CD Review: Danilo Pérez - Panama 500

Danilo Pérez - Panama 500
(Mack Avenue Records MAC1075. CD Review by Alison Bentley)

It’s 500 years since the ‘discovery’ of Panama and pianist Danilo Pérez calls this album a ‘rediscovery’. He draws together modern jazz with European Classical and indigenous Guna music into an aural image of his country’s history. ‘I have been working for years to make music that has an identity very similar to the role that Panama plays in the world.’ Pérez is perhaps best known as Wayne Shorter’s pianist, and drummer Brian Blade and bassist John Pattitucci from Shorter’s band join Pérez for several tracks on this album; the rest comprises his regular trio with Ben Street and Adam Cruz, melding jazz and traditional Panamanian rhythms, to ‘expand on the idea of clave’, as Pérez puts it.

Traditional Panamanian music, chants and percussion sometimes stand alone in short tracks; mostly Pérez has created music around their rhythms.Rediscovery of the South Sea opens the album with composed violin lines (Alex Hargreaves) teasing out the inner harmonies of the piano chords. It’s like a miniature orchestral piece, with sinuous Eastern violin lines draped around the local La Denesa dance rhythms, dense harmonies and playful improvisations. (Guna chant from Roman Diaz and percussion from Ricaurte Villarreal) There’s a free section where Perez asked Street and Cruz to play ‘as if they were lost in the jungle,’ like Spanish explorers. ‘When the piano brings the melody back,’ Pérez says, ‘I’m trying to play like it’s two o’clock in the morning and the left hand is drunk.’ Gratitude, written for his loved ones and fellow musicians, has a joyful calypso feel, with deliciously rustling drum texture, the final ringing chord unleashing all the piano’s deep shadowy overtones.

The Panama Canal has its own tripartite suite: Land of Hope is for solo piano. Pérez’ Latin left hand dances beautifully with spiky Monk-isms and Jimmy Rowles lyricism in the right. Premonition in Rhythm’s opening traditional Congo dance grooves (Milagros Blades on percussion) has improvised violin and piano phrases exploding like overhead fireworks. In the infectious 5/8 riffs of Melting Pot (Chocolito) Cruz’ drums sound like a whole bateria of percussion as the piano crashes huge chords against jumpy violin lines.

The exquisite Panama Viejo, an old song by Ricardo Fabrega, seems to express Pérez’ feelings for his country. The melody peers shyly out from the tense chords and unexpected bass lines. Piano trills refer to both ancient boleros and modern jazz.

Panama 500 has Pattitucci on electric bass and Blade drumming magically among the traditional percussion, (Brazilian Rogério Boccato) and richly-textured piano and violin harmonies. Pérez’ piano notes sparkle like The Reflections on the South Sea, over Sachi Patitucci’s rich cello lines. There are memories of Piazzolla, a piano solo spanning Bach to Monk in ever-changing patterns, and a heartfelt double bass solo from Pattitucci.

 Eulogio Olaideginia Benítez starts Abia Yala (America) with traditional panpipes like birdsong before the trio takes over. Pérez describes his work with Pattitucci and Blade in the Shorter band as having a ‘zero-gravity component to it, where things come out of nowhere’, and as the groove develops it’s impossible to tell what’s written and improvised. The harmony and time feel deliciously just beyond comprehension- the playing is so subtle and just downright amazing. The trio takes us to a musical new found land in The Expedition, where Blade solos powerfully over Pérez’ dark block chords, which seem to contain every note of the scale at once.

This superb album summons a Panama of the mind: everything is reconciled in the complex composition and extraordinary improvisation, almost superhuman sense of harmony, and the simplicity of folk music.  

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