The Danilo Perez Trio may be the most adventurous and dynamic group working in mainstream jazz today. Its only rival may be the other group that Mr. Perez plays in, The Wayne Shorter Quartet. It can hardly be a coincidence that Mr. Perez is the link.
Maybe five years ago, few would have guessed this would be the case. A Panamanian-born modern jazz pianist of great accomplishment, Danilo Perez was recording nice, straight-ahead albums. His trio could certainly catch fire, but it all seemed like the standard formula for a post-bop pianist with Latin leanings — hot solos, rhythmic combustion, big climaxes. Got it.
But the music Mr. Perez has been making with Wayne Shorter and the music his own trio is now creating goes into another realm entirely. Both groups approach jazz in a new, genuinely open-ended way. In these contexts, Mr. Perez has broken away from the timeworn structure of the jazz performance — written melody, solos, return to written melody — to create new structures of discovery.
An example. The first performance on Live at the Jazz Showcase is recorded on the CD as three “tracks”, but it is a single, organic performance that can’t be typically categorized. “Preludio” opens with Mr. Perez alone, not “introducing” a standard melody or playing it by himself, but improvising toward a melody that is still along way off. His band joins him, but not with the melody. Ben Street’s bass is surging, Adam Cruz stokes the fire, and Mr. Perez is off into a solo, though not from a clear melodic base. The track concludes with a series of emphatically stated chords, then quickly transitions into its natural successor, in this case Thelonious Monk’s “Wee See”. Mr. Perez plays the melody, but Mr. Street takes the primary role, soloing during the melodic statement, and then in a kind of dialogue/duet with the piano. But wait — this bass solo/piano solo is now the next track, “Epilogo”. And it is not merely a solo over the chords of “We See” because the piano is already stating fragments of the melody to the next tine, Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed”, though it is still eight minutes away. The bass solo gradually becomes a piano solo, which climaxes and shifts into a high register and ever-shifting montuno over which Mr. Cruz plays a dancing solo.
“Overjoyed” — a legitimate pop tune — would seem to invite a more conventional approach. Mr. Perez starts solo again, with only hints of Stevie Wonder in his Corea-esque improvisation. Again, the rhythm section enters before the theme emerges, and the melody is then interpolated with lines that had come from the solo introduction. As Mr. Perez’s solo develops, it departs from the written melody only slowly, but eventually utterly. When the solo — now free from even Wonder’s harmonies — climaxes, that’s it. No reprise of the theme at all.
It’s tempting to go through the whole recording this way, as each track is unique and peculiar. The originals (some freely improvised) seem to grow from particularly lush soil. The other Monk tune (“Monk’s Dream”) is given utterly unique rhythmic treatment. The cover of Ruben Blades’ “Paula C” is a significant revelation: a salsa tune played like it had been written by Tadd Dameron or Jerome Kern, with all the harmonic sophistication one could hope for. In the end, the team returns only to the bass line, which caps off the performance and the recording.
This is an unusually exciting and moving modern jazz. It is not background music or even the kind of elegantly posed jazz of, say, Bill Evans or even Keith Jarrett. Not that it’s better than that, but just that it is jittery music — constantly probing and poking, shifting and seeking another avenue for exploration. It’s the music of a genius with attention deficit disorder — heady, brilliant, itchy stuff.
Which is to say, it’s not for everybody. This is a record for a relatively small audience. And Mr. Perez knows that, which is why he has issued it on the “label” Artistshare, which is not really on a “label” at all. Artistshare is a service that allows musicians to produce their own record without going into debt, selling copies only over the Internet and therefore printing copies only as they are needed. In addition, Artistshare allows the artist to sell not merely the CD but also packages of other recordings, online lessons, access to photos and diaries, and other product combinations. For the first time this past year, an Artistshare disc — available only online through the artist’s web site — won a Grammy for jazz bandleader Maria Schneider.
On Artistshare, Live at the Jazz Showcase is reasonably likely to reach its core audience of adventurous modern jazz fans but is unlikely to be an expensive indulgence for Danilo Perez. It may not be paying his bills, but it’s not causing him bills either. And it gives him a way to spread the word about one of the great groups in jazz. If you’re a fan, then get on board. The ride — whirlwind fun — is waiting for you.