Best of birthdays to maestro Danilo Pérez. who turns 54 today. A few years ago on this date , I uploaded a post containing transcripts of an uncut Downbeat Blindfold Test that we did in 2001 and a WKCR interview in 1993. That post linked to a pair of Downbeat articles that it was my honor to write about Danilo in 2010 and 2014 respectively. Today I’m posting the texts of those articles.
Danilo Pérez, See a Little Light – Downbeat 2014
At 2:30 in the morning on the penultimate night of the 2014 Panama Jazz Festival, Danilo Pérez hopped off the bandstand of his new, namesake club in the American Trade Hotel in Panama City’s historic Casco Viejo district. He was exhilarated, and for good reason. Pérez had just concluded the week’s final jam session—a fiery encounter with tenor saxophonist George Garzone, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Adam Cruz—with an exorcistic five-minute piano solo on John Coltrane’s “Mr. P.C.”
“That was like Bradley’s,” Pérez called out, punctuating the point with an emphatic fist-bump. The reference was to the late-night Greenwich Village piano saloon where Pérez was a rotation regular from 1989, his first of three years with Dizzy Gillespie’s United Nations Orchestra, until Bradley’s closed in 1996. That was the year Pérez released Panamonk, cementing his status as a multilingual storyteller who renders Afro-Caribbean and hardcore jazz dialects without an accent.
Earlier that evening, Pérez had focused on his latest release, Panama 500 (Mack Avenue), at a concert at the City of Knowledge, a 300-acre former U.S. military base along the Panama Canal where the festival transpired. The 12-tune suite evokes Panama’s half-millennium as a global crossroads, incorporating indigenous melodies and local variants of African-descended rhythms. On the recording, Pérez fleshes them out with structural and harmonic logics developed over a 14-year run with the Wayne Shorter Quartet, and animates them by unleashing two intuitive rhythm sections—bassist Ben Street and Cruz from his working trio of the past decade, and Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade, his partners with Shorter—capable of matching the twists and turns of the leader’s open-ended improvisations. He phrases with a singer’s malleability and a drummer’s effervescence. The concert marked only the second public performance of the work, but Pérez and his unit—Patitucci, Cruz, violinist Alex Hargreaves and conguero-batá drummer Ramon Díaz—delivered it with precision and flair, overcoming a balky sound system, dubious acoustics, and several obstreperous attendees.
Throughout the week, Pérez, 48, multitasked efficiently despite minimal sleep. He fulfilled numerous extra-musical obligations, analyzing the big picture and extinguishing logistical brushfires. At an opening-day press conference, he displayed considerable diplomatic skills, communicating the festival’s educational mission and socio-economic impact in concrete language that the politicians and bureaucrats he shared the stage with could understand and support. He never removed his educator’s hat. There were visits to his Danilo Pérez Foundation, which offers top-shelf musical instruction and life lessons to several hundred at-risk children, 19 of whom have received scholarships to the likes of Berklee College of Music and New England Conservatory. Furthermore, Pérez participated in an array of clinics, workshops and master classes conducted by faculty and an elite octet dubbed the Global Jazz Ambassadors [GJA], culled from the Global Jazz Institute, the 30-student enclave that Berklee hired Pérez to conceptualize and develop a curriculum for in 2010.
After a two-hour rehearsal on the morning before the “Panama 500” concert, and another one with Patitucci and GJA for an evening concert in which he would play timbales, congas and cajon, Pérez walked to the City of Knowledge food court for lunch. Over the next hour, he discussed his creative process, staying on point through periodic interruptions—a fan asked for a photo; a violinist and a documentary filmmaker stopped by the table for separate chats, as did Oswaldo Ayala, a popular Panamanian accordionist-vocalist who would debut a new project that evening when the GJA concert was done.
“Records for me are like signposts, and now we have to make a lot of new windows through which to enter and exit,” Pérez said. “They really need to know all the little details; otherwise, there are places where we could get lost in the mud. I’m excited about finding ways to open up and get those notes off the paper.”
