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Panama-born Danilo Perez never intended to be a diplomat. Maybe an electrical engineer. Definitely a jazz pianist. But a job in government? No way. Nevertheless Perez can now add the title cultural ambassador to his résumé. Last year Panamanian president Mireya Moscoso appointed Perez an official keeper of his country's cultural flame, and the pianist accepted wholeheartedly. "I said, "Wow! That happens to be great,'" he says on the phone from his home in Boston about his new job, adding that he isn't the first cultural envoy but probably the only one who is a jazz cat. The honorary lifelong position does not daunt the 34-year-old musician, who maintains his task is to "bring awareness of Panama to people."
A good thing, because in the Latin explosion of late, Panama seems to have gotten short shrift. Among the trivia most people know about the nation that connects North and South America: The United States cut a canal through it in 1917. President Jimmy Carter gave the body of water back to the people and removed the U.S. military with a controversial 1977 treaty. (The canal turnover was complete in 1999.) In the mid-Eighties strongman Gen. Manuel Noriega took power, eventually enduring a U.S. invasion in 1989 and subsequently serving a prison term in South Miami-Dade for his adventures in drug trafficking. The younger set probably recognizes the land best for the insipid yet rollicking 1984 Van Halen tune "Panama," whose repetitious chorus consists simply of "Pan-a-ma!/Pan-am-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh!"
It goes without saying that Panama could use a little good PR. So it's no wonder the internationally celebrated keyboard whiz Danilo Perez was tapped to help. An affable fellow, Perez spent his formative years in the Central American nation. His father, who was a band leader, singer, and teacher, exposed him to music early. He played bongos at three years old, guitar at age six, and piano at age eight, when he began attending the National Conservatory in Panama City and absorbing the repertoire of European classical composers. A well-rounded kid who excelled at all subjects, Perez was first in his class and earned a scholarship at age eighteen to Pennsylvania's Indiana University, where he studied electrical engineering. Still nurturing his affinity for music, he took piano lessons between engineering classes. In his second year he walked out of class during a test and didn't turn back. "I saw an image of people applauding at a concert or something," he recalls. "And I said, “This is what I want to do.'" Encouraged by a friend who was enrolled at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Perez applied and won the prestigious Quincy Jones Scholarship, much to the chagrin of his mother, who hoped he'd have something more stable than music to rely on. "We had some serious arguments," Perez remembers. "She was really sad."
As he worked on earning a degree in jazz composition in Boston, Perez learned as much outside school. He played with a variety of celebrated musicians, including vocalist Jon Hendricks and Cuban saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera. Asked why he's never relocated permanently to New York City, home of so many other jazz musicians, Perez answers confidently: "That's the reason. I think Boston is the place. You could be a student forever here." Once his days in the classroom ceased, Perez continued his education, touring from 1989 to 1992 as the youngest member of the United Nations Orchestra, directed by famed trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie, and performing on D'Rivera's 1991 Reunion album.
Honing his Latin-tinged postbop style and learning the value of economy and subtle phrasing from Gillespie, Perez moved on in 1993 to lead his own groups and record Danilo Perez, his debut on the Novus label. Featuring Joe Lovano and David Sanchez each on sax, and vocals by the other famous Panamanian, Ruben Blades, the album highlighted American and Latin-American standards and original tunes. The following year's The Journey, also on Novus, was a jazz concept album that tracked the spread of African rhythms throughout the Western Hemisphere. Evolving beyond the previous quartet format, Perez incorporated a large percussion ensemble, including traditional Panamanian folkloric instruments such as the piercing tambor repicador.
A 1995 stretch playing throughout Poland with Wynton Marsalis's band inspired his next album, PanaMonk, a spirited Latin-shaded tribute to innovative jazz pianist Thelonious Monk, released on the Impulse! label under the guidance of veteran producer Tommy LiPuma. The critically acclaimed album (whose name came courtesy of Steely Dan's Donald Fagen, who attended one of Perez's New York shows and effusively coined the term to describe what he had heard) features a handful of original songs and several recastings of Monk tunes such as "Think of One" transformed into a jagged son montuno.
By 1998's Central Avenue, Perez had experimented successfully with rhythms from Cuba, Argentina, and his native Panama. Later that year the Jazz Institute of Chicago commissioned him to write the piece "Suite for the Americas -- Part 1," depicting a tour through the Old World and its African and Moorish influences. That composition would lead Perez full circle in 2000 with his Verve label debut Motherland, which refers to his home country in more than just name. A tribute to the music of the Americas, the Grammy Award-nominated work mines many veins, probing the melodious roots of Panama, Europe, Africa, and North and South America. With a multicultural mishmash of musical brethren (seventeen in all), including Cameroonian bassist-vocalist Richard Bona, African-American violinist Regina Carter, and Brazilian singer Luciana Souza, Motherland melds jazz with diverse elements such as the folkloric rhythm tamborito and traditional dance punto, and Santería chanting. In a style the New York Times fittingly described as pan-global jazz, the album is a seamless and resonant blend that features among several long-length tunes "Suite for the Americas -- Part 2," the conclusion to the piece Perez wrote in 1998.
Counting off mentors such as D'Rivera, Hendricks, Gillespie, Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, James Moody, Jack DeJohnette, and Wayne Shorter, Perez knows he is the last of a privileged breed that enjoyed perfecting their playing on the stages of nightclubs and concert halls. Yet he's optimistic that jazz will not die, despite dire predictions by music critics. "It's up to us to bring that experience to the classroom," he exhorts. "It's the only way we're going to keep the music alive." Perez does his part, teaching at the New England Conservatory when he's off the road. That's just another place where he carries out his mission as a cultural ambassador. No matter how well suited he seems for diplomacy, he still marvels at having been chosen for the job. "I just wanted to play music and make people happy," he explains. "I didn't realize that when I was making music it was so symbolic and could be really important. It takes maturity and growth to really understand that. I do feel connected to my country, and I'm trying to bring out the music, but before it was more innocent. Now I know that it's my duty."