Jazz pianist creates cultural bridge

The Danilo Pérez Trio will perform Sunday at Murray's.

By Nassim Benchaabane | April 15, 2011

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Grammy-Award-winning jazz pianist Danilo Pérez said he believes musicians should ask themselves, "What's your story?"

“When I sit down at the piano, I think about my life and what I love," Pérez said. "Then I write music celebrating that.”

A native of Panama, Pérez began studying piano at the age of three with his father. At 10 years old, Pérez went on to study at the Panama's National Conservatory of Music. He then enrolled at Berklee College of Music in the U.S. to study jazz composition.

“I grew up listening to jazz,” Pérez said. “It’s the music that has hope. It’s the music that celebrates creativity and humanity. It promotes great values like respecting and listening to each other.”

Pérez has made a name for himself in the world of jazz. Pérez was a member of Dizzy Gillespie’s United Nations Orchestra and Wynton Marsalis’ band. He has played with Wayne Shorter, Roy Haynes, Herbie Hancock and several others.

Pérez combines a versatile range of influences in his music, including his Panamanian heritage and music from around the world.

“I’m always thinking of Panama in my music because it is a cultural bridge,” Pérez said. “It links America, Africa and Latin America. In that sense, I want my music to be a cultural passport that bridges cultures through jazz, which is all about communication.”

Some of the world's top jazz musicians have described Pérez's playing as fearless.

“I like to improvise," Pérez said. "I really put myself in the spot and take chances in the moment. We’re on a mission to break all the rules of music."

Pérez’s trio, with bassist Ben Street and drummer Adam Cruz, have nine years of experience honing that sense of creativity.

Pérez’s latest album, Providencia, reflects this musical progression.

“I’d say my music has become a lot more adventurous and harmonic," Pérez said. "We’re doing things we haven’t done before."

Providencia is a conceptual album as well.

“It’s about getting up and doing something for the next generation," Pérez said. "It’s about preparing for the unknown in the future, and it’s about love in humanity.”

Pérez follows many philanthropic endeavors as an ambassador to UNICEF, and as head of Fundación Danilo Pérez, which sponsors the Panama Jazz Festival and provides scholarships to impoverished children.

Pérez is also head of the Berklee Global Jazz Institute, which teaches ecological awareness and social work through jazz music.

“I think of myself as a social activist, because I believe music is a tool to create values for society,” Pérez said.

Perhaps the inspiration Pérez hopes audiences will draw from his performances is best told by a memory from his childhood. Pérez’s father gave a mechanic who worked for hours at their home a shredded carrot that sounded like a musical instrument.

When Pérez Sr. asked how much he owed, Pérez Jr. said the mechanic responded, “Man, if we’re going to talk about money, what you owe me, I mean, what I owe you…I couldn’t begin to pay you for the happiness that you guys have brought to me.”

Pérez recalled being wowed by the memory. The Danilo Pérez Trio will be wowing audiences Sunday, April 17 at Murray's.

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