Danilo Perez


Danilo Perez

Text and Photo by  Bob Hershon
Originally published in Jazz Now Magazine

Talking or playing I’ll always picture pianist, Danilo Perez riding a cushion of air, on the edge of his seat, breathless to relate his newest discovery. The chart Danilo gave me for “Time On My Hands”, peppered with every type of musical P.S he could squeeze in between the staffs and margins of the standard he reworked for his debut album, is an apt metaphor for the young man, who has brought to bear all the influences he has gained in his travels. A journey which started in Panama and has threaded its way through Berklee School of Music, Jon Hendrix, Paquito D’Rivera and Dizzy Gillespie, who said of the young pianist, “Danilo Perez is certain to be one of those musicians who will shape the face of jazz in this decade.”

Danilo, is leading a vanguard of talented young Latin pianists, who may wrest the spotlight from the young men with the horn, some of whose exploits have been needlessly popularized. Though other fine Latin pianists like Michel Camillo and Alfredo Valdes Jr. share Danilo’s facility with rhythm. What is truly special is the way he crossed over to jazz. Teacher and bandleader, Victor Mendoza a pivotal figure in Danilo’s life elaborates, “A lot of Latin players look at jazz as a side dish and vice versa. They never sit down and spend time with the real cats. I could see from the beginning of my time with Danilo Perez at Berklee that his plan was to play with all the important cats like Jon Hendrix and Dizzy. To cross over in that way is only possible by becoming a jazz player and then creating a synthesis with the music of your roots.”

Danilo’s roots took hold at home in Panama. Even though his father was an educator, he still managed to sing with some of the biggest Cuban Bands of that time led by such stars as Benny More and Poncho Alonso. Though the main fare in the household was Cuban music; the cosmopolitan nature of Panama at the time exposed Danilo to music from Brazil, Argentina, European classical as well as the electric offerings from Quincy Jones and Weather Report.

The foundation for Danilo’s rhythmic diversity and virtuosity was carefully laid. Though Danilo was ready to plunge headlong into the study of the keyboard, after having apprenticed on the bongos since age four, his father had a different agenda for his eager young son. Rather less grand than a piano, Danilo was given a clave along with some advice which has served him well, “If you don’t have (feel) the clave, you have nothing.”

The early lessons in discipline and hard work he gained at the local conservatory allowed him to master technically demanding piano pieces such as Ravel’s Sonatine and Debussy’s “Arabesque”. Despite the facility he gained on piano, he seemed headed toward a career as an engineer, with the urging and support of his mother. It was only the offer of a scholarship to study at Indiana University and later at Berklee that deterred him from joining the legions of those “geeks” with pocket protectors and mechanical pencils. Danilo sees his study of electrical engineering as having a profound effect on the way he solos and arranges. “I view everything in terms of a wave. The rising and falling of my solos. The valleys and the peaks that you prearrange when you develop charts for a group.”

Danilo was on track for a career in classical piano until he saw a live performance of Chick Corea. “The way Chick Corea mastered jazz and classical showed me I didn’t have to give up one music for another. I knew this was what I wanted. So, I followed a friend of mine who was going to Berklee, where I was allowed to study under the Quincy Jones Scholarship. It was there I not only made some of my most important associations but my career started to take shape. Berklee is like a music factory in the best sense of the word. Because of all the new talent, all these great musicians like Slide Hampton are always coming by for a look. Among the student body at the time were players like Antonio Hart, Roy Hargrove, Jeff Keizor, Delfeayo Marsalis and Julian Joseph. I also met Claudio Roditi through Victor Mendoza while my association with Donald Brown and Herb Pomeroy led me to Clark Terry, Lee Konitz and most importantly Jon Hendrix.   With Jon it was like taking a history class. I saw the importance of checking out Nat Cole, Monk, Tatum and Horace Silver as well the contemporary masters like Herbie. He taught me the essence of swing and phrasing and how to apply it. With Paquito D’Rivera I experimented with Latin rhythms on top of what I had already learned from Jon. Learning what I did from Paquito and Jon was the perfect combination. One gives you the tradition while the other creates new ones. .”

The infectious nature of Danilo’s enthusiasm drew his teachers into a sort of joint partnership in his pursuit of his “crossover dream” at Berklee as Victor Mendoza points out. “When you contact a student like Danilo you’re reminded about why you got into teaching. The fact that we all (Donald Brown, Herb Pomeroy and myself) took a liking to this guy with all this talent, certainly worked in his favor. It was almost a running joke that he’d master whatever you gave him and come back at you the next day (or hour) with, ‘What about doing this way.’ The lack of ego and preconceived agenda or notions about what he was going to get from his experiences left him open, respectful and receptive to the instructions of his bandleaders like Claudio Roditi and Paquito D’Rivera.” (Hot shots take note.)

This of course left him wide open for the occasional put ons and practical jokes of personages like Paquito D’Rivera. Paquito recognizing Danilo’s penchant for following his instructions to the letter, told Danilo it was vital that he call a famous producer to make arrangements for a recording. Being somewhat of an innocent he failed to realize that it was a 900 number he was calling. So it was not until Danilo was on the end of the most outrageous sexual phone fantasy of his young life that he finally caught on to the nature of Paquito’s request.