The little details and the portals coexist in equal measure on Panama 500. In its formal complexity, Pérez hearkens to the specificity of intention that infused his ’90s recordings—The Journey and Motherland, both heavily composed meditations on Pan-American themes in which the drums power through, and also blowing-oriented dates like Panamonk and Central Avenue, on which he imparted a funky, Mother Earth feel to an array of odd-meter claves. But the mood is more akin to the spontaneous, fluid, experimental sensibility—a quality of instant composition—that palpably infuses 2005’s Live At The Jazz Showcase (ArtistShare) and 2010’s Providencia (Mack Avenue).
Originally, Pérez had intended to follow Providencia with a less speculative program of standards and originals, but experienced a creative breakthrough after the 2013 festival. “When I got back to Boston I knew what the record would be, that I wanted to tell the human path of what happened when the Spanish discovered—or rediscovered—Panama and the Pacific Ocean,” he said. “I started writing new material and improvising at the piano constantly for two weeks. I was writing for each person in the band to represent a certain aspect of the experience. The violin can be the Spanish colonizer, and then transform into the indigenous.”
Once in the studio, Pérez decided to give the two rhythm sections repertoire that they had not previously worked on. “I didn’t want the feeling on the record that people have complete understanding or control,” he explained. “The more familiar they were with a piece, I chose to go the opposite way. Before I joined Wayne, I would have been panicking that someone didn’t know all the details.”
Cruz recounted the milieu. “There was a lot to digest and process, and each section has a certain character,” he said. “So we were struggling—a fun struggle, but hard work. He’s looking for a way not to feel trapped by what he wrote, so performing it always feels fresh and pregnant with possibility.” By deploying this approach, Pérez mirrored what Street described as the “completely chaotic” environment that pervaded the making of Providencia. “I told his wife I thought we should make changes in the control room or ask people to leave,” Street said. “She looked at me almost pityingly and said, ‘Danilo thrives on chaos.’”
Upon hearing her words back, Patricia Zarate laughed long and hard. “It sounds weird for me to say my husband is special, but Danilo has a lot of charisma,” Zarate said. “He has a natural predisposition to turn really bad situations into good ones, whether it’s a band that sounds really bad that he makes sound really good, or being in the home of a student who lives in extreme poverty, transforming it into a great party. That comes from his father. I see chaos in front of me; they see a little light that I don’t see.”
Danilo Pérez Sr., a well-known Panamanian sonero of the Beny Moré school, became an elementary school teacher during the ’60s. He experimented with ways to use music as a learning tool in poor neighborhoods, and passed them on to his son, who was playing bongos by age 3 and began classical piano studies at 8. “My father clearly demonstrated to me that learning and playing a piece is not the beautiful part,” Pérez said, who played both piano and drums in his father’s bands from an early age. “It’s the struggle to get it. If you can connect to the actual lesson that the music teaches you, you have learned something profound in that process, and it will stay with you forever.”
Gillespie and Shorter, both musical father surrogates, reinforced this basis of operations. “Dizzy said that people need to simmer,” Pérez said. “Let it come from friction. Let people struggle until they find their place. Don’t try to accommodate it. Wayne also told us that. Don’t rush. Don’t make quick assumptions. A big attraction to working in Wayne’s context is that he took away everything that I could use to recycle. He said, ‘Function from the primacy of the ear and find your way in.’ Dizzy talked about that, too. ‘Listen, listen, listen, and then let the music guide you.’ That’s the way I’m doing things now. I’m just trying to redefine things that I have thought about or worked on for years.”
Patitucci, who hosted the Panama 500 rehearsals at his Westchester home, described how Pérez manifested this attitude. “Danilo’s process is long,” Patitucci said. “He came in at 9 a.m. with stuff, but it was just the starting point. He’d literally investigate sounds all day, have a short break, and then go to the gig. That makes him perfect for Wayne’s music, which is not about quick answers and cliches. It’s about probing, searching, the struggle of finding new sounds and dealing with them. Danilo is not in a hurry, and he won’t settle for something expedient. He’ll go for something much deeper.”
Pérez described this mindset as “almost obsessive-compulsive, like a dementia.” He said: “It’s almost like the time stops. I feel more joy and function better when I do that, like a kid finding and creating, doing one little thing for a long time. It’s beyond what my father explained to me. It’s the most human I feel.”
