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Piano virtuoso and composer Danilo Perez is on a roll. He recently celebrated the most triumphant moments of his career to date, premiering not one but two significant commissioned works in 1999one at Wolf Trap, another at the Chicago Jazz Festival. Earlier this year, the 33-year-old pianist was appointed cultural ambassador to his native country, Panama. And Perez’s steady rise shows no signs of leveling off: His latest album, Motherland, underscores all of his recent glories and takes the artist to a new high.
As evidenced by its title, Panama is the main inspiration behind this ambitious work. And if that Central American nation functions as the album’s soul, then the Panama Canal serves as its lifeblood. Inspired in part by last year’s reversion of the canal from U.S. to Panamanian control, Perez meditated on his homeland’s motto, “Bridge of the World, Heart of the Universe.” Motherland fuses the infectious rhythms and melodies of Panama with those of other places, including North America, Cuba, and Brazil.
Blending disparate musics is nothing new for Perez. You only have to listen to his scintillating 1996 album, PanaMonk, to hear how seamlessly he melds the intricacies of bebop with the structure of classic Panamanian music. On that record, he zeroed in on the implied clave structures of Thelonious Monk’s compositions, transforming songs such as “Bright Mississippi” and “Think of One” into Panamanian delights.
Although Perez is a versatile and gifted instrumentalist, Motherland emphasizes his talents as a composer. His pieces brim with the phraseology, swing, and improvisational interplay of post-bop and take listeners on sweeping sonic journeys reminiscent of the work of jazz-fusion pioneers Weather Report and Return to Forever. The evocative “Prayer” betrays the fusion influence the most, as bassist-vocalist Richard Bona’s fretless sounds a hymn that recalls a Jaco Pastorius lick.
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Motherland puts the performances of guest players such as Bona front and center, unlike Perez’s previous efforts, which spotlighted his own dazzling piano excursions. Sure, there are brief solo pieces, such as “Baile” and “And Then…,” that show off the pianist’s technical prowess, but those vignettes serve as interludes to broader, more developed compositions. On the turbulent “Suite for the AmericasPart 2” and the spellbinding “Panama Libre,” a lively musical conversation with guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, Perez’s crisp piano articulation and rhythmic agility get more of the spotlight, but overall, Motherland presents Perez primarily as a band leader.
By enlisting North American jazz artists such as violinist Regina Carter, drummer Brian Blade, bassist John Patitucci, and saxophonist Chris Potter, as well as the Cameroonian Bona and various Afro-Hispanic musicians, Perez has constructed a multicultural orchestra similar to the one he led at last year’s Chicago Jazz Festival. Given the transportive quality of much of the music, the orchestra is probably best described as an “arkestra,” a term Sun Ra often adopted for his large ensembles, because their music was supposed to deliver the listener to the cosmos. Motherland certainly doesn’t have any sci-fi overtones, but Bona’s prayerful voice and spry bass line on the jubilant “Panafrica” and the steamy dialogue between Carter’s violin and Perez’s piano on “Elegant Dance” transport you to foreign locales from the first listen.
In a past decade, Motherland might have been a double-LP concept album. The first half of the disc is constructed around Perez’s “Suite for the AmericasPart 1,” which teases listeners with haunting Moorish melodies and pulsating Afro-Hispanic polyrhythms. Panama’s folkloric Punto dance informs “Elegant Dance” as Carter’s violin saunters gracefully with Perez’s exuberant melodies. Although “Song to the Land” is a portrait of Panama, Chilean tonada rhythms propel Claudia Acuña’s wordless vocal melody, and the sacred batá drums of Afro-Cuban tradition conclude it. The sunny “Panafrica,” which highlights Bona’s singing, clearly demonstrates the enormous influence Africa has on Hispanic rhythms and melodies, and the entire suite radiates with a harmonious vibe of Third World celebration.
After the transcendental “Prayer,” Motherland’s thematic focus shifts more explicitly to Panama. In the otherworldly canal-journey piece “Rio to Panama,” Perez presents a rhythm of his own creation: “tambaiao,” which joins Panama’s traditional tamborito with northeastern Brazil’s baiao. The emotionally complex “Overture” opens with a bracing national portrait that draws on Panama’s jovial tuna rhythms, but its mood quickly turns more somber as Perez illustrates the country’s multifaceted central region.
Perez concludes Motherland’s second half with two more Panamanian postcards. With “Panama Libre,” he reflects on the country’s 1989 uprising. Sometimes soothing, sometimes scathing, the piece bears a strong resemblance to Rosenwinkel’s picturesque compositions, weaving liquid electric guitar lines through Perez’s sparkling piano playing. More victorious-sounding is “Panama 2000,” in which an unpredictable melody stirring beneath indigenous rhythms alludes to the musical possibilities the country has to offer in the new millennium.
When Perez closes with the cascading solo piece “And Then…,” he devises a stunning cliffhanger that leaves the listener curious about the future of both Panama and Latin jazz. While Motherland is a lovely tribute to Perez’s birthplace, it also brilliantly demonstrates what can be accomplished by crossing musical borders. CP