Paquito, who is an exceptional judge of pianists, having shared the bandstand with Chucho Valdes and Michel Camillo, hired Danilo Perez immediately after Claudio Roditi brought him by for one brief look. “What I recognized about Danilo was that he had good taste. I am sick and tired of all these youngsters who play lots of notes. He plays from the inside of the tune not just his head. He was ready to learn anything I had to teach him whether it was a Venezuelan Waltz, the Samba or Cuban Danson, D’Rivera said. “I encouraged him to experiment and take chances adding in the rhythmic elements he had learned from Claudio Roditi.”

“What Claudio and Ignacio Berroa taught me that if you’re really going to play Brazilian music. You have to not only study the form, but you have to hear the way they talk and even eat their food.” Danilo explained. “I’m not being facetious. Otherwise you’re a musical tourist who takes the basic rhythms, ‘ching, ching, ching’ and never plays with the real cats.”

“What’s special about his playing is that you never hear him make the same mistake twice.” Paquito went on to say. “He’s so quick to develop an innate understanding of the form the next time around he is adding something to it. He’s always inventing but with control. Many jazz players are too improvisational whereas Danilo is great at organizing forms and figuring who is going to start and who is going to end. But he’s not just an an analyst. One of the things people love about him is the joy and the excitement he feels and expresses on the stand..   So much so on one recording when I listened to the playback on a session I heard this weird sound, like someone humming.   It turned out to be Danilo. Although he promised to stop he would always get caught up in the music and start that damn humming again. So after two or three takes I walk up behind him took off my scarf and tied it around his mouth and we finished the set that way. He is really one of the best things to happen to me personally and professionally. Even though I’ll have to pay him more if this article comes out.”

Danilo joined Dizzy Gillespie’s UN Band 24 hours before the recording of the award winning live album at Albert Hall “So my first gig with Dizzy was a live record. He sent me a tape of his music and we just hit, no rehearsal. I was scared to death of messing up not just the gig but the record. To make things worse he gave me the silent treatment for two or three days after that All he’d do is just look at me and smile. Then one day he comes up and slaps the piano and said, ‘Yah, yah that’s it! It was like a welcoming. He use to tell me, ‘Don’t play so many notes in the chord, give me more space. Don’t set up the things the soloist is doing. Don’t spoil the surprises. Let him lead you. Use 2 or 3 notes to create a counterpoint or an orchestral feeling. I got to apply all these lessons when I played with Tom Harrell.”

Danilo who has recorded a number of albums with exceptional trumpet players like Claudio Roditi, Paquito, Tom Harrell, Arturo Sandoval and of course Dizzy, has released his first record on RCA Novus. A compilation of international influences it includes everything from the bolero, “Solo Contigo Basta” sung by Ruben Blades to the standard “Body and Soul” all rearranged to his own perspective. Joining him on this inaugural recording is an international cast of players including Puerto Rican David Sanchez, Santi Debriano, Joe Lovano and Jack Dejohnette. “Jacks ability on piano makes a huge difference to me. Jack’s harmonies on the drums accompany you like an orquestra. He’s always doing something but never gets in the way. It wasn’t a mixture I made for purists. (As evidenced by the his Lydian version of “Time On My Hands”). Sometimes in Latin music we lose the freedom by being tied to just the timbale. I wanted to break up the rhythm without losing the energy.”

One thread running through everyone’s evaluation of Danilo be it Joe Lovano, Hank Jones or Claudio Roditi is his ability to hear and react to the multiplicity of the group sound like a quarterback who sees the field of play. Joe Lovano: “Besides his ability to react to what you’re doing he allows you to return the favor. He has a special sonority and touch to his playing which enables him to let those chords and harmonies ring long enough for you to react to them, think and create.”

It’s very likely a skill he gained at Bradley’s after hour sessions, where he is a regular in the wee hours playing the immaculately cared for Baldwin grand, now in its second decade on the bandstand. “The idea for the album was generated in part by exposure to international combination of players and styles from Slide Hampton, Panamanian Santi Debriano to Brazilian Claudio Roditi I played with at the after hours sessions at Bradley’s. Besides being a testing ground for my ideas. It gave me a special kind of confidence in my own playing. The piano, which I fell in love with there, was willed to Bradley’s by Paul Desmond and it is perfectly even in balance. I find the pianos in Europe too dark and heavy. And though great craftsmanship goes into the construction of Steinways they vary a great deal in touch. I actually prefer the Yamaha which comes out the factory in a completely consistent matter. They give you the feeling you are pressing something. If one note is louder or softer than the other it effects the timbre, color and tone. When you start compensating it takes you out of your flow.”

In line with his dedication to Brazilian music Danilo Perez hopes to record an album featuring the tunes that songstress Elis Regina popularized. “It is one of my main goals in life to help bring all forms of Latin music into the mainstream. Most people think of Latin music as party music. As far as the jazz cats, if they were better acquainted with the Latin musicians they’d play it different. The music would breath and go somewhere.”


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