Danilo Peréz: A Global Love Affair


Danilo Pérez has turned his music into a family-driven, relentless mission to unite the world.

(Photo: Michael Jackson)

Large buzzards, called Gallinazos in Spanish, glide between the skyscrapers of downtown Panama City. They hover like sentinels, observing not just prey, but human activity below. Over the centuries such birds have witnessed much — from the invasion of murderous transatlantic colonizers to the sacking of the city by the Welsh bandit Captain Henry Morgan; to the traumatic construction of the canal; to even an attack by Panama’s northerly neighbor, the United States.

Danilo Pérez, the cultural ambassador for Panama and UNESCO artist for peace, also has seen a lot, notably in the arena of music-making, where he’s performed with icons of jazz, including Dizzy Gillespie and Wayne Shorter, and has steadily become an icon himself. Like the Gallinazos, Pérez has a broad wingspan and a vision that expands beyond his personal career to embrace the prospects of his country, as well as people well beyond Panama’s borders.

Inaugurating the Panama Jazz Festival two decades ago, alongside his wife, Patricia Zárate Pérez — a Chilean-born saxophonist, educator and music therapy specialist — sparked an incredible journey, one inspired in part by Pérez’s forward-thinking forebearers. His father, Danilo Enrico Pérez Urriola, authored an influential thesis in 1967 about the broad benefits of music education for developing minds and put his concepts into practice with remarkable results. That, coupled with his mother’s political and social activism, set the seed for Danilo Jr. to further his precocious musical talent and flourish beyond mere self-awareness.

Few artists have sustained a love affair with their country with the passion of Danilo Pérez. Since his eponymous debut album in 1993, and increasingly on subsequent releases on RCA Novus, Impulse!, Verve, ArtistShare (including an exciting big band EP), plus outstanding albums on Mack Avenue such as Providencia (2010) and Panama 500 (2014), Pérez has consistently traced and evoked the roots and diaspora of his homeland, which has served as an intercontinental umbilical cord and crossing point for commerce, biodiversity and jazz.

With his latest project, Crisálida (Mack Avenue), the humanitarian crises that afflict Central America are alluded to in his “Fronteras Suite,” but the mission has gone global. Absent are famous jazz names from previous projects. Pérez’s diverse Global Messengers ensemble is youthful, with lesser-known musicians from Palestine, Greece, Cuba, Jordan, Chile, the U.S. and Panama brought together at his stateside seat of operations, Berklee College of Music’s Global Jazz Institute, which he founded in 2010.

DownBeat visited the 19th Panama Jazz Festival in January, despite a decimated program due to 11th hour cancellations forced by the Omicron variant. A number of headlining acts such as Kurt Elling, Borderlands Trio and Antonio Hart were unable to make the trip.

Pérez and Zárate, who serves as the festival’s executive director, tested positive, forcing them into quarantine for the entire week. The odds were stacked against the festival’s success.

But the people of Panama pivoted, and since the annual jazz festival was registered by an article of Panamanian law back in 2016, the show went on with local talent plugging gaps and international musicians who could make the trip doubling up their involvement.

A critical component of the event has been educational as well as entertaining. The festival announced more than $4.5 million in student music scholarships would be offered to Panamanian students attending such institutions as Berklee and New England Conservatory, as well as conservatories in Chile and Puerto and beyond. Many of the artists who did make it to the festival were thoroughly occupied giving master classes and symposiums.

Two schools run by pioneering men played an important role in this facet of the festival: the New York Jazz Academy, run by Javier Arau and David Engelhard, and the Conservatorio de Santiago, brainchild of one of Pérez’s Berklee students, Orion Lion. Otherwise, women resolutely ruled the roost, both onstage and in the lecture halls, much to the pleasant surprise of the festival founders, both ardent feminists (some indigenous tribes in Panama, incidentally, are matriarchies, and Panama had a female president between 1999 and 2004). Zárate’s Global Jazz Womxn group had to soldier on without its leader and half its personnel but congealed as a resourceful piano trio. Cuban pianist Camila Cortina, Italian drummer Francesca Remigi and Irish/Austrian bass prodigy Ciara Moser all backed up their performances in the picturesque Plaza V Centenario and at the Ateneo theater with impressive pedagogy. Other committed educator/performers were Danilo mentees: pianist and flutist Agnieszka Derlak, from Poland, who’s energy and enthusiasm seemed inexhaustible, and pianist Lion, both of whom jammed with rising star saxophonist Samuel Batista, an alum of both Berklee and Fundación Danilo Pérez.

