An Interview with Danilo Perez
The Art of the Diplomat:
A Conversation with
by Paula Edelstein
Although much of the music on MOTHERLAND, Danilo Perez’s debut release for the Verve label, is rooted in his Panamanian homeland, this exciting tribute is his homage to the music for all of The Americas. North, Central and South. The recently appointed Cultural Ambassador of Panama has composed and arranged 13 true representations of his essence, and presents some of the most profound musical symbolism and metaphors to ever elicit the legacy of his native Panama. From classic jazz and post-bop to folk and world music, Danilo Perez absorbs his listeners in the joyfulness that has pervaded Panama and conveys the importance of the recent return of the Panama Canal to its people. MOTHERLAND also introduces the first time that the punto, a traditional dance form in Panama, has been combined with jazz piano and through his use of the tamborito, a traditional Panamanian rhythm, Perez introduces his musical vision clearly and beautifully. MOTHERLAND embraces you and holds you in its mellow sensibility. This is an excellent musical experience and one you shouldn’t miss.
The handsome diplomat, and multi-talented pianist is joined by a stellar array of musicians including fellow Verve Music Group Recording Artists, the beautiful Claudia Acuna, the classic elegance of Regina Carter, and the highly talented Kurt Rosenwinkel. Longtime collaborator and friend of the composer, Luciana Souza, bassist Richard Bona, saxophonist Chris Potter, are among a strong ensemble that bring the imagery and life of MOTHERLAND to fruition. The genius of Danilo Perez has once again bridged the unfamiliar themes of his native Panama with the receptive enthusiasm of The Americas. I was extremely fortunate to speak to Danilo Perez as he prepared for a World Tour to promote his debut release MOTHERLAND.
JazzUSA: Hello Danilo, how are you? Congratulations on your new Verve release, MOTHERLAND! I’d also like to congratulate you on your appointment as the Cultural Ambassador of Panama. What an exciting appointment!
DP: Thank you Paula. Yes it is!
JazzUSA: On MOTHERLAND, the brilliance, the luster, the spiritual depth and love you and the accompanying musicians exude is an extremely noble tribute to Panama’s cultural exuberance. I was especially intrigued by your piano elegance and the use of the violin on “Elegant Dance,” a song that portrays one of the most graceful dances in the Panamanian Folklore, the Punto. With the release of the new CD and your recent appointment as Cultural Ambassador of Panama, this must be an extremely rewarding time for you.
DP: Yes, this is an extremely happy time in my life. I’m just so happy to be prosperous in the year 2000. I never thought…it seemed so far away in the 90s. I’m just so happy to see these wonderful times happening and to be able to share it with my family and with the other musicians. To grow and to be able to play around the world is such a beautiful blessing.
JazzUSA: With MOTHERLAND being the long-awaited follow-up to such a masterpiece as CENTRAL AVENUE, listeners can now realize a variation on the themes you explored on that CD. Your work continues to excite the musical tastes of so many people around the world and there’s a real continuity with MOTHERLAND that reveals that it was made to listen to in its entirety…much like a trilogy. Is it not?
DP: Yes it is. This record was born out of many events and I think it’s like telling a part of my life and trying to create an image of all the influences that we have from The Americas and how complex the personalities are. The first experience that inspired me was my trip to Cuba in 1998, and later the piece I wrote for the Chicago Jazz Festival in 1999…that kind of got me into the new millennium and was central in getting me to begin writing the music. Also recording with Wayne Shorter. All of these events really made MOTHERLAND possible for me.
After going back to Panama for the Panama Canal reversion, just seeing the Panama Canal, I then understood the meaning of “Panama Bridge to the World, Heart of the Universe.” It was so easy after that to write music, the feeling of all of that…what it created and brought out of me.
JazzUSA: Absolutely. It’s beautiful Danilo. You’ve invited a number of special guests to effect your poetic visions including Claudia Acuna, Regina Carter, Richard Bona, Carlos Henriquez, John Patitucci, Antonio Sanchez, Chris Potter and the brilliant Luisito Quintero among others. Their magic suggests that they really enjoyed these sessions tremendously and were set off by your being attuned to their ability to understand the styles so necessary to deliver just the right “prayer.” With the amount of time it takes to bring together such an excellent ensemble of artists, has it been difficult to re-adapt for touring in a trio format?
