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When young lions Jacky Terrasson and Danilo Perez take the stage Friday for an evening of piano duets, they have a formidable task ahead. Piano duets are a big challenge to jazz musicians. While Marian McPartland regularly accepts that challenge with various guests on her weekly National Public Radio program, Piano Jazz, there aren't a lot of good jazz piano duet albums. Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea cut two in 1978. Tommy Flanagan did one with Kenny Barron and a couple with Hank Jones in the late '70s. Count Basie proved the perfect foil for technical behemoth Oscar Peterson in the mid '70s, and jazz ambassadors Ramsey Lewis and Dr. Billy Taylor knocked out an outstanding date in 1989. That the guys who cut these memorable discs are all legends says something about how difficult it is to work in the format.
"It's a risky thing," say the 33-year-old Terrasson. "It could very well turn into disaster if you don't have two musicians that are willing to share, because there's a lot of notes there, a lot of keys. Both parties have to be aware of the space and not invading over the other guy."It's almost like you're having two orchestras together," says the 32-year-old Perez. "I think one of the challenges is to be able to create the sensibility of having the drums and the bass on it. It's really intense. It's almost like having a conversation, not trying to superimpose the stuff, but really reading off each other. You can't really go by yourself. That's when the train crashes. It makes you more sensitive to things you normally don't have to worry about. You have to forget yourself and really be willing to give, and it's very easy with ten fingers to overplay. If you had four maybe it would be easier, but having ten, it's hard."
Perez and Terrasson played their first duet in 1993 at Bradley's, the now defunct New York City nightclub famous for its after-hours jams. In seven nights they did 21 sets and found the experience so exhilarating that they perform together whenever their full schedules permit, which isn't often. "I think the exciting thing about Danilo and me playing together is that we actually have never had any time to rehearse this," Terrasson laughs. "So every time we meet it's kind of fresh and exciting, and we're really happy to be there and try to really concentrate on creating some moments. It's really very instinctive every time."
That intuitive communication might be based on the fact that they attended the Berkelee School of Music together in the '80s. While they knew each other at the time, they weren't close. "We were like the cats in school," Perez says. "So there was this air of competition going on. But it was all in good health. It was all in good spirit."
Close in age, the two pianists appear quite different on the surface, though their careers have some interesting parallels. Born in Germany, Terrasson was raised in Paris. He studied classical music as a child and became infatuated with Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell and Bill Evans in his teens. He has three solo albums to his credit and in 1993 won the Thelonious Monk Competition. He's backed up several jazz legends, including the late drummer Art Taylor and singers Dee Dee Bridgewater, Jimmy Scott and Betty Carter. "She would give a lot of space to the pianist," Terrasson says of his eight-month stint with Carter. "She had a unique approach to a lot of things." Since leaving Carter in 1993, Terrasson has been considered a talent to watch because of his original approach and willingness to significantly rework standards.
"Jacky, he's crazy, man," Perez laughs. "He's creative. He's fun to play with. He challenges me. I really enjoy playing with him because he listens carefully, and he has a really great sense of rhythm, which for me is a priority. "
A player who adds Latin touches, though not usually in abundance, Perez was born and raised in Panama. A formally trained classical musician, Perez didn't start playing jazz until he moved to the United States in 1985, though he waxes nostalgic about a neighbor who played jazz loud nearby. In 1989, Perez was a semifinalist in the Thelonious Monk Competition. His first major gig was with celebrated vocalist Jon Hendricks. "That was my advanced course in jazz studies," he says of the experience. "He wouldn't give me a chance to learn this stuff. He would have me learning it right there in front of everybody. I really developed my ears."
A professor of improvisation and jazz studies at the New England Conservatory of Music, Perez did a four-year stint with Dizzy Gillespie and has gigged with Latin legends Paquito D'Rivera and Arturo Sandoval. He has three solo albums and is a television and film composer. Perez is also receiving critical acclaim and has made the cover of Jazziz. "He's a very accomplished musician," Terrasson says of Perez. "He listens. He has a great set of ears on his head and a great sense of dynamics."
Danilo Perez and Jacky Terrasson at the Cullen Theater at Wortham Center. Friday, December 4 at 8 p.m. For tickets, call DaCamera Music Center, 524-5050.
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