What Inspires Jazzmaster Danilo Pérez?

The Grammy-winning Berklee professor gets candid about music, his world and life in Boston as he releases his latest album

Grammy Award winner Danilo Pérez gets excited about music. The talented Panama native and Boston transplant leads Berklee College of Music's innovative and highly lauded Berklee Global Jazz Institute, which trains students to be ambassadors of jazz and to bring music to people around the world.

Pérez organized his own foundation in Panama that helps children living in poverty situations realize their music potential in order to establish a better world for themselves. "My whole concept is how music serves humanity and is in the betterment for humanity," he says. "There's a therapy there, a powerful therapy." 

Did we mention he's an UNESCO Artist for Peace and a Cultural Ambassador for Panama? Pérez recently wrote a commission for the Panama World Games [TORONTO 2015 Pan Am/Parapan Am Games] that premiered to incredible success, and he's releasing his latest album “Children of the Light,” a collaboration with John Patitucci and Brian Blade, his partners from the Wayne Shorter Quartet, on Sept. 18. We sat down with the jazz pianist to chat about the endeavors that have him traveling across the globe, and we learned what he loves about his adopted hometown.

"I'm Panamanian in birth, but I am a Bostonian definitely," he says. "I feel correct here. I get inspired. I'm getting younger being around so many creative minds. I've also had some pretty fantastic teachers here: Herb Pomeroy, Gary Burton, Donald Brown. It's been crucial in my development."

Berklee Global Jazz Institute's 2015 ambassadors (©Kelly Davidson)

How long have you lived in Boston?

It's two-faceted. I came here when I was 6 years old. I got out of Logan Airport, and I felt the energy and I said, "This is where I want to live when I'm an adult." So, from that, I moved here to study in '85. On and off I've lived in Boston, it's going to be about 30 years or so. This is my city. I've felt that since I was 6 years old.

What can listeners expect from your new album?

We have been a part of a very important group now, the Wayne Shorter Quartet. We met on a very interesting record in 2000 called "Motherland." Basically, we are brothers. This [album] is an organic evolution of where to take it. This is an exciting project for me because it's about family. It's about three people that love each other and want to bring light to the world. The three of us really believe that music, more than entertaining people, can bring a lotta light or a little light to the world. We are all from different backgrounds, but we believe in the power of music. 

Danilo Pérez, Brian Blade and John Patitucci release their album "Children of the Light" out Sept. 18 (©Anna Webber)

For our readers who aren't familiar with you as a contemporary jazz musician, can you describe what they might hear?

In this, they're going to hear adventure. They're going to hear cosmopolitan view on music. They're going to hear global jazz, a lot of diversity. Everybody brought a song, and there are a lot of distinct flavors. We are bonded by a love of jazz and improvisation and the lessons with Wayne, but we also brought cultural influences. I brought my Latin background, where I come from. Brian brings his flavor from the South—he's from Louisiana—and John is Italian background, so you know, we all bring in flavor and imagination and creativity. When we get together, the three of us, it's like three children playing in a playground. We are the music. Music lives in our bodies.

It's wonderful to be able to have joy in what you do.

Exactly, those words are great. Joy. Bring a lot of hope and joy to the world. We are finding that we are on a mission to bring light. That's why it's called "Children of the Light." 

Where do you perform locally?

We actually have a place at 1260 Boylston. We have music every week. 

Has Boston’s music scene changed much since you were a student at Berklee back in the 1980s?

I feel that Boston is a gem. It's a quiet storm. All the great ones pass through here. There is a lot of expansion going on at different schools like Berklee, and I think there's a lot more interest of people that instead of leaving or using [Boston] as a transitional part of their evolution they stay more. It's really a knowledge-based city. It's incredible how this city is evolving with such poise and excitement. I have seen more things growing, more diversity, more globalism.

What are the must-do experiences for people who are visiting Boston?

Boston is fantastic. At any moment you can turn into millions of events that the city has and also the universities have. There are many worlds, and everywhere many pockets of worlds, and millions of things happening at once. Sometimes, I think that's the challenge here. But, you gotta to see baseball at Fenway Park; you gotta get in and watch that.

Fenway Park (©Justin Hamel)

Are you a Red Sox fan?