Again, he credited his embrace of this perspective to Shorter’s example. “I’ve been encouraged to take these risks,” Pérez said. “I’ve been allowed to think that the creative process is invaluable. I’m starting to get into an open door to come up with a vocabulary that has been with me for years, since The Journey and Panamonk. On each of them, I was falling in love with little things in my life, and I feel like they’re coming back at me. I’m not chasing them. They’re coming back.”
Pérez now finds himself at a crossroads not so dissimilar to the one he faced 14 years ago, when he decided to table his burgeoning career as a solo artist and commit to Shorter’s quartet. This summer, He will join Patitucci and Blade on the club and festival circuit as the Children of the Light trio, while Shorter, who pushed himself hard during 2013 with numerous 80th birthday events, stays home to compose. Pérez’s 2014 itinerary also includes several runs with the Panama 500 unit and a duo event with Miguel Zenón. He hopes to revive his long-standing partnership with tenor saxophonist David Sánchez, and a more recent relationship with altoist Rudresh Mahanthappa and trumpeter Amir ElSaffar that developed during a 2010 project titled “Celebrating Dizzy,” as yet unrecorded, on which Pérez applied principles of nonattachment to Gillespie’s oeuvre. Speaking of recordings, he has several possibilities in mind—perhaps a singers’ project, perhaps documenting orchestral work, perhaps a solo piano recital on the kind of repertoire he played at Bradley’s back in the day, informed by such early mentors as Donald Brown, Jon Hendricks and Gillespie.
Topping Pérez’s aspirational queue is to generate sufficient income from his club to buy the building that houses the Danilo Pérez Foundation. “My dream is to create the best listening room in Latin America,” he said, noting that a 7-foot grand piano would soon be installed, and that Rob Griffin, Shorter’s sound-engineer/road-manager since the mid-’90s, will be overseeing the details. “We want to provide a creative space where the musicians who go from Panama to the United States can play and develop artistically when they return, and also bring international artists to perform at the club in a way that complements the foundation. I want the foundation to be there forever.”
The foundation’s genesis dates to 1984, when Pérez, a few months shy of 18, left Panama on a Fulbright scholarship to study electrical engineering at Indiana College in Pennsylvania, where he stayed a year before transferring to Berklee—also on scholarship—in 1985. “I promised that I would come back and give time every year,” he said. Pérez committed four days each year over a nine-year span to a music-social outreach project called Jamboree, assembled big bands and taught private classes. “Although Danilo saw all these things as part of his mission, they were disconnected and unsustainable because there wasn’t an institution that could take care of this mission,” Zarate said. “So in 2003 he opened a corporation to create a jazz festival that had a social component. ‘I really need to do this,’ he told me, ‘and I am going to put in the project all the money that I have saved to buy our first house in Boston.’”
Two years later, Pérez—who had been appointed Panama’s Cultural Ambassador in 2000—met K.C. Hardin, a controlling partner of the real estate development company Conservatorio, which was then purchasing numerous properties in Casco Viejo One of them was the National Conservatory of Music, a four-story structure constructed in the 1670s—it was Panama’s first Presidential palace—where Pérez had studied in his youth. Another was the American Trade Building, a 1917 mercantile structure across a small plaza from the conservatory, that had fallen into disrepair. Hardin offered Pérez the first floor of the conservatory for a decade, at no rent, to house the foundation; in 2013, he gave Pérez complete creative control of the Danilo Pérez Jazz Club on the hotel’s ground floor.
Luis-Carlos Pérez (no relation), 35, a one-time DPF student who earned master’s degrees in jazz composition and music education from New England Conservatory, is the foundation’s director of education. “We try to teach the children human values and good habits through music,” he said in the foundation’s main practice room, which contains a Kawai grand piano, a Ludwig drum kit and a marimba. In a back room are two Apple computers with keyboards, and six PCs for students—five of them pay $40 per month; the rest are on scholarship—to do homework and access the internet.
