The best of musical partnerships begin on solid, common ground. For pianist Danilo Perez and soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, who play together in Zankel Hall on February 4, an affinity for the compositions of late jazz piano icon Thelonious Monk provided this common ground.
Not surprisingly, the elder Lacy has studied and championed Monk's compositions for a long time‹since the 1950s, well before Monk's music was part of the standard lexicon of jazz bandstands around the world. "Everybody is playing Monk now, so it's no longer my job to promote him," Lacy said in a cover story in the October 2002 issue of DownBeat. "But on the other hand, I started first, so I'm further along than they are."
Lacy has the right to such bold proclamations, as he performed with Monk for a short period and is one of the foremost experts on his music. And as a creative improviser who has thrived by stretching the boundaries of the music, Lacy perks up when he catches wind of something new and innovative.
He first took notice of Perez upon hearing the Panamanian pianist shift Monk into fresh terrain on the 1996 album Panamonk (Impulse!). On this album, Perez offered Latin reconceptions of Monk standards such as "Monk's Mood," "Bright Mississippi," and "Reflections," as well as several Monk-inspired originals. This recording definitively announced to the jazz world Perez's prowess as a bandleader and innovator.
After Lacy heard the 37-year-old Perez perform live at a festival in Spain, the seeds were planted for their collaboration. "The Monk connection between Danilo and me is like the relationship I had with Mal Waldron," Lacy says. "Mal and I played together thousands of times, for years and years. The starting point with him was the music of Monk, just as it was with Danilo."
Lacy has definitely not reached the level of collaboration with Perez that he did with the late Waldron‹in fact, their collaborations are of a more recent vintage, dating only five years‹but the two have a rare simpatico that has captivated audiences in locations such as Chicago, Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C. "We do mostly my compositions as a duo, and then we get into a Monk, an Ellington, or something like that," Lacy says.
"The first time we played together, which was in Toronto, it felt so good right away," Perez says. "It was so natural and organic. One of the things that Steve does is challenge your story. By that, I mean that he makes you think about your perspective on the music. If there's a chord that you like to play, you have to think if that's the sound that works best with Steve. With him, you can't always do what you are used to playing, so this inspires your creative mind."
Outside of the Monk quotient, why do Perez and Lacy work well together? "That's a question that nobody can answer," Lacy says with a laugh. "Why can you dance so easily with one woman and with another you step on her feet? It's a beautiful partnership. It's been a great pleasure to play with him. My simple explanation is that he is great."
Lacy's recent move from Paris to Boston to teach at the New England Conservatory of Music, where Perez also teaches, has definitely helped to accelerate the duo's partnership. They spend time at each other's houses, discuss music as often as possible, and write compositions to perform together.
"Danilo was one of the reasons I came to Boston," Lacy says. "It was time for me to get out of Paris, and the teaching post gave me a point of departure. It's been wonderful working here. The faculty is dynamite, as are the students. Plus, the school is very flexible: I can go on the road, do various things, and still come back and teach."
Perez, too, has been traveling a lot lately. His breathe-as-one trio with bassist Ben Street and drummer-percussionist Adam Cruz has been touring steadily since the release last summer of his album ...Till Then (Verve), including a performance at the inaugural Panama Jazz Festival in September. (The trio will be featured in the February 4 concert at Zankel Hall.) Perez served as artistic director of the three-day festival in his native country, for which he has been a Cultural Ambassador since 2000.
In 2004 Perez's music will emerge from a far different perspective than it did when he recorded Panamonk in 1996. This is due in no small part to his work for the past three years in the acclaimed quartet of saxophone legend Wayne Shorter.
"Music is not the same for me now," explains Perez of how playing with Shorter, bassist John Patitucci, and drummer Brian Blade has shifted his perspective. "There's less about the expectation of applause. That's gone now. The feeling of having to do a great concert is going away. I have begun looking for that moment when creativity takes over. Music is a unifying factor. You can create equality through music. Equality is totally based in freedom. Wayne's a perfect example of that. He makes us feel equal. And then freedom creates love and compassion. It's not on musical terms. It's about communication. And this is on a very real human level. Music is a celebration of living."
This celebration resonates in ...Till Then, as Perez's piano has never sounded more free, spontaneous, and mature. Seemingly minimalist compositions expand to expose layer after layer, until Perez unveils a deep, rich concept. Expect the same sense of adventure from this trio live, as well as when Perez improvises with Lacy in the most vulnerable of musical scenarios, the duo. Minimalism will expand into satisfying structures.
"Really, we are just getting this collaboration started," Perez says. "Every time we take the stage, Steve and I take another step toward being one."
Jason Koransky is the editor of DownBeat magazine.