Absolutely. But, you know, I'm disappointed this year. I suffer, so I stop listening. Patitucci is a big junkie and we always have this thing New York and Boston. Of course I always defend Boston, and this year he's like, "Guy, you've been thrashed man, they killing you." So, he's enjoying it. 

You sit down at a piano at your home with absolutely no agenda. You close your eyes and start to play. What might a fly on the wall hear? 

Right now, the main source of inspiration is coming from my children, and all the kids I'm working with. So, for example, like right now, if I'm sitting at the piano, which I'm going to do after we finish this very creative and intense, enthusiastic conversation, I may hear something, because I'm coming with a lot of different people whom I've met these couple of weeks. Sometimes, my inspiration comes from a theme, like for example, I wrote a piece to my son, it's called "Chocolito" and I make words. I make words, and I write songs to tell the story. It's almost like writing a soundtrack of my life. So I'm paying attention at every moment. If I hear a whistle from a bird that I like, I record it and start getting inspired.

If I hear some rhythm that you are talking right now, I might put it in music. So when I sit at the piano, I am kind of reviewing, telling the story of how I felt through the day or how my son is talking. It's completely unpredictable what could happen. It could be a melody, it could be a drum roll, it could be a word my son said. One of my daughters said "cohiyah." I made a song with that: bum bum bum, cohiyah cohiyah cohiyah, dun dun dun, do do. You know, like that. That's how I grew up with my father, using music to enter the world. Not as entertainment, but to use music to learn mathematics for example, to learn science, to learn to connect with people.

We are here and we want to connect deeper. I ask you to sing a song, and I sing a second voice. Basically the ideas of how music is relevant in our lives. My father is a teacher, so he taught me that way. He taught me to use music as a lens to view the world. That's the rhythm, the rhythm of life and the rhythm that we have with each other. That's what we connect with. We call it music, but it's actually an experience. A couple weeks ago [Wayne Shorter] talked about a quote from Mark Twain. I want to tell you because I think it will be beautiful; you'll get more feeling of where we're coming from. He said, "The two most important days in our lives are the day you're born and the day you find out why." You know what I mean? So that's what music is giving us. The music is to look for the why.

You're on the road so much. Do you get to take your family with you?

Yes, whenever we can. I have a big commission in Detroit [for the Detroit Jazz Festival]. I'm writing a new piece that connects Panama and Detroit, and Boston, actually. We're going to bring some students from the Global Jazz Institute. Because we have four days there, they are coming to be with me for those four days.  I am really excited about that. Sept. 4-7 "Detroit World Suite" is going to be premiered.

Playing with jazz heavyweights like Dizzy Gillespie and Roy Haynes you must have cherished memories from the stage?

With all of them, I've had experiences. But, with this group, with Wayne, Brian and John, I literally flew off the stage. I had that experience where I felt like levitation. I don't know how you can write that so it doesn't sound cuckoo. I remember three years ago in Montreal, around 2012. I felt like everything stopped for me, and literally I felt like I was levitating, and everything moved really slow. Patitucci described also a very unique experience, and Brian, too. So I went backstage, and I said to Wayne, "Wayne, you know, I felt like I was flying!" And he looked at me and said, "That's what I've been telling you that I felt with Miles Davis all the time!"

Panama Jazz Festival 2014 (©Eduardo Araujo)

Where are you headed next?

We are going to be out all the way to December. I am going out to Colombia, then I am coming back. We are doing some West Coast and a couple things with Wayne, and then we are going to tour with this trio for the rest of the year. We are preparing for the next Panama Jazz Festival, January 11-16. That's the next big event after all of this. 

Danilo Pérez’s Top 8 Places to Hear Live Jazz in Boston

Scullers Jazz Club (Courtesy Scullers Jazz Club)

Scullers

Regattabar

Berklee Performance Center

Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center

Ryles

Wally's

Cafe 939

The Beehive

Catch Danilo Pérez, Brian Blade and John Patitucci live at Sanders Theater on Nov. 20 at 8 pm, playing selections from their new album "Children of the Light" (tickets). Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston.

Leigh Harrington
About the author

Leigh formerly served as the Boston editor for Where and was the br...