Profanity is forbidden, as is fighting, and wearing shoes is mandatory. “We don’t teach music in a conservatory way,” Luis-Carlos Pérez said. “They need to play, to feel music like a game. We teach them to make different sounds with their body, that their body is their first instrument. Some kids may be sexually harassed; this teaches them to respect their bodies. We give them rhythm instruments, or melodicas on which they learn little tunes. We also teach teamwork, how to listen to each other. If a kid has an attitude problem, we know it’s because something is wrong at home, so we make them the leaders. That was Danilo’s idea.”
Danilo Pérez’s core notion of privileging process over product also infuses his vision for the Global Jazz Institute, whose students play in nursing homes, hospitals and prisons to give them an opportunity to feel, as he puts it, “that their talent brings with it great responsibility.” “At the institute, we teach that everything is connected,” said Marco Pignataro, a Bologna-born saxophonist who has been GJI’s managing director since its inception. “The act of giving is going to affect what you do on stage. Danilo’s teaching reflects his experience with Wayne Shorter—his sense of harmony and orchestration, the idea that creativity and humanity exist at the same time. Offstage, you’re still improvising.”
“Danilo sees the world as one huge combination of things, instead of ‘music is here and other things are there,’” said Zarate, a music therapist whose mother is a neurologist in Chile. “He was a totally different person before Wayne, who totally connects to music therapy. But while I was trying to figure out how to restore movement in people with Parkinson’s Disease, Wayne was talking about how we’re going to move humanity with music.”
For all his preoccupation with the big picture, Pérez is a stickler for fundamentals and idiomatic assimilation of traditions. “I still believe that the core of this music’s sound design and architecture comes from listening to Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, who created a vocabulary that is so representative of North America,” he said. “I emphasize that the kids be aware of bebop. I want them to look at Charlie Parker as a superhero. Their backgrounds are very similar. You see this music speak to them; it comes from the barrio.”
Pérez describes his own background as “poor, working-class,” recalling how his mother, also a teacher, “saved a penny to a penny to raise our level.” He emphasizes that “to be poor then didn’t necessarily mean issues with crime and violence, whereas now it’s implied. It was a super-optimistic, honorable culture. My grandfather would say, ‘A monkey dressed in silk is still a monkey; possessions mean nothing if you’re a crook.’ Those values were passed on to us. My mother studied so hard! I promised myself that I want to learn all my life. That’s why I went to New York, and put myself in situations where I was uncomfortable. I think the ultimate heritage you can leave for your family is the desire not to want things to be easy. When I’d see Dizzy in a corner with a little pencil and music, or Wayne writing 100 bars, that is where it’s at for me: commitment and passion.”
These first principles will continue to inform Pérez’s implementation of his social-humanitarian vision. “I understood from early on that the component of education wasn’t only for musicians,” he said. “I see so many things that could be changed in my country, and I asked myself whether I wanted to be a person who produced the change or one who just complained about it. I decided I’d do whatever it takes that I feel is ethical and moral, that doesn’t go against the values my parents taught me. Another thing I learned from Wayne is that every time you feel resistance, it’s a sign to know you’re on the right path. Use resistance as a fertilizer.”
Danilo Perez DB Article 2010 (Final):
“I have to take a risk, otherwise I start to freak out,” said Danilo Perez, after downing a second double espresso at Saturday brunch in the restaurant of his Manhattan hotel. “I understood that early on, even when I was playing with great artists. They wouldn’t like it, because I wouldn’t do the same intro, and maybe I screwed it up the second time.”
The 43-year pianist was midway through a first-four-nights-of-April engagement at the Jazz Standard with a new project dubbed Things To Come: 21st Century Dizzy, on which he and his newest band—alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, trumpeter Amir El Saffar, tenor saxophonist David Sanchez, and percussionist Jamey Haddad, along with drummer Adam Cruz and bassist Ben Street from Perez’ working trio—were deconstructing iconic Dizzy Gillespie repertoire like “Salt Peanuts,” “Con Alma,” “Manteca,” and “Woody ‘n You.” It was only their third meeting, and Perez meant to use his ten club sets to coalesce the flow. There were arrangements, but Perez spontaneously reorchestrated from the piano, cuing on-a-dime shifts in tonality and meter, relentlessly recombining the unit into various duo, trio and quartet configurations.
