Pianist Danilo Pérez brings a memorable end to the 2012 Jazz Series

Sam Lewin

Last Friday, one of my favorite jazz pianists, Danilo Pérez, closed out this year’s Jazz Series with a stunning chapel performance. The concert attracted a sizable audience, and with the help of the Lawrence University Faculty Jazz Trio, Pérez gracefully did the impossible: Putting on a show that seemed to please everybody, without making any musical compromises.

While I’ve cursorily listened to a few of Pérez’s recordings as a leader — including his 2011 release “Providencia” — I am obsessed with his playing in the Wayne Shorter Quartet. Pérez has played with Shorter since the quartet’s inception in 2000, and he brilliantly complements Shorter and imbues his own playing with sarcasm and mockery. The band blurs the lines between solo and accompaniment, and by segueing between songs, they mend divisions between improvisation and composition.

This aesthetic was noticeable during Friday’s concert as well as during Pérez’s interactions with students and faculty earlier in the week.
Pérez arrived in Appleton on Wednesday afternoon and participated in a jazz forum and two open-rehearsals with the faculty. He was impressively engaging, as he interrupted rehearsal by offering to answer questions; he then indulged awe-struck students with sincere responses.These open-rehearsals were a dealmaker for me: I was initially skeptical about Pérez playing with the faculty — and would have preferred for him to bring one of his own bands — but seeing him rehearse with new musicians was an incredibly valuable experience.Pérez’s distinct musical persona was evident from the first few minutes of the first open-rehearsal. He jokingly mimicked Associate Professor of Music and Teacher of String Bass Mark Urness during one of Urness’ solos, and Urness responded by latching onto Pérez’s ideas; the two were smiling throughout. It was especially telling when Pérez explained one of his pieces to drummer and Professor of Music Dane Richeson by saying something to the effect of, “It’s not play swing here and play Latin there; it’s play everything.”

And while the quartet didn’t reach Shorter levels of musical continuity-that is, playing a continuous stream of improvisation and melody-they did take the tunes out. Perez pushed his sidemen, and the faculty took more risks than usual. They also played rather challenging Pérez originals, none of which called for more conventional swing feels.

The quartet started with the Pérez tune “Panama Libre,” which Pérez first played in Panama during the 1989 U.S. invasion. Pérez explained how his band weighed the costs of playing in the midst of a military campaign but ultimately decided, “If we blow up, we blow up playing music.”
The tune began with a brief piano intro, which was followed by a five-note vamp preceding the melody. José Encarnacion then took a soprano saxophone solo, and Pérez laid out for the first chorus-an interesting and musically sensitive choice for the beginning of a piano-heavy concert. Pérez took the next solo, though this quickly led to a more intense collective improvisation section. Indeed, ending tunes with some sort of collective improvisation proved to be standard practice for the quartet, but it always was highly effective.

On the final tune of the night, for example, P**é**rez and Richeson traded solos, playing on top of each other, contorting ideas, and laying down a groove that kept the audience fixated. Eventually, Richeson dropped out, and P**é**rez and Encarnacion began an even more impressive duo.
P**é**rez received an immediate standing ovation, and walked out alone for an encore. He improvised with the audience-having us sing drones — and concluded with a brief rendition of the standard “Woody ‘N You.”
P**é**rez was even insightful and engaging after the show. Students bombarded him with questions and ate his catered food, but he just laughed and chatted about obscure Afro-Cuban rhythms. And when I approached and asked about his favorite breakfast, he didn’t bat an eye. “Protein and vegetables,” he responded. “And no bread.” He went on for about five minutes.