Twin Cities Jazz Festival: Danilo Perez

Pianist Danilo Perez and bassist John Patitucci performing with saxophonist Wayne Shorter.

The pianist Danilo Perez once told me that his music is all about opening doors. With true pan-American vision, he wanted to give people a chance to hear another part of Latin America.

For more than two decades, Perez has done that remarkably, fusing rhythms from his native Panama and elsewhere with jazz, creating new and expansive music by breaking artificial boundaries between genres.

He won wide acclaim with PanaMonk, a brilliant 1996 recording of originals and Thelonious Monk tunes that showed how the North American jazz master’s percussive compositions presented an ideal canvas for Latin American embellishments. With Motherland in 2000, he delivered an expansive work that explored the African and indigenous elements that have long enriched the music of the Americas.

Since then, Perez has been playing in saxophonist Wayne Shorter’s quartet. Perez, who performs Saturday at the Twin Cities Jazz Festival has thrived in the ensemble, which isn’t wed to traditional orthodoxy. Joining him will be bassist John Patitucci.

That couldn’t be more clear on the pianist’s latest release, Providencia on Mack Avenue records. An inventive recording, it explores the future, aiming for the kind of uplifting world Perez would like to leave for his two daughters. With intricate storytelling, the pianist and his 11-member ensemble fuse jazz with classical music, Latin and other beats in a broad and modern space that includes ample improvisation. At times soaring and at others tranquil, the music takes listeners on moving journey.

The pianist’s own journey began in Panama, where he began studying music at age 3, when his father, a band leader and singer, gave him a set of bongos. By 5, he was studying European classical piano at the National Conservatory in Panama. His father also taught him to hear the music in the world around him, lessons the pianist recalled in an interview with journalist Maria Hinojosa.

Years later, he came to the United States to study electronics at Indiana University, but after hearing Chick Corea in concert, he switched to piano, studying at Berklee College of Music.

A huge influence was the late great Dizzy Gillespie, who loved Afro-Latin rhythms. The trumpeter included Perez in his United Nations Jazz Orchestra.

Like many Latin American musicians, Perez was attracted to immense musical possibilities of jazz, which he employed in his own global vision.

Not weighed down by the past, he doesn’t simply repackage traditional compositions. Instead, he looks for opportunities to change direction and explore new ideas.

The jazz is still there, but it’s not always easy to tell what he’s doing in his complex fusions. The boundaries are gone.

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