Ultimately, Perez said, he hoped to extrapolate to the larger ensemble the expansive feel he’s evolved over the past eight years with Street and Cruz, one that Street positioned “somewhere between Keith Jarrett’s late ‘60s-early ‘70s trio with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian and Herbie Hancock’s Inventions and Dimensions record.” Street added: “The music has a lot of emotional freedom, but also an unspoken subtext of rhythmic science that doesn’t always need to be directly addressed.”
“It takes time and patience to be able to go anywhere the music takes us,” Perez said. “Our mission is to uncover new territories inside what’s there to create something unique, and then write to that.” Elaborating as the conversation progressed, Perez referred several times to “writing with windows through which people can enter and exit.”
“I don’t want to write in a dictatorial way, that inhibits personality,” he continued. “I want them to put me in a weird spot.” Perez credited Wayne Shorter, his steady employer since 2001, as the source of this imperative. “Wayne writes you this amazing thing, but then says, ‘Forget that, and bring your own idea—I want to hear your opinion of what I wrote.’”
Cruz cosigned Perez’ consistent non-attachment to material. “If there’s even a smattering of routine on the gig, an ‘Oh, this is what we do’ feeling, Danilo immediately wants to throw a wrench—knock all these pieces over and start again,” he said. Mahanthappa added: “More than anyone I play with, Danilo loves loading a set with surprises to keep things fresh.”
Perez also attributed this predisposition to his experience with Shorter. “He’s given my life a dimension that wasn’t there before—to be committed and fearless, and not focus on the result, but let the stuff morph as it wants to,” he explained. “I’m thinking a lot about what in my life is important to portray, and then letting the music mold and take shape as it goes.” He referenced the title of his just-mixed new album, Providencia [Mack Avenue]. “It’s to prepare for the unknown, for the future, almost as though you’re watching something in forward motion. You let ‘providencia’ take place. I’m thinking a lot about movements and movies, even about struggle. And a lot about children—when I play now, images arise of how children make decisions, doing something and suddenly switching to something else, like organized chaos, but keeping the thread.”
Providencia is a tour de force, a kaleidoscopic suite woven from the core themes that mark Perez’ oeuvre since his eponymous 1993 debut and its 1994 followup, The Journey, on which he presented a mature, expansive, take on Pan-American jazz expression. There are dark, inflamed Panamanian love songs; original programmatic works addressing Panamanian subjects on which the woodwinds and voice that augment the ensemble improvise fluidly within the form; and improvcentric combo tunes that incorporate complex, intoxicating Afro-Caribbean meters—Panama’s tamborito on “Panama Galactic,” for example—and highbrow jazz harmony; a pair of cohesive, spontaneously improvised Perez-Mahanthappa duos towards the end. Throughout the proceedings, the pianist plays with exquisitely calibrated touch, extrapolating the beyond-category voice shaped in the crucible of Shorter’s quintet—Mahanthappa describes it as “the history of jazz piano and 20th century classical music, but improvised, virtuosic, reactive, and musical”—onto the ingenious clave permutations and capacious harmonic palette that established his early career reputation.
The precision of the language and clarity of intention on Providencia belies the loose methodology that Perez deployed in making it. Yet, rather than work with a preordained “text,” Perez, in the manner of a film director who convenes his cast several weeks before shooting to work out characters and plot, constructed his narrative after extensive studio rehearsals.
“I approached it more as a life event than a record date, different than what I’ve done before,” Perez said, referencing his earlier, more curated productions. “I’m living by the code of adventure, to play what I wish for, without preconceptions. I’m fascinated by human collaboration expressed through music, how people with different interests, different loves, can come together and create. The project was a response to an imaginary question from my two daughters: ‘What are you doing to prevent the world from disappearing? What is going to be left for us?’ It’s an invitation to get away from our comfort zone.”
