Casco Viejo, Panama City
Panamanian Jazz pianist Danilo Perez has made a name for himself not only an internationally acclaimed artist, but also a humanitarian figure. With a deep belief in the power of music as a tool for social change, he founded the Danilo Perez Foundation in 2005 — focusing on the social and creative growth of young children and teenagers in Panama City through the development of musical education.
To help animate the burgeoning nightlife of Casco Viejo we’ve joined hands with Danilo to establish Danilo’s Jazz Club at American Trade Hotel — as he says “one amazing room for creating music.”
This one day new beautiful club provides an opportunity for creative development and international exchange at this very intimate level with students from Panama and all of Latin America and beyond — to create new music, bringing old and new, near, far together. We’re honored to celebrate its official opening tonight with two special performances, including one with Danilo himself presenting music from his latest album — Panama 500 — backed by players from the Berklee Global Jazz Institute.
Photo by Lauren Coleman.
"Do not fear mistakes, there are none."
This week we’ll be at the Panama International Jazz Festival letting music wash the dust from our souls. This year’s festival is presented by artistic director Danilo Perez, whose 50-seat jazz club opens in the hotel next month. This week is an exciting preview of what’s to come.
We’re going to see Vijay Iyer perform from his new album Tirtha, with Carnatic guitarist Prasanna and tabla player Nitin Mitta, for the Portland Jazz Festival tomorrow, Saturday, and were privileged to get some words with him in anticipation of what promises to be a jaw-dropping show. Vijay is a jazz pianist, composer, bandleader, producer, electronic musician, and writer based in New York City, who’s worked with an enormous array of musicians in many genres, including Mike Ladd, Dead Prez and saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa. We talked about the democr/anarchic personality of jazz, the potency of identity and the magic of collaboration.
How has your background in Indian Classical influenced the work that you do now and how has it it influenced your approach to composition and interpretation of Western Classical jazz?
Well, I should clarify that I’m not trained in Indian music. I was born and raised in the US, and I was trained in Western music; particularly I played classical violin in the Western tradition for many years, and then I had more and more opportunities. I started playing piano by ear when I was little and then I had opportunities to study the history of jazz and I was in a high school jazz ensemble and stuff, so I kind of got into it the way a lot of people get into it in the States nowadays, which is through some sort of educational opportunity. It wasn’t until I was actually an adult, when I was about 20 or so, that I decided I wanted to learn more about the music of my heritage. So I just sort of, among many other things, pointed my attention in that direction, particularly looking at Carnatic music, which is the classical music of South India, and especially looking at the rhythmic techniques that you find in that music. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time, close to 20 years, but I was never immersed in it in the sense of having a guru or studying it formally or anything like that. What I have had are a lot of opportunities to collaborate with Indian musicians. And as a composer I’ve worked with ideas from Indian music and kind of structural concepts from Indian music — especially rhythmic ideas from Indian music, so that’s all kind of led into the work I’ve been doing since the mid-90s. As I’ve had more and more opportunities to collaborate with both musicians from India, and with other Indian-American musicians like me — basically people who are part of the South Asian global diaspora — that relationship has deepened more and more over the years. As I’ve said this is all parallel with a lot of other things I’ve been doing, so it’s been one major priority for me but it hasn’t been the only priority.
Once you were in your twenties and you started to learn about the music of your heritage, did that start to affect your interpretation of or your approach to the jazz you’d been raised on?
Yeah, well, I guess as a composer and band leader, the kind of choices I was making, starting in the mid-90s with my first album which came out in ‘95, it displayed connections between all of those things — you know, a lot of the rhythmic ideas were influenced by Indian music. But then, structurally, it had a lot in common with experimental music from the African American creative avant-garde of the last century, so that includes everyone from Thelonious Monk to John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman and all those, you know, major figures. So I’m influenced by all of that and I’m also influenced by my heritage, but its all been, in a way, a discovery for me, little by little, just finding ways to bring it together.
And do you think that your work gets a specific kind of attention or audience in the jazz world because of your contact with Indian musical themes and other influences outside of — either parellel to or at a crossroads with — Western jazz? I know a lot of people think of “world” themes in themes as a bit psychedelic, like Alice Coltrane. Even playing the Portland Jazz Festival — do you feel like you were approached in a particular way because of your engagement with Indian themes?
