The Boston debut of Danilo Pérez’s “Panama 500” project was a bedeviled affair, but ultimately sublime. Originally scheduled for four shows over Saturday and Sunday, it was reduced to two, thanks in part to bad weather. So the 7 p.m. Sunday show was sold out, with a waiting list, including, evidently, a few Valentine’s Day dates who seemed bewildered by what they were seeing (“I think that’s an alto saxophone,” said a gentleman at our table). There were some walkouts.
Pérez frontloaded the show with a previously unannounced 30-minute performance by an octet of students from the Berklee Global Jazz Institute, which he has created while teaching at the school. And then Davíd Carrasco, a professor of Latin American studies from the Harvard Divinity School, talked about Pérez and essentially read his impressionistic liner notes from Panama 500. Liner notes are generally better left on the page.
Panama 500 is arguably the distinguished 47-year-old pianist and composer’s finest achievement. Over the years, audiences have come to know him mostly as the leader of a superb trio and as a member of the Wayne Shorter Quartet. But he has written large-scale works such as Panama Suite for big band. As for Panama 500, it’s not necessarily the size of the orchestration (there are usually not more than eight or nine players on a given track), but the conception that makes the piece large. A kind of historical portrait of Panama, from Balboa’s “discovery” of the Pacific Ocean up through the present, it incorporates folkloric percussion and recitation by the indigenous Guna people as well as passages for solo piano and piano trio. At times, Pérez layers various languages — dissonant modern chamber music (with parts for violin and cello) on top of ancient percussion.
At the Scullers, Pérez was with his longtime trio mates, bassist Ben Street and drummer Adam Cruz, as well as violinist Alex Hargreaves (a former Berklee Global Institute student) and Cuban percussionist Roman Díaz. The first section of the set was episodic, alternating piano interludes with attractive fiddles tunes, all driven by a variety of grooves as well as mixed-meter passages from the rhythm section. But the musical narrative didn’t feel as clearly delineated as on the album. On the other hand, Hargreaves is a real find — he tossed off some impressive virtuoso flourishes throughout the night, but he was most impressive in his thoughtful deliberation, his responses to Pérez’s piano, his odd double-stopped dissonances, his simultaneous grasp of folk-song form and jazz harmony. With his instrument, he linked ancient and modern. And you sensed him listening and creating every step of the way.
The set truly lifted off following a trio performance of Pérez’s ballad tempo piece from the album, “Gratitude.” That’s when Pérez went into a kind of free fantasia on themes from Thelonious Monk that more or less settled into the skittering lines of “Think of One.” This turned into towering trio performance in an odd-metered groove, with Pérez’s left hand shouting the rhythm and harmony as Street’s bass danced around it in odd, free patterns. Cruz meanwhile held the groove while layering it with further detail. Somehow, in the midst of all this freedom, the trio kept falling into cadences together. The music reached a climax that brought down the house.
From there things loosened up. Díaz’s deep, elemental rhythms and rich tonal colors were a tonic, especially when, accompanying his own half-sung recitation, he locked into a clave laid down by Cruz and Pérez on rhythm sticks. In cap, shades, goatee, and broad smile, Díaz was a charismatic presence, and soon Pérez had the room singing along with him. By this point, Pérez’s wife, the alto saxophonist Patricia Zarate had joined the band, and she too achieved a peak, riffing on the band’s grooves and bringing the crowd to set-closing cheers.
Between songs, Pérez spoke about his excitement for the musical culture in Boston and talked about having lived here for 28 years, traveling between Boston and Panama. When he said, “I’m so proud of this city,” someone in the audience responded, “We’re proud too.” It was hard not to hear it as a moment of unspoken allusion to the Marathon bombings. The “too-muchness” of the show was of a piece with Pérez’s generosity. When the world is a mess, why should good will be tidy?