The members of the Wayne Shorter Quartet call their pianist Danilo Pérez "the galactic ambassador," and there's some truth in the nickname. His mission has a certain spatial quality of vastness: For a decade, he has been the cultural ambassador for his native Panama, where he runs the Fundación Danilo Pérez, and every January, he serves as a UNICEF World Ambassador at the Panama Jazz Festival, an event he created. At this year's opening ceremony, the first lady of Panama awarded Pérez the nation's highest honor for the arts, the Orden Vasco Nuñez de Balboa. That same night, Boston's Berklee College of Music named him the artistic director of the newly created Berklee Global Jazz Institute.
Providencia, Danilo Pérez's debut on Mack Avenue Records, stuffs a lot of directive into 50 minutes of music. Pérez and his eight-year-old trio, with bassist Ben Street and drummer Adam Cruz, are the pivot point. In "Historia de un Amor," a staple from Panamanian composer Carlos Eleta Almaran, Pérez and company move into a harmonic evocation of the song's central idea — the suffering of a love forever gone. There's also the quiet reclamation of "Irremediablemente Solo" by Avelino Muñoz, a man better known as an organ salesman in Puerto Rico than as a great bolero writer.
Pérez wrote the opening track, "Daniela's Chronicles," for one of his two daughters. It takes up one-fifth of Providencia, and forms a multi-part suite about adolescence. Percussionist Jamey Haddad lends all manner of rhythmic support, as he does throughout the recording. Alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa elevates the tension in "Galactic Panama," "The Oracle" and "Cobilla," and his thicket of Indian-rhythm-based improvisation is a kinetic kin to the pulsing tamborito style underneath it all. It totally makes sense.
An impromptu studio duet between Mahanthappa and Pérez created "The Maze," cut into two excerpts and released as distinctive miniature compositions. Portuguese singer Sara Serpa adds some incandescent wordless vocals to "Cobilla" and the title track, and a wind ensemble washes over an isthmus of jazz, classical and Latin music in two versions of a Pérez original, "The Bridge." In other words, there's a lot going on here.
Providence is not always about religiosity. It can be a signal to prepare for things unseen, or a ready invitation for future eventualities. Danilo Pérez is approaching his mid-40s, and he seems far busier dreaming his own impossible dream than tilting at the windmills of commercial success. At at time when most mid-career jazz musicians fade into neglect from the cottage industry around them, Providencia reveals an important artist gauging ambition with his most powerful tool.
Providencia will stream here in its entirety until its release on August 31. Please leave your thoughts on the album in the comments section below.