Similar impulses influenced Perez’ decision to collaborate with Mahanthappa and El-Saffar, both high-concept leaders who work with raw materials drawn from South India and Iraq, their respective ancestral cultures, as well as Haddad, a Lebanese-American who specializes in articulating timbres and meters drawn from North African sources. At the Jazz Standard, Perez deftly wove their individualistic tonalities into the overall sonic tapestry. “I was curious to hear how I’d react to an unknown space, like traveling with a person that you never have traveled with or don’t know well,” he said. “I’m attracted to the connotation of globality—the global feel, the idea of bridging gaps.”
“For me, jazz is the only place where globalization really works,” Perez remarked. He embraced that notion during a 1989-1992 tenure with Dizzy Gillespie’s Pan-American oriented United Nations Orchestra, when his name entered the international jazz conversation.
“Dizzy was a global ambassador, and the idea of doing a project around him seemed appropriate now,” he continued. “I believe that this group can become a sort of healing band. Maybe go to Iraq or India and play a concert with musicians there—have the group reflect how the United Nations or the government should be working.
“When I started playing with Dizzy, I was listening a lot to Bud Powell. Once I played a solo over Rhythm changes, people were congratulating me, but Dizzy sort of said, ‘Yeah…but when are you going to deal with where you come from?’ Later, I somehow added something, and he went CLUCK-CLUCK with the baton, meaning, ‘Whatever you did, just keep going.’ I understand now that by not putting up barriers, Dizzy was practicing his Bahai faith. He wanted to create a cultural passport that functions all around the world, for everybody, and he should be credited for that.”
Mentored by mainstem jazz pianist Donald Brown at Berklee, and seasoned in the idiomatic nuances over a consequential year with Jon Hendricks, who “insisted that I know ALL the history,” Perez drew on Gillespie’s first-hand knowledge of the thought process of such seminal figures as Monk and Powell, whose vocabularies he would assimilate sufficiently to make the rotation at Bradley’s, Manhattan’s A-list piano saloon.
“The education system then was not what it is now,” he said. “They channeled information through the great music of the Western world, mixing that with the rhythms they were working with, and developed a new language. I heard Bach’s flowing lines in Bud’s music, and this helped me start to hear bebop. Dizzy would say, ‘Create counterpoint; if I play this note, find another one in the chord; don’t play all the notes. Position your hands, lift some fingers, and then listen to the sound.’ Wayne talks about it, too: ‘Find the tonal magnetism.’
“When I came to the U.S., something drew me to the word ‘jazz.’ I don’t know any more what it means, but I know the feeling. I understand the emotion from being with the cats at Bradley’s or the masters I played with later. There’s a spontaneity, a moment of joy, something that drives your momentum and makes you feel more optimistic and aware. I realized I had to make a cultural decision to immerse myself in the environment, to hear how people talk, to learn. Then I started making connections—finding common tones. ‘That reminds me of the brothers in Panama—they talk kind of like that.’”
Such experiences bedrocked Perez’ quest to find a trans-Caribbean rhythmic context for Monk’s compositions during the ‘90s, documented on Panamonk [Impulse!], from 1996. The idea germinated, he said, on a 1994 tour with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra devoted to Wynton Marsalis’ arrangements of Monk repertoire.
“They approached that music in a sort of Monk-New Orleans-Panama folkloric way that resonated,” he said. “In Herlin Riley’s playing, I heard the connection between the tambores of Panama and second line rhythms, things that reminded me of danzon and contradanse—it all made sense. I had a similar experience playing with Paquito D’Rivera; I wanted to play jazz and swing, but he focused me on Venezuela and Panama.”
Sharpening that focus were occasional gigs with the Panamaniacs, a short-lived group led by Panama-born bassist Santi DiBriano, who introduced Perez to Panama’s contribution to the jazz timeline—saxophonist Carlos Garnett, pianists Luis Russell and Sonny White, drummer Billy Cobham. Perez contends that the demographic diversity stemming from Panama’s position as a global port produces a cultural mix well suited to jazz expression. He referenced Panama City’s Central Avenue, for which Perez titled a well-wrought 1998 release.
“You hear an Indian cat kind of speaking Spanish, but not really,” he began. “Then a Chinese guy semi-speaking Spanish with Chinese. Then an Afro cat. It’s almost what New York feels like, but in one small country. That’s what one has to portray, that kind of mystical mess—but an organized chaos.”
