A fair amount of scholarship and symbolism accompanies Danilo Pérez’s new ode to his homeland. On the occasion of Panama’s fifth century the brilliant pianist applies himself to a celebration of the culture that continues to nurture his muse. Along the way he employs his ace working band, his superb rhythm section mates from Wayne Shorter’s quartet, hand percussion, pan flutes, chanting and a very agile violinist. Echoing the intrepid nature of Balboa himself (as well as the people who lives were amended by his historic arrival) Pérez steers his ship through seas both choppy and calm, coming up with a string of elaborate pieces that impress with their intricacy while wooing with their beauty.
Pérez’s piano work has always had a slippery side to it. Though he can be declarative, his lines often slide away from the phrase just rendered; ever since he viewed Thelonious through his filter in ‘96’s Panamonk, a restless if deft fluidity has guided his improvisations. Part of Panama 500‘s charm comes from the flowing manner in which Pérez unpacks his lines. From the opening full ensemble track to the solo excursion that kicks off “The Canal Suite,” the rhythmic idiosyncrasies of the Caribbean align with established Euro designs, establishing a common ground rather quickly. “Abia Yala (America)” is equal parts chatty and formal – and all the more fetching for it.
Under Perez’s guidance, a folk dance resounds with the rigor of an étude. The apex here might be gloriously hyper “Melting Pot (Chocolito)” and its balance-beam maneuvers between arrangement and improv. The band lives this music – its vivid nature is heightened by the authority that leaps from the performance. That level of commitment bolsters the impact of several pieces. Though there are plenty of twists and turns, they’re played with the ease of 4/4 swing.
Pérez has said he sees these works in a cinematic manner, and the evocative nature of the program supports that notion. From the Guna chanting and narration to the bustle of instrumental tumult, the composer’s lyricism conjures the frolic, travails and glories of a proud people reflecting on their steady growth while appreciating their own cultural breadth.