Although it is not easy to stand out in the crowded Latin jazz market, Tony Perez has some distinct advantages. His instrument is the piano and that finds favour with jazz fans who otherwise consider the Latin sound a little samey. Not only that but he has caught the eyes and ears of Chucho Valdes who has overseen his career and in 1998 appointed him as keyboardist to the ambassadorial group Irakere. Valdes is the big name in Cuban jazz and Perez is inevitably being hailed as a possible successor. It is early days but the potential is there.
Perez is 28 and hails from Sancti Spiritus. Though Cuban born and raised, he is much traveled, with a stint in Venezuela in the early ‘90s to his credit. Still on the move, the present recording was made in Mexico and his varied experience as composer, group leader, and Valdes-protégé shows through. This is a confident work for a debut effort that demonstrates a formidable technique and a willingness and ability to lead from the front.
If that sounds very Valdes-like, Perez is no pale copy. His tone is lighter, less folk-based and more akin to Cedar Walton or some of the younger American players than the sonorous and almost overwhelming approach of his patron. He shares with the maestro a taste for synthesizing different genres and for dizzying tempo shifts, but he is less aggressive even when, as he often is, flying up and down the keyboard at a terrifying rate. Already possessed of a wide stylistic repertoire, while very much a jazzman first and foremost, Perez is particularly at home with Palmieri/Colon Salsa standards and also has a good ear for the telling use of classical inflections. As a composer he is competent rather than inspired, but there are signs of future greatness in that department too.
As a player, he is already in the top flight. On pieces like “Jazzy” this gets a little too close to florid showing-off but mostly the technical brilliance is put to the service of the tunes rather than dominating them. Palmieri’s “Picadillo” is as good a version as exists and a genuine fusion of jazz and Cuban forms. “Encanto” has overtones of J.S. Bach and enough pianistic imagination and dexterity to have devotees drooling. The contemplative “Analógico” shows that Perez can also use his talents sparingly but tellingly when the occasion warrants.
The mood is generally “up” as is the tempo. The jaunty “Ninon” or the seventies jazz-funk of “La Diferencia” are the best examples. A lively brass section adds the expected colour. If, like me, you tire of salsa style horns quickly, there is the bonus of some more than usually individuated soloing. Alfred Thompson on tenor sax cuts through the unbridled energy of “La Danza” with a very poised chorus, while elsewhere the flautist Reynaldo Perez adds both nuance and texture. Trumpeters Alexander Brown and Mario Hernandez also make the most of any spotlight that comes their way.
There are a couple of vocal tracks and “Mi China”, particularly, will appeal to those who prefer their Cuban jazz more Cuban than jazzy. Whatever the emphasis, Perez himself is never anything less than the complete modernist, exploring every twist and turn suggested by the melody. As with most sets in the genre, the rhythms are exuberant, a little cluttered in places, but largely irresistible. The piano is at all times the major focus, though. More ballads and meditative pieces might have fleshed out the picture, but the gentle “Kay’Nah” that signs off the album perhaps is sufficient evidence that Perez does have his introspective side. Most listeners will be happy enough with his expressive and engagingly energetic preferences.
This album won’t change the direction of Latin jazz. It does however add another name to the growing roster of performers who cannot be ignored when discussing the subject. If Perez represents the next generation then the tradition is in good, and highly skilled, hand. If Latin styles become, as I think they might, the dominant influence on 21st century jazz expect Tony Perez to have some considerable say in the matter.