I guess I’ve kind of been around long enough that I think people who follow this stuff and people, particularly like the people who run the Jazz Festival, are connected to the mainstream of the jazz industry, so they’ve seen me for many years do lots of different things. Last year I put out an album that probably, more than anything else I’ve ever done, displays that connection with Indian music because I’m collaborating in a trio with two musicians from India. One of them plays tablas, which are the hand drums of North India, and the other plays basically a normal electric guitar but he’s trained in Carnatic music, which is the South Indian classical music, so the way he plays the guitar is more like the veena, which is a South Indian stringed instrument. So I think this particular project — I don’t want to say wears it on its sleeve, but it is a collaboration among three people in the South Asian diaspora, so that is something that’s going to be apparent to people in various ways. It’s not that it’s trying to be jazz or that it’s trying to be Indian music, it’s just that we’re all being ourselves and creating something together. So I suppose, if this is the first or only thing they ever hear of me, that a person might assume that about who and what I am — that I’m the guy that fuses jazz and Indian music or something like that, but that’s a real reductive way of looking at what I’ve done. And if you look at anything else I’ve done, the picture is a little more complicated. It just so happens that that’s the band I’m bringing to Portland because often the kind of timeframe on these things is that you put out an album and someone says, “Hey, nice album, do you wanna have a gig in a year?” then a year later I’m putting out another album with a different band. But then anyway, here we are, doing this concert. This is one event among many that I’ll do in the coming months, and I’m working with a lot of different projects and collaborations and I’m fortunate to have a lot of opportunities like that. I guess from my perspective, I don’t feel pigeonholed because I have a lot of chances to do a lot of different things.
Bill Frisell is a guitar string snake charmer — an experimentalist so true to his North Star that his very name is synonymous with aural revelation. He’s performing twice at this year’s Portland Jazz Festival with two very different shows lined up. February 24 and 25, Bill plays tribute to the works of pedal steel guitarist, Wesley Webb “Speedy” West and guitarist, fiddle player and producer Jimmy Bryant, as well as pop icon John Lennon in “For Portland Only.” His second evening will turn to the ethereal, boasting his classically sublime 858 Quartet and a solo opening set on February 25. We asked Bill a bit about his work, his friends and what inspires him below.
Ace readers, guests and friends are invited to take advantage of a friendly deal on tickets for all of Bill’s February 24 show with code ACEJAZZ when booking —just contact the festival directly. You can get this same Ace-insider deal for shows at the Crystal Ballroom with Vijay Iyer and Charlie Hunter, both of whom we’ll be posting interviews with here soon. Keep an eye out.
What fuels your fascination with American music & themes?
I was born in 1951. Fender guitars. Rock and roll. Television. Hot rods. Dinosaurs. Rocket ships. Outer space. Cowboys. Surfboards. The future. Leave it to Beaver. My Three Sons. Bonanza. The Mickey Mouse Club.
I have loved music for as long as I can remember. Most of my time has been spent trying to figure it out. Where does it come from? Where do I come from? The music always tells me what to do and where to go. There’s never been a question of what comes next. Always something new right there in front of me. It never ends. Cannot be finished. Amazing. Music is good.
You’re playing two shows for Jazz Fest with quite different themes — what opportunities or experiences does this offer for yourself and your audiences?
I’m excited to have the chance to play in all these different contexts. It’s a challenge and a little scary thinking about getting all that music together, but I’ll be with my best friends. They never let me down. The music always tells us what to do. Takes care of itself. We discover new things each time we play together. The audience becomes part of this process. I’m thankful we can all be in on this together.
Tell me about your project with The Wexner Center for the Arts, interpreting the music of Speedy West & Jimmy Bryant.
Years ago, my friend Chuck Helm from the Wexner Center played me this amazing music. Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant. Virtuosos. I’d never heard it before. Crazy. Amazing. Pedal steel and electric guitar. I never would have thought to actually try to play that stuff. But…years later, after developing a long partnership with my good friend Greg Leisz, Chuck suggested we try to play some of that music. I thought he was crazy. But then he had the idea to call it “Not So Fast.” This kind of got us off the hook. It’s been inspiring spending time with that music. I’m learning a LOT. And it’s been super fun.
In the vein of other great musicians who have inspired you, can you tell us a bit about the late and singular Paul Motian, and how he influenced and inspired you?
In 1968 I went to my first jazz concert. The Charles Lloyd Quartet. Keith Jarrett on piano, Ron McClure on bass, and Paul Motian on drums.
I was discovering a new world. Life changing. Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington. These people became my heros. Pointed the way. Paul was one of them. Never dreamed I’d ever have the chance to play with him. In 1981 he called me and asked if I wanted to come over to his apartment. I couldn’t believe it. The first song we played together was “My Man’s Gone Now”. Gershwin. We kept going for more than 30 years. With him I could be myself. He wanted me…not just a guitar player. His music always felt like my music. Every time we played it felt like the first time. I never knew what was going to happen. Dreams came true with him. Amazing.