It is difficult to be an iconoclast and a traditionalist at the same time, but pianist Danilo Perez has managed to do it. There are countless well-trained keyboard artists who can play any tune in any key, improvising with skill and conviction, but not many who have managed to find a recognizable personal musical voice. Perez has learned from the masters, but early on he found a way of assimilating the lessons of the past without resorting to imitation or pastiche.
Perez received a solid classical musical education in his native Panama and came to this country for university studies. He soon abandoned other plans and enrolled in the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Soon after graduation he joined the Dizzy Gillespie United Nations Orchestra, with which he toured the world, off and on, from 1989 to 1992. The great trumpet pioneer was in his last days, but his spirit was high, and his band provided a perfect apprenticeship for the young pianist. Gillespie, always a keen student of Latin rhythms, could play the congas quite well, and he clearly inspired Perez to anchor his jazz playing in the sounds of his native land and to seek musical inspiration from all over the world.
For many of us Perez really hit the spot with his 1996 album Panamonk. There have been many tributes to Thelonious Monk, but too many of them rely on imitation of characteristic Monk phrases and phrasing, sometimes unwittingly bordering on parody. Perez understood the complex rhythmic and emotional aspects of the High Priest of Bebop and translated them using a different musical palette, making use of hard-hitting angular Latin-inflected rhythms to bring out new ways of playing the tunes. Listening to Panamonk, one can discern how Perez arrived at his own manner of approaching the piano, distilling the lessons of earlier players, including the unlikely pairing of Monk and Errol Garner, as well as pianists from various Latin American traditions, into a very
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