Within the Panamanian melting pot, Perez was ideally positioned to become an improviser. A child prodigy who studied classical music from age eight, he received first-hand instruction in singing and percussion from his namesake father, now 72, a well-known bandleader and sonero of Afro-Colombian and indigenous descent.
“My father was my first school, my fundamental figure,” said Perez, who became a professional musician at 12, dual-tracking during high school as a math and electronics student at the insistence of his Spanish-descended mother who felt, perhaps from first-hand experience, that music was not a dependable profession. “Music was easy for me since I was little, a language I understood quickly, so he used music to teach me to look at things I needed to function in society—“two plus two is four; four plus four is eight.” At 6 I’d pick up the guitar and start singing, ‘Besame, besame mucho,’ and he would say, ‘sing a second voice.’ ‘Papi, that’s too low.’ Later he had me transcribe Cuban records. Imagine being in that environment 24 hours a day. That connected me to music in intuitively, while the electronics and mathematics—my mother’s side—gave me the discipline and ability to learn things on my own.
“My father said he knew that sooner or later I would decide in favor of music. I think now that I didn’t even have to choose, that I was already walking on the music path and wanted to continue growing on that path. From him I understood early on that being mentored was a key, and I surrounded myself with people that know. I always want to keep being a student, to be in situations I can grow in. Otherwise, I lose touch with how music first spoke to me.”
In 2001, when he first toured with Wayne Shorter, Perez faced a crossroads. Then 34, fresh from three high-visibility years playing trio with Roy Haynes and John Patitucci, boasting a c.v. that already included several influential Grammy-nominated albums, possessing strong communicative skills and multi-generational peer respect, he appeared on the cusp of the upper echelons of jazz leaders. Instead, he subsumed such aspirations, constructing his next decade’s schedule around Shorter’s itinerary and a full-time professorship at New England Conservatory. He started a family with his wife, a Chilean music therapist, established a foundation in Panama to work with gang members, created the Panama Jazz Festival, became active in Panamanian cultural politics, and allowed his music to marinate.
“When I was 16, I promised that if I ever had an opportunity to go out and do something, I would return to my country and give back,” Perez said. “When I started playing with Wayne, his approach reconnected me with values that I learned with my father as a child. I realized that for my music to continue to flow naturally, I need to keep growing as a human being. I need to intensify my promise.”
In their essence, Shorter’s musical lessons were not so dissimilar from Gillespie’s earlier admonitions. “Early on we were playing ‘JuJu,’ and I was playing things I’d assimilated from earlier listening—McCoy—and Wayne looked at me like this.” Perez made his face blank. “All of a sudden, I saw a bunch of horses—I went with it. Wayne immediately turned and said, ‘That’s the shit right there.’ I kept going for that, to the point where it become a state of mind. Every time I thought about music, he looked at me like this”—he deadpanned—“and every time I disconnected myself and thought about an event, a movie, my daughter, my wife, he’d say, ‘That’s the shit right there.’”
Shorter has offered moral lessons, too, delivered as metaphoric koans but always landing precisely on the one. “Wayne made me realize that courage isn’t determined by trying to climb Mount Everest,” Perez said. “Courage is getting in a relationship and going through the struggle. He said, ‘Happiness doesn’t come for free. We have to fight for it every day, and we have to be inspired.’ He talks about no regrets—they leave wounds. He says, ‘Don’t hide behind your instrument—see who you are.’ Develop things. With Wayne you have to have a lot of tools together, but the most important tool is to be driven by your shamanistic side, your role in society as a musician.”
Perez, who left NEC to assume artistic directorship of Berklee’s Global Jazz Institute last September, is walking that walk. He recalled a mid-‘90s fortnight run at Bradley’s playing duo with Jacky Terrason. “It was 42 sets, and by the 42nd I thought I could play anything I heard. It’s endurance, but also a belief developed by doing this so intensely with people around you. Sometimes artists walk this dangerous path of portraying ourselves individualistically, and forgetting that it’s about all of us. People send messages, energy, and ideas; jazz is important because it brings a community together. We must take up the sword. This is a quiet revolution—you dream your passion. That’s what Wayne talks about.”