Batista sees himself as living proof of Pérez’s dream to end poverty and discrimination through jazz education, speaking of Pérez’s prowess as a promoter of opportunities and insisting he himself will now continue this path for positive education “until the end.”

Had there not been an 80% shortfall of musicians at the festival, it would have followed a similarly spontaneous ethos by all accounts, since Pérez and Zárate foster what Wayne Shorter dubs “a zero-gravity approach,” where musicians throw down with their peers and mentors at a moment’s notice.

“It’s a phrase Wayne would use when he wanted a certain freedom and abandon,” explained Pérez, “like children playing and enjoying the process of discovering, a weightless sensation. We never really define it, but we understand it conceptually and emotionally — going beyond.”

Going above and beyond might well describe Pérez’s attitude. “I call it ‘comprovisation’ where we mix intent with risk taking. At the Global Jazz Institute, we don’t call classes ‘ear training’ but ‘fear training,’ all requirements to get students to play in a zero-gravity way.’’

One of his Berklee students, violinist/vocalist Layth Sidiq, progressed from student to colleague and appears on Crisálida. “Recording on the album with Danilo was a one-of-a-kind experience,” he enthused. “First of all, the music speaks for itself. It’s truly global in the way it brings together multiple musical cultures and idioms. Secondly, it has a strong social message that’s relevant for our times, in that music can truly heal the world and is a last resort. Finally, this music is for everyone. It has a storytelling aspect and pushes the boundaries of what this unique ensemble of instruments can do.”

“We found common ground together,” Pérez said. “Panamanian and Mediterranean rhythms have connections, and my tetrachord concept synchs with their Arabic maqam foundation and what they hear melodically.”

His music has ever been exploratory and resistant to classification, the early influence of the globally savvy Weather Report (even before his direct connection with Shorter) no longer discernible, his musical imagination brooking few bounds. One minute he’ll hopscotch, pouncing on the keyboard; next he’ll lock down a 14/8 ostinato, as at the end of “Al-Musafir Blues,” a track that transliterates the exploits of a Palestinian youth trying to make it to America to study and finally locate his biological mother. Much of the music came together through energetic protracted jams. “La Muralla (Glass Walls) Suite,” which opens Crisálida with pure, imploring vocals from Farayi Malek, bespeaks a shield “where only light and vibrations can come through” but changes tack by the fourth movement, confronting real-world obstacles.

“Muropatia” references “a human disorder characterized by the desire to make solid impermeable walls” — an inferred nod to political intransigence about immigration. The music is quite frenetic. Each messenger aligns on a seesawing line to conjure the jumpy mentality of barrier builders. Pérez’s descending piano breaks suggest the slow tumbling of partition. A groove kicks in, heralding a hard-hitting rap from Zárate derived from a poem she wrote in 2017. It was inspired by a photo of violinist Yuri Namkung (wife of Danilo’s long-time bass colleague Ben Street).

“Yuri went to teach at the Mexico border and sent the image of her, a beautiful, tiny violinist, with an immense wall behind her,” Zárate said. “I couldn’t believe the wall had been extended or even built at all. It brought many thoughts into my brain. She was like a star, a light surrounded by darkness and violence. Like the lotus flower in a swamp.” For her own album Violetas, recorded in 2019 and produced by her husband, Zárate wrote a moving piece dedicated to her uncle “Flaco,” who was “disappeared” for dissidence by the repressive regime of former Chilean President Augusto Pinochet. Zárate’s other uncle was murdered for his views and her father, once the chess champion of Chile, banished into exile before she ever met him. Her mother, a renowned neurologist, taught her daughter the value of music therapy, which she went on to study. “I was the first Chilean to graduate from Berklee in the 1990s with the initial generation of music therapy students. I organized the first female band there, with women from Taiwan, Israel, Korea, America and Chile, when having female bands was not in vogue.”

Pérez characterizes his wife, who oversaw the homeschooling of their three children, as a warrior. Zárate composed words, on her own album and on Crisálida for a rapper, but Pérez insisted she perform them herself.

“I come from Chile, the land of Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral, so I have been writing poetry since childhood,” she said. “At the Panama Jazz Festival, I started reciting it during the jam sessions. Since the poems rhymed, I started rapping to test them.”

“Patricia is a bridge between Chileans and Boston,” Lion commented. “Thanks to her work as a mentor and manager, a whole generation of Chileans have developed careers, from myself and Melissa Aldana, to many more. As for Danilo, he is a genius performer and composer, but people don’t know that he’s also a genius in the educational field.”

