Danilo Perez proffers a vision of rich Panama culture

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Wednesday April 22, 2015


Danilo Perez proffers a vision of rich Panama culture
By: Dan Emerson

It’s been about 30 years since jazz pianist Danilo Perez left his native Panama to study at Berklee College of Music in Boston. But Perez, who performed at the Dakota jazz club Wednesday night, hasn’t forgotten where he came from.

Perez and his trio played a number of compositions from “Panama 500,” the CD he released last year to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Balboa’s discovery of the Pacific Ocean.

Perez’s music conveys the rich cultural melting pot of Panama, where the indigenous folk music has been described as the result of “inbreeding” among Spanish, Indian and African musical traditions. It also incorporates elements of calypso, reggae, and cumbia, a basic dance rhythm that has been called “the backbone of Latin music.”

In his composing, Perez takes all of those colors and mixes them with his classical and jazz training. He’s taken a world of disparate influences and synthesized them into one of the most highly personal piano styles in modern jazz.

The set started with several impressionistic pieces, including “Reflections on the South Sea,” with spare melodies and abundant use of space that conveyed the sense of a sweeping ocean vista. Even though he has the technical facility of a classically trained musician, it’s that simplicity that’s one of the most striking elements of his style.

He’s also no musical purist; he concluded one section of a piece by resoundingly slamming his elbow onto the keyboard.

Perez also favors plenty of rhythmic interplay with the other members of his trio: upright bassist Ben Street and drummer Adam Cruz. On one of the pieces, Street provided undercurrent for Perez’s piano explorations with a plucked bass solo that sounded like a composition in itself. Likewise, Cruz frequently showed rhythmic inventiveness and ability to flow with the groove.

Perez’s piece “Panama Viejo” is a gentle ballad filled with graceful arpeggios and a meandering melody. He showed his rich sense of musical drama, closing the tune with a resounding minor chord that hung in the air.

“Chocolito,” a piece Perez composed in honor of his son, featured a dancing rhythm that conveyed child-like enthusiasm. Perez established a pattern using some hand-muted piano strings, then launched the trio into a percussive groove.

Dan Emerson is a freelance writer and musician in Minneapolis.

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