Panamanian-born pianist Danilo Perez and his band mates racked up a lot of mileage at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at Maryland on Tuesday night.
Composers from Chile (Violetta Parra), Cuba (Silvio Rodriguez), the United States (Stevie Wonder) and elsewhere were represented, and the trio's fascination with cross-cultural folk and pop influences was often colored by sophisticated jazz harmonies and razor-sharp interplay.
Parra's "Gracias a la Vida," set the mood and illustrated Perez's gift for creating colorful episodic movement. The focus slowly shifted from bassist Ben Street's warmly resonating tone to drummer Adam Cruz's muffled rhythms to Perez's dappling accents. Perez often followed this pattern, replacing routine chord progressions with a series of little motifs -- a ringing pedal tone, a two-bar cycle of chords, a riffing right hand -- to vary tension and dynamics.
He had a few tricks up his sleeve, too, tucking a sheet of paper into the grand's strings at one point, creating the sound of an ancient, battered upright. The drama was heightened by Perez's rhapsodic improvisations, soaring chromatic flights that reflected his background in both jazz and classical music. Among the evening's highlights were Wonder's "Overjoyed," which Street and Cruz helped transform into a samba-esque excursion, and "Besame Mucho," which found the pianist slyly approaching the melody, then soulfully embellishing it.
Perez, who once devoted an album to Thelonious Monk's music, didn't focus on that aspect of his repertoire. But Monk's influence was frequently apparent, particularly during choruses ringing with hammered notes and splashing dissonances.
-- Mike Joyce