Danilo Perez vividly remembers the first gift he ever received from his father: a set of bongo drums. Perez's father, a Latin bandleader and singer in the style of Beny More, used the bongos to introduce his son to the world of Latin music. Perez took to the bongos and began learning Latin rhythms.
The Panama native was only three at the time.
At seven, Perez started playing piano and enrolled in Panama's National Conservatory of Music, where he studied classical music. Meanwhile, his father had him transcribing Cuban records at home. In the streets, Perez heard jazz.
"There was a neighbor of mine that used to play jazz ... loud, man," the 33-year-old Perez recalls. "He would play it really loud. He'd play Wes Montgomery records, Herbie Hancock's Speak Like a Child. Then I got to hear Papo Lucas. He plays Latin music, but he put these bebop lines to it. He really blew me away. Nobody was playing like that. I went on to learn a lot of his stuff. One thing I recognized about jazz was the freedom of speech, and I really admired that a lot."
Though Perez heard jazz around him as a kid, he didn't start playing it until he was in college. In fact, music, let alone jazz, wasn't Perez's first career choice. He landed an electronics scholarship to Indiana University, which he used to pursue classical studies on the side. But after a Chick Corea concert during his freshman year, Perez was changed. For the first half of the concert, Corea performed Mozart. During the second half, the pianist improvised. At that moment, Perez knew jazz piano was for him, and in 1985 he transferred to the Berklee School of Music in Boston, which still offers one of the most respected jazz programs in the country.
Two years into his jazz studies, Perez landed a job with vocalist Jon Hendricks. For an experienced pianist, accompanying Hendricks, with his vocal acrobatics, would have been a challenge. For Perez, it was ahis first jazz gig. "It was scary," Perez says, "but there was so much learning. It was an amazing experience, but at the same time, it was painful because he knows so much about the music. He just blows you up with his voice, man, singing all these solos. He's just amazing. I had to play in the style of Duke Ellington, Horace Silver, Thelonious Monk, Nat King Cole I mean, just endless stuff. It gave me so much information. It was a serious training experience."
That training experience prepared Perez for more jobs, and by the time he graduated in 1988, he was playing with Cuban saxophone sensation Paquito D'Rivera. In D'Rivera's Havana-New York Music Ensemble, Perez's Latin chops were extremely useful, as were his formal training and theoretical skills when he eventually became the group's music director. In 1989 Perez placed as a semifinalist in the celebrated Thelonious Monk Competition and gained extensive recognition when he joined Dizzy Gillespie's United Nation Orchestra. The 23-year-old Perez was the babyface in an otherwise all-star, all-era lineup that included jazz veterans James Moody, Slide Hampton, Freddie Hubbard and Jimmy Heath. That Perez was asked to be a part of the group says a lot about his skills.
Perez's stint with Gillespie would last almost four years and was yet another learning experience. Gillespie would often sit down with Perez after a gig and analyze what happened onstage. Moody and Hampton spent hour after hour talking music with Perez, and he soaked up every word. In between tours with Gillespie, Perez honed his solo skills at New York City nightclubs.
By the time Perez left Gillespie in 1992, he was ready to launch his solo career. He released his eponymous debut, which is filled with a mix of jazz and Latin influences, on Novus in 1993. Though it was a strong effort and was met with critical fanfare, it didn't separate Perez from the rest of the pack commercially. There was no shortage of young jazzers in 1993. Benny Green, Stephen Scott, Joshua Redman and Roy Hargrove had already established themselves as players to watch and were soaking up publicity. Perez's follow-up, The Journey, which is something of a world-jazz album, as it contains significant African, Cuban and Caribbean influences, appeared on numerous Top 10 critics lists in 1994, but again it seemed too challenging to get good airplay.
A summer tour with Wynton Marsalis followed, while Perez, the first Latin artist to play in Marsalis's band, tried to figure out what he wanted to do artistically. Then, in 1996, he recorded PanaMonk (a play on words that suggests Perez's Panamanian and Thelonious Monk influences). Where his first two albums were displays of Perez as a young artist in search of his voice, PanaMonk is a solid realization of that voice. The arrangements are brilliantly blended multicultural musical elements in the jazz tradition. Perez's technically demanding playing is impressive.
He followed up PanaMonk with Central Avenue, an album with some adventurous tracks accented by female vocals but also with some "in the pocket" playing. For all his world influences, Perez can also play straight-ahead sans Latin touches. This versatility is rare. Few artists can throw down a tambito beat and follow it up with an authentic Ellington riff.
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Today Perez is more than just some young upstart with a lot of potential. He's one of the many thirtysomething pianists who are laying out the map for future generations. What type of mark Perez will leave is hard to say. While he is the first to say he has yet to reach his artistic pinnacle, Perez is already helping and playing with younger players. He's a professor of improvisation and jazz studies at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston.
"My father and my mother are very rooted in education themselves," Perez says. "I love teaching so much. I help people out and also help myself out. By giving and seeing how they perform and seeing how they assimilate it, you learn and you never get old. For me it's great. You teach and you learn."
For someone blazing a multicultural trail, that sounds traditional.
Danilo Perez performs at the Menil Collection, 1515 Sul Ross, Monday, October 11, and Tuesday, October 12, at 7:30 p.m. (Tuesday's performance is sold out.) For more information, contact Da Camera of Houston at (800)23-DACAM.