DP: That’s a great question, Paula. What’s going to happen is, I’m going to open up the group a little bit, I’ve formed a quintet. I am going to deliver a band from my MOTHERLAND project and it’s going to be called THE MOTHERLAND PROJECT. Hopefully this will be a band where I have composers. The names of the people in the band right now are Luciana Souza on vocals, Essiet Essiet, on acoustic and electric bass, and Alan Cruz on steel pans and drums. It’s going to be the beginning of a new project actually. Hopefully that will happen. It will be completely separate from the trio. It’s going to be called THE MOTHERLAND PROJECT. A place where everybody can find their motherland and bring music.
JazzUSA: What about us writers…can I come? (Laughs)
DP: You can come too. (Laughs)
JazzUSA: “Song To The Land,” brilliantly captures the nuances, imagery and exudes the ambiance of Panama with such great colors.
DP: The whole concept of bringing these tunes to life…these tunes were written before for the Chicago Jazz Festival. But the pieces really came alive with the lyrics while I was in Panama. The person who wrote the liner notes, and also the lyrics to “Song To The Land,” is blind…but is an amazing talent. I talked to her about the record, and she had so much feeling about it. So I said, “Why don’t you write something?” So she wrote a whole poem…it’s a long one, a really long one! I went in and said, “I like this part.” And we’d work on it. That’s one of things that I like about the record is that some of the work and the whole playing comes from a feeling of brotherhood, communion, feeling. It’s not my record; it’s everybody’s record. Ana portrayed that very well.
JazzUSA: She does indeed and in the liner notes, Ana presents Panama as a metaphorical woman “forced to relinquish her maidenhood.” Do you feel the country has more of a feminine vibe as opposed to a masculine vibe even though becoming a mother to all requires both men and women?
DP: Only a woman would ask that question! (Laughs) Women, where I grew up, accepted the Virgin Mary giving birth to Jesus Christ as the most powerful and beautiful statement of motherhood. There have been studies that men are not really necessary to give birth but when you want to metaphorically represent multiplication of cultures, then women come first. The reasoning is that the country is the mother and that mother gives birth to a land. The land has to be borrowed or given to the world to be used as a canal basically. That principle of all the things we went through…came to Ana and me … so that’s how it was derived. That’s what Panama has been. We have become a citizen of the world in a way and learned to respect and love that. I guess it has a lot to do with the principle that I feel that women are extremely important and are a mount of inspiration for giving life.
JazzUSA: That’s beautiful Danilo. Thank you very much. The basis, or centerpiece of MOTHERLAND is the two-part “Suite for the Americas” commissioned by the Chicago Jazz Festival, and is an exemplary work that exhibits your sensibilities of what preceded this great musical achievement. How long does it take to write a piece of this enormity?
DP: Well, this piece took…I was in the middle of a world tour. I wrote an idea that came to mind, which was the first phrase of the motif and then a bass line would come to me. Things were coming to me like a puzzle. So I would say it was during a period of three months that I wrote this piece. I’d revise it. I went back to it. It came to life. It was beautiful because when you find the notes and you find the chords and you find the continuity of the piece, it was like the way you find friends in life. It’s just discovering where we live and all. That piece really came about like that. It’s the feeling that I have for The Americas and what it means to me and is a collage of elements of influential music from everywhere like the Middle East, Cuba, South America and Panama.
JazzUSA: Did you know in your “heart of hearts” that the world would eventually catch up and make you the diplomat to approach Panama’s glorious musical past? (Laughs)
DP: This year has been full of surprises for me and that has been one of them. When I went to Panama and President Mireya Moscoso gave me this honor, I said, I’ve had the Grammy nomination and been to The Kennedy Center and many other places that people dream of being. But going back home and being granted such a distinction, being recognized by your own people is an amazing tribute and feeling. It’s such a wonderful feeling.
JazzUSA: I can imagine it would be, especially coming from the President of the Panama. We are all very happy for you and truthfully, had I been asked to compile the short list, you would have been our first choice! We are also grateful that you will be making concert appearances again this year. Will The Motherland Project be the touring group also?
DP: Yes, we’ll be playing a week at Catalina’s Bar & Grill in Los Angeles, CA on October 17th through the 22nd, 2000. The tour starts on September 21st and 22nd in Boston, then on to Chicago on the 26th as well as dates in North Carolina and other cities. We will be leaving for Europe after the Catalina date.
JazzUSA: That’s great! You can’t imagine how grateful we are for this interview Danilo. We wish you continued success with your new Verve release, MOTHERLAND and once again, congratulations on your appointment as Cultural Ambassador of Panama. For more information regarding concerts in your city, visit The Verve Music Group Web Site