Pérez casts his net of friends and cohorts far and wide. Architect (and jazz fan) Frank Gehry is one. He recently designed sets for Shorter and Esperanza Spalding’s opera Iphigenia, and connects with Pérez via the La Huella Humana exhibit at Gehry’s landmark design Biomuseo in Panama.

Pérez created a soundtrack about the human development of the country from prehistory to the canal that progressively reveals itself through an overhead speaker system. Gehry and his Panamanian wife, Berta, are fans. “I hosted Wayne’s band with Danilo at my home in Santa Monica while they were working on music for the opera, so we were like family. My wife has always followed Danilo’s music, but I got to know him better as he rehearsed with Wayne,” recalled the 92-year-old architect via phone. Interestingly, Gehry’s jazz bona fides include the fact that he once booked a teenage Oscar Peterson for a high school hop in Toronto and hung out with Duke Ellington and Eubie Blake in the ’60s.

By the end of the festival, word came that Pérez and Zárate were about to spring free of quarantined house arrest.

A photo shoot with Florentino Archibold, teacher of Guna dance in the district of Arraijan, was now a possibility. There were enough flutes, often gender-specific, for an orchestra, fashioned by the Guna tribespeople from animal bones, bamboo and sugar cane (they even use turtle shells as amplifiers). Archibold, his young acolytes and Zárate blew several of them, as Pérez merged with their music on melodica.

A visit to the Fundación Danilo Pérez headquarters in Bethania meant meeting with a class of young students, smiles hidden under precautionary masks and plastic visors. Some might be the next generation of promising Panamanian talent, others have been simply sheltered from harm’s way and benefitting from the value of arts immersion.

Pérez dabbled with assorted percussion instruments and pianos, played a marimba/glockenspiel duet with a student at her request and took time for an impromptu jam with his teenage daughter Carolina, a vocalist and trumpet player who was a significant part of the festival’s bill.

Everyone in Panama’s Old Quarter knows Pérez. From from the man shaving ice for raspado to a painter in his studio; a gang of renegade youths to an author who penned a biography of ’20s Panamanian bandleader Luis Russell. It’s a place one may encounter a wolf-whistling macaw or a skinny brigade of stray cats, lo, even jazz cats, like the fast-talking, renowned sound engineer Rob Griffin, who relocated to Panama after work visits to the festival with Shorter’s quartet. Scarcely missing a beat, Griffin proffered an invite to his home studio in San Felipe, where he serendipitously shared his latest shaping of a Shorter concert recording. Griffin spilled some professional experiences with Pérez from when they’d worked together with the Shorter group.

“I would try to get a live mix on tour and noticed Danilo would miraculously change the sound of the piano at each venue. He’d test each of the 88 keys for individual response and attack, each according to his assessment during performance,” Griffin marveled. When Shorter visited Panama to overdub material for Shorter’s epic Emanon (Blue Note, 2018) at Pérez’s namesake (and currently shuttered) jazz club in The American Trade Hotel, Griffin witnessed something else. “Danilo adjusted something in the music that didn’t quite click with the pre-recorded Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, a timing issue. He made a minute shift in tempo, that monumentally improved the groove of the whole performance. I’ll never forget that. And he and Wayne improvised a warm-up to ‘Pegasus’ that they asked me not to record. I’m glad I did, however, because it ended up on the album and is stunning.”

Pérez regards Shorter like a second father and Shorter returns that love. When DownBeat caught up with the legendary saxophonist and composer over the phone after the premier of his opera in L.A. — which featured Spalding, Pérez and longtime compadres John Patitucci and Brian Blade — Shorter recalled when he first heard his future pianist. “I saw Danilo in Dizzy’s United Nation’s band on TV.

The camera zoomed in on his hands on ‘Manteca,’ lingered there, and I thought, ‘This guy is onto something. He’s a storyteller.’ We developed communication playing together. I’d say, ‘Put some water on that’ or ‘Throw a little sand in there,’” laughed Shorter. “I really admire Danilo’s doings with the Global Institute. He’s also voyaged into the mountains of Panama, taken risks searching out young talent. He’s very persuasive with his honesty and has no airs. Danilo is aware he was a human before he became a musician. And Patricia, I saw in D.C. at a Monk Institute event. Have you heard her play the saxophone? I told Danilo at the time, ‘That’s the woman you should marry!’”

And he did. DB

DownBeat would like to thank Suresh Jhangimal of Digital Photo Supply in Panama City for the loan of photo equipment for this story.

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