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Pianist Probes Panama's Possibilities

JAZZ | Spotlight

September 24, 2000|DON HECKMAN | Don Heckman is The Times' jazz writer

Ruben Blades may be the most visible musical figure associated with Panama. But one suspects he would be more than happy to share that distinction with jazz pianist Danilo Perez, who, at 34, already has performed with everyone from Dizzy Gillespie (for four years in the bebop great's United Nation Orchestra) to Freddie Hubbard, James Moody, George Benson, Branford Marsalis and dozens of other major jazz artists (as well as Blades).

Perez's own recordings have almost always contained references to his native country as well as to the African influences that had such a powerful impact on its culture. His debut album for Verve, "Motherland" (*** 1/2), reaches even more deeply into those sources via a series of compositions based on such indigenous rhythms as the atravesado, the tuna and tamborito, dance forms such as the Punto, and musical metaphors rich with African references.

To accomplish this task, Perez has assembled an ensemble that includes other artists who have also made the journey from various parts of the world--especially the Americas--to jazz: singers Luciana Souza and Claudia Acuna, bassist Richard Bona, and the accompanists from Perez's regular trio, Antonio Sanchez and Carlos Henriquez. The result is music brimming with imagination and feeling, a breakout effort by a major talent.

Many of the compositions are specifically reflective of Perez's thoughtful view of Central America: "Panama Libre" was written during the 1989 U.S. invasion; "Panama 2000" reflects his optimism about the changes associated with the transfer of ownership of the canal to his country; "Suite for the Americas" incorporates the many cultural forms--from Africa, Europe and beyond--that are present in Panama.

Other pieces are equally compelling: "Elegant Dance," for example, which showcases violinist Regina Carter, is based on the Punto. And Perez, writing in the program notes that it's probably never been used before in jazz, adds, "If you were to play ['Elegant Dance'] for a dancer from this legacy, they would have no trouble dancing to it." Other stunning moments include Perez's elegant solo on "Baile" (which revisits the Punto) and the starkly lyrical "Prayer," performed by Bona in a wordless vocal in unison with his electric bass line.

More than any other piece on the album, however, it is "Song to the Land," based on a poem by Ana Lucia Vlieg, that most intensely expresses the richly layered substance of the album. Its imagery--in which Panama is represented as a violated virgin who becomes a symbol of transformation and triumph--is brilliantly expressed by the rhythms and chanting of Perez's score and Acuna's passionate vocal and narration.

It's worth adding that none of the above comes across like a polemic, nor do the many contributory musical influences in any way diminish the jazz aspects of the album. It is a tribute to Perez, in fact, that he is able to make his musical statements in such a persuasive, sophisticated fashion while remaining well within the orbit of jazz. In doing so, he has at the same time underscored the capacity of jazz to serve as a unifying cultural meeting place.

LEXUS JAZZ at the Bowl 2000 wrapped up its season on Sept. 13 with a salute to Louis Armstrong. But fans of the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra--the series' resident ensemble--won't have to spend the entire off-season without hearing the orchestra's spirited music. Just in time, "Shout Me Out" (***, Fable Records) has been released, featuring new selections as well as a few that will be familiar to the group's many dedicated listeners.

The principal soloists are all on hand--pianist Bill Cunfliff, trombonists George Bohanon and the talented young Isaac Smith (who is featured on "Plunger Mute Syndrome"), tenor saxophonists Ricky Woodard and Charles Owens, trumpeters Bobby Rodriguez, Snookie Young and Oscar Brashear, as well as the three co-leaders, bassist John Clayton, alto saxophonist Jeff Clayton and drummer Jeff Hamilton.

Typically, everything swings hard, often invested with more than a touch of Count Basie-like drive, and John Clayton's arrangements are predictably well-crafted. If the album has any flaw, in fact, it is the one that sometimes surfaces through the orchestra's Bowl performances--a still unclear musical identity. In that sense, Clayton's remarkable craft, his ability to write with great skill in virtually any style, may be inhibiting the emergence of a singular musical voice. It's about the only element missing in the work of this otherwise superb collection of players.

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