The cover story in the new issue of JazzTimes is about pianist, composer and educator Danilo Pérez, whose Grammy-nominated album Providencia captures much of the sweeping energy of his recent creative life. I went to Boston in the fall for Pérez’s album-release gig at Scullers, and then spent a few engaging hours at his well-appointed home in Quincy, Mass. (That link leads you to a preview; the full piece, which I obviously endorse, is only available in print.)
I saw this piece as something more than the story of Providencia; by my reckoning, 2010 marked the end of a momentous decade for Pérez. If you were paying attention in 2000, you may recall that it was the year of Motherland, and also the year Pérez joined Wayne Shorter’s new quartet. In the years since, he had served as the cultural ambassador for his native Panama, and started a festival there.
Pérez is a great interview: responsive and generous, unguarded, quick to seize on a suggested premise. What struck me about our conversation was how frequently it kept returning to Shorter, without very much encouragement on my part. Pérez’s affiliation with Shorter has been transformative, opening new spaces in his playing and realigning the public’s perceptions of his art. Rudresh Mahanthappa, the saxophonist featured on Providencia, told me that when he first heard Pérez, in the late 1990s, he initially chalked it up to high-level Latin jazz. “But when I saw him with Wayne,” Mahanthappa said, “that’s when I realized that his palette was so wide.”
I’ve seen the Wayne Shorter Quartet six or seven times, and Pérez has always been the dynamic fulcrum of the band, working deftly to connect Shorter’s oblique melodic filigree with the peek-a-boo groove of bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade. (The WSQ will play Town Hall on Feb. 9, in case you haven’t heard.)
One great byproduct of writing this feature was that it brought me back to Pérez’s pre-Shorter career, and particularly to the 1994 RCA/Novus album The Journey, which I bought when it was released but hadn’t heard in a good long while. The Journey is a fantastic album, a clear precursor to Motherland, but it’s maddeningly out of print, not even available on iTunes. (Amazon has links to third-party sellers, and brief audio clips.) Both Mahanthappa and drummer Adam Cruz name-checked this album when I brought up the subject of Pérez’s influence, and it was formative for saxophonist Miguel Zenón, a youngster in Puerto Rico at the time of the album’s release.
(Dig, by the way, this Peter Watrous review of a Pérez set from around the time of the album release: “Instrumental combinations changed, ostinatos appeared and melted away, and Mr. Pérez moved from double-handed, slick lines of Cuban-styled piano to the elegance of Herbie Hancock’s improvisations.” Mmm-hmm, that sounds right.)
Despite the midsize-combo canvas of albums like Motherland and Providencia -- and, for that matter, Central Avenue, another one worth hearing, if you haven’t -- Pérez’s primary vehicle has long been the trio. His current trio, with Cruz and bassist Ben Street, has been together for nearly a decade, and its growth has been striking.
Among the major contributing factors is Pérez’s commitment to the unknown, something he learned decisively from Shorter. “It’s taken me this whole time to understand what Danilo’s looking for,” Street told me. “I feel like I finally understand what he wants, with regard to support or lack of support, and what kind of fine line he’s looking for.” If you’ve seen the Danilo Pérez Trio within, say, the last five years -- since the release of his ArtistShare album Live at the Jazz Showcase -- you can probably understand this quote. I reviewed the band in 2007, and was struck by how genially stubborn Pérez was about feeling his way forward, and forcing the band (and audience!) to do the same.
At one point during our conversation, we circled around this idea of discovery, something that has become central to Pérez not only as a bandleader and improviser, but also as a teacher. Here’s the bulk of that exchange, which touches on the idea of childlike wonder, productive discomfort and the unorthodox practice regimen that Wayne Shorter inspired. (Think Hanna-Barbera.) This clip is eight minutes long, but if you’re interested in Pérez’s creative imperative, or Shorter’s leadership style, it’ll be worth it: Danilo Pérez on Discovery
I’m prattling on by now, so I’ll leave it at that. If any of this interested you, go read the actual piece. But first, to save you a few minutes of YouTube trawling, here’s a trailer for the movie Shorter urged Pérez to watch. It does, in fact, look awful. Had I been getting New Yorker money for this profile, I might have felt obliged to watch it. (Phew!)