Panama Jazz Festival Provides Vibrant Concerts, Educational Opportunities


Danilo Pérez speaks during a clinic at the Panama Jazz Festival, which ran Jan. 13-17 in Panama City, Panama.

(Photo: Andrés Martínez/Panama Jazz Festival)

The Panama Jazz Festival provided a vibrant daily schedule, chock-a-block with a dizzying array of classroom opportunities delivered to excited students.

Many of those students arrived on scholarship, few having to pay out-of-pocket for the experience, and for those who do, the cost is modest. Clearly, though, this is a festival built on a music education platform. Unlike most festivals, whose education programs are altruistic satellites for the core performance component, in Panama City between Jan. 13 and 17, educating young and old was at the festival’s heart.

The festival is a family affair in every respect, parents accompanying their children through the daily schedule and also embracing parental curricular matters. Alto saxophonist Patricia Zarate Perez, who is married to festival artistic director Danilo Perez, serves as the events’s executive director. Perez’s father, Danilo Perez Sr., sang a lovely bolero on one program, and Danilo and Patricia’s 16-year old daughter had an epiphany when called by Dianne Reeves to sing during at a masterclass. The Perez’s 14 year-old trumpet-playing daughter bounded onstage at one of the nightly student jam sessions to bravely tackle “Donna Lee,” while 9-year old Danilo Perez lll had a bass guitar lesson with John Patitucci.

“Most of our activities were sold out to the point that even the biggest spaces in Panama can barely hold the social movement the festival has created,” enthused Patricia Zarate Perez. “This year was especially relevant to our social and education work, as this was the first year that our entire sound production and logistics team came from our education programs; young students that once were volunteers became the hired company that now provides all structures to our mega concerts all over Panama City.”

There is a holistic approach to what the Danilo Perez Foundation has given Panama, stamping this as a scrupulously unique event in the annals of jazz festivals.

In this 17th edition, one of the signature concert evenings was held at the city’s prodigious convention center auditorium on Noche de Gala. Reeves, one of the queens of jazz song, joined Danilo Perez, Patitucci, and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington. Reeves floated onstage improvising to Danilo’s playful, probing piano chords, the tune morphing into a sumptuous reading of Milton Nascimento’s “Ana Maria,” a teaser from the singer’s forthcoming Brazil project. Despite only one rehearsal, this virtuoso collaboration performed with the élan of a working unit.

Panama’s heavyweight salsero Rubén Blades was enveloped in the explosive 20-piece big band of bassist Roberto Delgado in a program reflecting what the vocalist explained was his forthcoming release: “half salsa, half jazz.” The salsa was deep in the pocket of tradition, while the jazz side of the performance successfully borrowed liberally from the Great American songbook in a fruitful echo of a mythical Sinatra meets Machito perspective.

Among visiting ensembles were student groups from New England Conservatory and a ubiquitous troupe from Berklee’s Global Jazz Institute, which is helmed by Danilo and saxophonist Marco Pignataro. Each was part of a Global Association for Inter-connective Arts, along with students from The New School, that performed on several festival platforms, including Danilo’s Jazz Club, deep in the heart of the old Panama City.

The Global Jazz Institute ensemble particularly distinguished itself, performing an evening of music drawn from David Sánchez’s gorgeous Carib project, highlighting not only the sextet’s obvious gifts, but also exquisitely framing Sánchez’s sumptuous tenor tone. Vocalist Nadia Washington electrified the hall with her deeply funky take on Stevie Wonder’s “Jesus Children Of America.” Pianist Kavyesh Chirayil was so deeply enmeshed in Sánchez’s music that later Danilo enthused, “something happened to him up there last night.” Boasting personnel from India and Italy, to Wisconsin and Florida, this is a student ensemble with few peers.

Other festival highlights included the Ravi Coltrane Quartet and two lovely performances by festival honoree, Panamanian saxophonist Reggie Johnson.

The Danilo Perez Foundation has fostered several family spirit bands, including the sparkling all-woman ensemble Hijas del Jazz (Daughters of Jazz) on the festival’s closing day as it performed at the Gran Concierto Final on the great lawn at City of Knowledge. DB

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