Pianist PÃ©rez pays homage to Dizzy Gillespie, urges unity through music
He, like Gillespie, hopes to break down barriers between people and cultures with music.
photo by Ben Johnson
“One of the things that I recognize, especially at this time, is the power of music and the lessons I learned from Dizzy,” PÃ©rez said, in a recent phone interview. He was taking a quick break from his position as artistic director of the Berklee College of Music’s new Global Jazz Institute.
“It’s really important to remind people of the work of the musician, which is to unite,” he explained. “(Dizzy) was the global jazz ambassador of music (and) his work is so relevant. I don’t think there’s a faster way to heal all the wounds that are happening in the world than (through) the arts, the music,” said PÃ©rez.
PÃ©rez’s University Musical Society show, “Things to Come — 21st-Century Dizzy,” marks his third UMS appearance; he last performed here in September 2008 as a member of the Wayne Shorter Quartet.
As the youngest member of Gillespie’s United Nation Orchestra, which he joined in 1989, PÃ©rez saw how Gillespie embraced collaborations with musicians from all over the world, a practice he’s continued with the current group.
In addition to PÃ©rez, his global mix of musicians includes Puerto Rican David Sanchez, tenor saxophone; Italian-born, Indian music-influenced Rudresh Mahanthappa, alto saxophone; and Iraqi-American Amir ElSaffar, trumpet and vocals. Rounding out the group are U.S. natives Jamey Haddad, percussion; Ben Street, bass; and Adam Cruz, drums.
“I have a saxophonist who has Indian roots, and I’ve got a trumpet player who’s got Iraqi roots. We are using that as a springboard for new material and also revisiting some of Dizzy’s,” said PÃ©rez.
He said that his mission is to spread the message of hope.
“One of the things I realize is that we are always talking about how we grow as human beings, how do we feel optimistic about this life? It’s easy to feel that this world is going to end, that everything is getting worse. It’s almost like when I play a concert nowadays I feel I am fighting for happiness and bringing that element to people so they can say maybe we as human beings can turn this around.
“One of the things I would love when we leave the stage (the audience) feels hopeful about their life, about us, about humanity,” PÃ©rez added.
Trumpeter Gillespie, who fathered the modern jazz sounds of bebop, was a major influence on the widespread acceptance of Afro-Cuban jazz, PÃ©rez’ said. His band performs arrangements of classic Gillespie tunes in addition to original group compositions.
At earlier performances on the tour, the repertoire included Gillespie’s familiar “Salt Peanuts,” “Round Midnight” and “Manteca,” as well as PÃ©rez’s own “Suite for the Americas.” He said to expect the familiar tunes to be served with a new twist.
“It’s almost like watching a movie in 3-D. It’s really cool is seeing people recognize ‘Salt Peanuts’ out of an Indian raga or something,” he observed.
“That’s one thing that really spoke to all of us. You take Monk’s music, Wayne (Shorter’s) music, Dizzy Gillespie’s music — their music is popular forever because there is more to find inside what they did. There’s ways to re-interpret (the music) and the way they wrote they made music available to humanity forever.”
PÃ©rez has led his own groups since the early 1990s, and as bandleader has earned 3 Grammy nominations. “Motherland” was nominated for 2 Grammy Awards and also garnered his 3rd win for Best Jazz Album from the Boston Music Awards.
“Motherland” was named (as were his previous four releases) among the best albums of the year by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the San Diego Union-Tribune, Billboard and JazzTimes. In 2002, he received a nomination from the Jazz Journalists Association for Pianist of the Year. In September 2009, PÃ©rez received a Legacy Award from the Smithsonian Latino Center.
Roger LeLievre is a freelance writer who covers music for AnnArbor.com.
Dizzy Gillespie & The United Nation Orchestra (with Danilo PÃ©rez) performing "A Night in Tunisia" in 1989: