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Danilo Perez weaves jazz tapestry of Panama past and present

Kevin C. Peterson | 2/20/2014, 11:19 a.m.

Pianist Danilo Perez’s music presents complexity, exuberance and a definitive sense of place expressed through tone and rhythmic authority.

“Panama 500” is the most recent CD recording by Perez, an exacting, often didactic collection of tunes that touch on politics and cultural hegemony. It is, as most of his works, a unique jazz achievement — a post bebop meditation that explores one of South America’s important countries.

“Panama 500” is a both celebration and a lament. At once it is a musical history of the country, a chronicle of its people and their contribution to world culture and invention. At the same time it is a tale of invasion and military conquest by the Spanish in the 16th century and the domination of the land’s indigenous people.

“Yeah, they discovered the Pacific,” said Perez, but he also noted that native people in the area were as advanced as the explorers Rodrigo de Bastidas and then, Christopher Columbus who found the country 500 years ago.

“Panama 500” examines the richness of the country using jazz as a vehicle. The results are 12 highly sophisticated musical pieces that demonstrate the vitality of the people of Panama — the Ngabe, Embera, Naso and Guna Indians — rendering them without treacly observation, but with an objectivity that is honest and precisely telling.

The Danilo Perez Quintet performed the entirety of “Panama 500” live to an enthralled and participatory audience at Scullers Jazz club in Cambridge on Saturday night.

There was much toe-tapping, head-bobbing and swerving of hips.

A significant contingent was present of Panamanians who travelled from their country to attend the concert.

“Panama 500” opens with “Discovery of the South Sea,” which gives an account of Panama before and during the early presence of Europeans. It is drawn with heavy colors depicting aspects of native music using the human voice and the conga.

“Canal Suite” speaks to the country’s rich diversity and the creation of the Panama Canal waterway, which sparked the acceleration of interenational trade in the early 1900s. The dynamic score features the up-tempo interplay between violin, bass and guitar.

Perez is a sitting master at the piano. The son of a famous jazz performer in Panama, Perez decided on jazz early, attending the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

Heavily influenced by Thelonius Monk, Perez’ playing is often sparse, sometimes slightly atonal and asymmetrical, causing the listener tension and expectation. His 1996 album, “Panamonk,” features his allegiance to Monk — rarely using the base keys and always light, progressive and linear.

A professor at the New England Conservatory of Music, Perez lives in Boston.

Among the quintet present at the nearly two-hour event were Ben Street on bass, Adam Cruz on drums, Alex Hargreaves on violin and Roman Diaz on the conga.

“Panama 500” was released on the aggressively jazz-focused Mack Avenue label, which is based in Detroit and features other well-known jazz artists such as Kenny Garrett, The Christian McBride Trio and The Count Basie Orchestra.

This week Perez takes “Panama 500” across the globe for sets in Vienna, Austria.