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Danilo Perez, world-class pianist out to change the world

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Sunday April 28, 2013

From The Boston Globe

Danilo Perez, world-class pianist out to change the world
By: Scott Helman

DANILO PEREZ has just finished a clinic for young jazz players, and it’s time for his next gig. He slips out of the auditorium, crosses a narrow street, and ducks into a rehearsal room crawling with trumpeters, guitarists, singers, and more than a half-dozen percussionists. Like nearly everyone else at January’s weeklong Panama Jazz Festival, in his native Panama City, the musicians are waiting for him, a blur in a navy button-down, black pants, and thick-frame glasses. Everybody wants a piece of Danilo.

Haggard from a punishing schedule, the renowned composer, pianist, and educator is growing sicker by the day. Tomorrow, the big band he leads will close the festival before a sea of fans on a former American military base near the Panama Canal. Then he will check into a hospital, barely able to breathe. But today they must practice.

The band begins rehearsing a Perez composition, Patria, or Homeland, written as a tribute to his country. The horns and drums build, but he waves them off. “The feeling is not there,” he says. He needs the ensemble to evoke, with its tones and rhythms, Spain’s colonization of Panama.

They start anew. Again, he stops the song. The music — too flat, too cold — dies. “This is important!” he says, pleading for more drama, more emotion. “You guys didn’t watch movies, man?”

The rehearsal goes on like this, with Perez standing over an electric piano, a gold cross dangling from his neck, frustration growing with each bloodless start. It’s not their musicianship he questions. He’s after something less tangible. “You know how to play correctly? That doesn’t mean anything,” he says. “That’s like when a machine washes clothes correctly.”

Finally, Perez hears what he wants. A more fluid, more resonant rendition of Patria fills the room. He asks them: Who didn’t feel the difference? “If you didn’t, there’s the door,” he says. “You can get out of here.” No one dares move. “This is what we do,” he says. “Puedes. Puedes.” (“You can. You can.”)

The next night, the audience is thousands deep under a gorgeous Central American sky. The sun sets, the air cools. The big band, about 30 strong, sets up under the lights. “Viva Panama!” Perez shouts into a microphone. “Viva!” the crowd roars back. The band launches into Patria.

And just like that, in front of all these people, Perez does it again: He cuts it off. The rhythm doesn’t sound right. He instructs the band to make random noise, to disguise the awkward silence. Then he starts the whole thing over.

Perez, who is 47, is revered enough in Panama that he could read takeout menus and still draw an ovation. But there is something striking, on this night, about his demand for a do-over on the big stage. In Perez’s world, as anyone who has played with or studied under him can attest, traditional rules and boundaries rarely apply. For him, jazz is at once all about the music and not about the music at all.

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