Pianist Danilo Pérez is, if nothing else, a Panamanian patriot. He imbues jazz with his native traditions (and vice versa) and celebrates Panama’s history on his new album “Panama 500.” Pérez’s all-encompassing love for his homeland is usually quite contagious; it’s a mystery, then, that his Tuesday night performance at Blues Alley with the Panama 500 band should be so unmoving.
All the pieces were in place. The band is made up of musicians who played on the album — bassist Ben Street, drummer Adam Cruz and percussionist Roman Diaz — along with 21-year-old violin phenom Alex Hargreaves, a student of Pérez’s. All were more than familiar with the leader’s complex, highly ambitious music, which could swerve from Afro-Caribbean chants to rhumba rhythms to “Oriental” riffs (and sometimes all of them at once, as in the opening “Rediscovery of the South Sea”) in its quest to connect the eastern and western worlds, as Panama did.
There were bountiful ideas from the soloists, as well; Street, in particular, put on a bravura performance, thoughtfully engaging with the written melody in “Reflections on the South Sea” and building tension to such levels in “Panama 500” that even his tone dripped with it. Pérez was also a success in this department, inserting syncopations into “Panama 500” that demanded attention and surprise bebop and blues licks into his spotlight piece “Panama Viejo.”
And yet it was hard to make an emotional connection with this performance. Part of the problem was Hargreaves, essentially the band’s front line, who for all his virtuosity was personally removed. His solo on “Panama 500” contrasted with Street and Pérez’s thick tension: The pacing and harmonic choices were right for tension-building but lacked the palpable feeling that his band mates generated.
Moreover, the music was perhaps too ambitious. In pieces like “Rediscovery of the South Sea,” with so many ideas swirling around the bandstand, none had time to establish itself with the listener before a new one flew in to take its place. But on the opposite extreme, sections of the closing “Melting Pot” went on too long. A moment of true audience engagement — Pérez leading us in a chant of “Panama es mi corazon” (Panama is my heart) while Cruz and Diaz played polyrhythms — continued as Pérez began a piano line that unfortunately displayed the crowd’s rhythmic ineptitude, and the chant limped to a close.
Pérez has been a thrilling live performer in the past; no doubt he will be in the future. His music Tuesday night was a triumph of ambition and technique, but it was not a thrill.
West is a freelance writer.