Music Interviews
5:00 pm
Sat February 15, 2014

A Man, A Plan, A Concept Album About Panama

Originally published on Sat February 15, 2014 9:18 pm

Danilo Pérez is a man with some serious jazz cred. The Panamanian pianist got his start playing with Dizzy Gillespie, and continued with Wayne Shorter. As a composer and bandleader himself, he's practically peerless.

Pérez has just released an ambitious new album called Panama 500. His inspiration? Just 500 years of history, that's all.

From beginning to end, the album tracks the journey of Panama, starting with the Spanish "discovery" of the Pacific Ocean in 1513 — "an event," Pérez tells NPR's Arun Rath, "that basically changed the dynamic of the world, how the world connected. You know, Panama became a bridge."

A small country that connected massive parts of the globe — the American continents and the world's largest oceans — was now a gateway, and lots of different goods, cultures, ideas would come together at this bottleneck in the years to come.

Pérez says he wanted the music to evoke those connections, "with the violin representing the European influence, for example; the percussion representing the African influence, combined with jazz, with the traditional rhythm section."

Hear more of his conversation with Rath at the audio link on this page.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

Next up, a man with an incredible jazz pedigree. He got his start with Dizzy Gillespie, and he continues to thrill audiences with Wayne Shorter. As a composer and band leader himself, he's in a class of his own.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: Pianist Danilo Perez.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: Danilo Perez just released an ambitious new album called "Panama 500." His inspiration? Oh, just 500 years of history. Perez tracks the history of Panama, starting with the Spanish discovery of the Pacific Ocean in 1513.

DANILO PEREZ: An event that basically changed the dynamic of the world, how the world connected. You know, Panama became a bridge.

RATH: A small country that connected the American continents and the world's biggest oceans. A lot of different goods, cultures and ideas came together at this bottleneck. Danilo Perez wanted this music to evoke those connections.

PEREZ: With the violin representing the European influence, for example, the percussion representing the African influence, combined with jazz with the rhythm section, the traditional rhythm section, you know, this was very inspiring to me, especially last year when I was doing the Panama Jazz Festival playing with Ruben Blades, who is a fantastic artist from Panama. We play a piece by him called "Patria," which is a national anthem. And playing that music just brought so much nationalistic feeling to my heart.

And then when I went home, I just - I was just so inspired to write. And it was the perfect, appropriate celebration, 500 years. Also, we're celebrating 100 hundred years of the expansion of the canal. So always, we're visiting Panama becoming the bridge, becoming the heart of the world. That's what I've been trying to do with my music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: Let's talk about the first track, "Rediscovery of the South Sea." You guys are kind of journeying through the jungle, right?

PEREZ: Exactly. That's exactly what happened. As I envisioned this, it's like the Spaniards coming in. The record started like - it just began. It's like bam.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "REDISCOVERY OF THE GREAT SEA")

PEREZ: And then all of a sudden, there's a - you go in through the jungle, basically. And then you encounter with the indigenous.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "REDISCOVERY OF THE GREAT SEA")

PEREZ: And then there is this kind of trying to find out what each other is saying. And all of a sudden, all these challenges that pose, that kind of encounter and all the struggles, are reflected on the music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "REDISCOVERY OF THE GREAT SEA")

PEREZ: There is a section that I even ask the musicians, play like the Spaniard may have gotten lost so many times during this trip without the help of the indigenous who would not have been able to do this trip.

RATH: So you guys are lost in the jungle?

PEREZ: Exactly. I say to them, play like you're lost in the jungle, you know. And it was fantastic because they literally played lost in the jungle to the point that now we try to do this live and it's very difficult to do.

RATH: And now you know your way around, so you're kind of faking it.

PEREZ: Exactly.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "REDISCOVERY OF THE GREAT SEA")

PEREZ: At the end of the first track, I become the voice of the indigenous Indians in Panama.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "REDISCOVERY OF THE GREAT SEA")

PEREZ: They come up with a huge message, saying, this land was given to us alone by our great fathers and great mothers. We have to live in peace and unity. Nobody owns this land.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "REDISCOVERY OF THE GREAT SEA")

RATH: I'm speaking with pianist and composer Danilo Perez. His new album is called "Panama 500." There's an entire suite in this album dedicated to the building of the Panama Canal. I guess it's hard to imagine what an impact, what a pivotal moment that must have been in the country's history.

PEREZ: It's an amazing moment in our lives. I mean, to cut the earth in a piece and...

RATH: We can kind of feel that cutting, like these rhythmic stabs you have with the piano, like taken away.

PEREZ: Exactly. That's it. That's it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PEREZ: And then at the end, I wanted to throw in a little bit of element that they cannot really have provided. Elements from the Middle Eastern, you know, Middle East. We have a lot of influence from India, a lot of influence from Israel. You know, it's in our music. And I wanted to portray that part, too, how far Panama has come, how different the influences and the diversity of our country, basically.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: The last piece on the album, it's this beautiful, almost sentimental piece, "Panama Viejo," "Old Panama." Why did you choose to go out on this? Can you talk about that?

PEREZ: Great question. One of the things that makes this record really special to me is I'm just translating a feeling. I don't really have either side or the other. But this piece talks about the challenge that our country has been through. With this colonization, there has come a lot of struggle. And that piece was written by Ricardo Fabrega and that's why I chose to close the record on the idea that you got to learn the history, you got to be able to move forward but knowing what happened and to be really aware that all those fears, struggles and challenges that we went through to become a nation that we are, Panama.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "PANAMA VIEJO")

RATH: That's Danilo Perez. His new album is called "Panama 500." Loved speaking with you. It was just great. Thank you.

PEREZ: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "PANAMA VIEJO")

RATH: And for Saturday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. Check out our weekly podcast. Look for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR app. And you can follow us on Twitter: @NPRWATC. Tune in tomorrow for our conversation with Father Greg Boyle, founder of the nation's largest gang intervention program.

REVEREND GREG BOYLE: You know, we're kind of a tough sell, but we're a good bet. There's still a lingering sense of demonizing, I suppose. It's not a shelter for abandoned puppies. It's a center of second chances for felons and gang members, and so that's still hard.

RATH: Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.