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The Learning Tree

Photo by Michael Halsband

In the 1960s, on the back of an album he titled Latin Mann, flutist Herbie Mann drew a map that charted the movement of Latin jazz from “Afro to Bossa to Blues.” The map he drew wasn’t actually a map, though; it was a metaphor for one. It took the form of a tree, a family tree, and at the roots of the tree were Africa, Spain and Portugal. Each root grew into a cluster of branches — Cuba and Puerto Rico out to the left, the blues straight up the middle, Brazil off to the right — and out of each grew twigs of musicians — Chano Pozo, Ray Charles, Laurindo Almeida — that sometimes hooked up and touched tips, and other times just dangled free of influence and collaboration.

What I’ve loved about the Panama-born pianist Danilo Perez since I first heard his 1994 album The Journey (Novus) — which mapped the passage of African music across multiple coordinates of jazz mutation in the Americas — is that like Mann he’s interested in music’s maps. But unlike Mann, he’s not so interested in how the maps are seen — as graphic markings on the back of LP covers — but how they are heard: their audio traces within the rhythmic codes and melodic changeups of musical performance itself.

Perez’s metaphor on The Journey was the ocean. He played a grand piano on the sand next to it on its cover and followed African music as it moved across the Atlantic, from “The Capture” and “Chains” to “The Arrival” and everything shekere, bata and djembe in between. It was the Latin-jazz equivalent of the O’Jays flipping the immigrant “coming to America” tale on its Eurocentric head by doing the gold-mountain dream as “Ship Ahoy” — a Middle Passage soundscape of whips cracking on African backs, cold, salty winds blowing over brine-encrusted decks.

Perez’s latest album, Motherland (Verve), is interested in the same territory: the music and maps that slavery made, the creativity born from the lies of liberty. But rather than The Journey’s insistence on constant movement and transformation, Motherland is concerned with what happens when movement rests — when African music touches down in a specific place, Perez’s home turf of Panama. Perez takes the blend of African, Spanish and Portuguese instruments and rhythms on tracks like “Panama 2000” and “Panama Libre” and — in the spirit of Dizzy and Schifrin doing hands across Latin America on “Panamericana” — holds them up as a model for a new Pan-American consciousness. Where The Journey was a document of the musical slave trade, Motherland is a document of the beautiful blessings social terror can produce.

By making music about the motherland of Panama and not — like Blakey, Dorham, Turrentine and so many others in the ’60s — the motherland of Africa, Perez composes a new Latin-jazz map into existence. Gushing, lush compositions like “Suite for the Americas” and “Song to the Land” come off as both gifts to the Americas and utopian imaginings of them — musical make-believes where Africans and Indians and Spaniards all get along in post–New World harmony. On “Rio to Panama,” Perez even needs to invent a rhythm, tambaiao (part Panamanian tamborito, part Brazilian baiao) to pull it off.

Instead of Mann’s tree and The Journey’s ocean, the bridge is Motherland’s metaphor (Perez stands beneath a Panamanian bridge on the album’s cover, and bridgespeak is everywhere in Ana Lucia Vlieg’s liner notes). It is also Perez’s way of acknowledging the complexity of his neo-Pan-Americana. Think of the Sixth Street bridge that connects and divides this city, or the bridge over the Rio Grande that joins and separates El Paso–Juarez. Bridges are vehicles of passage, emblems of connection, but they never stop being markers of division, i.e., a gap that is bridged never stops being a gap.

When The New York Times critic Ben Ratliff picked Motherland as his album of the year, he wrote that all of this signaled Perez’s role in “the musicological rethinking of jazz.” I get Ratliff’s point (especially because I find myself liking the music of Motherland for the ideas its sounds produce more than the sounds themselves), but it would be a shame to peg Perez as musicological — rather than musical — just because he thinks about what he plays. On Motherland, Perez does what musicians do all the time but never get credit for: theorize through music, not about it, draw maps with a piano, not a pen.

DANILO PEREZ | Motherland | (Verve)

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