Danilo Perez clearly holds his listeners in high regard. For only a pianist who believes in the musical intelligence of his audience would play a set as inquisitive, demanding and provocative as the performance Perez turned in Thursday night at the Jazz Showcase.
Though the packed house reaffirmed Perez's popularity, the music-making made zero concessions to jazz fashion, easily accessible melody or straightforward harmonic progression. Virtually everything that Perez and his ultra-polished trio played involved experimentation, most of it built on unconventional phrase-making and profoundly original musical structure.
In essence, Perez remains now – just as when he was launching his international career, in the early 1990s – a searcher. Yes, he incorporates rhythmic motifs of his native Panama that, at times, can be danced to. At the same time, however, Perez seems to revel in sabotaging familiar backbeats, subverting them with brief silences and constantly changing meters.
The iconoclastic nature of this work became apparent at the outset, when he opened his extended composition "Daniela" with an extended solo. Though the cadenza started slowly and went on too long, the appeal of the piece became apparent once Perez finally brought the rest of the band into the mix. Unfolding as a collection of scenic episodes, "Daniela" started as lullaby, blossomed into a blues and finally erupted in a sprawling, virtuosic keyboard statement.
Perez devoted much of the evening's music to repertoire of Panamanian composers, but he strayed far from the folkloric origins of this music. In every instance, Perez transformed the originals with the complex harmonies and idiosyncratic keyboard textures that are hallmarks of his pianism. The man seems to have an aversion to the obvious.
One measure of the daring of his work emerged in his complex re-working of Thelonious Monk's "Ask Me Now." Here was Monk as no one else plays him, Perez avoiding the obvious dissonances and rhythmic asymmetries that lesser pianists invoke. Instead, Perez spaced chords beautifully across the range of the keyboard and embellished lines with high-register filigree in his right hand, hinting at the theme without stating it explicitly.
Bassist Ben Street and drummer Adam Cruz have been working with Perez for nearly a decade, and it shows. Though a little more assertiveness from each player would have been welcome, there was no question that they anticipated Perez's quicksilver changes in direction and mood with alacrity.
Other jazz trios may engage an audience more quickly and easily, but the Perez band reaches for something deeper – and, on this night, attained it more often than not.