take the singer out of his environment and thus lose the influence.
“When I brought the mejorana tape to New York, everyone was freaking out,” Perez told Graybow. “It sounded good by itself, but matching up instruments with it was a challenge. Mejorana singers improvise while drinking, and the rhythms move back and forth, flowing like the waves on the sea. But God was on our side, and we were able to complete the song.”
For a relatively young man, Perez has been privy to some important and prominent people. He performed as a special guest at President Clinton’s Inaugural Ball, and played the piano on the Bill Cosby theme song. He has also worked on film scores, having created the soundtrack for Winterin Libson, a 1990 European film staring Dizzie Gillespie. Perez, it seems, is a on his way to becoming his own living legend.
Danilo Perez, Novus, 1992.
The Journey, Novus, 1993.
PanaMonk, Impulse!, 1996.
Central Avenue, Impulse!, 1998.
Billboard, October 3, 1998.
Independent, October 23, 1998.
Los Angles Times, December 10, 1998.
“Critics Choice: Danilo Perez/PanaMonk,” Billboard Reviews & Previews Online, http://www.billboard-online.com (February 12, 1999).
“Danilo Perez: New Artist Biography,” Jazz Central Station, http://www1.jazzcentralstation.com (January 15, 1999).
“Liner Notes,” Impromptu, http://www.impulserecords.com (January 18, 1999).
Minstrel Music Network, http://home.m2n.com (January 18, 1999).
Additional information was provide by Impulse! publicity materials.
—Gretchen Van Monette
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