The Danilo Pérez Trio tribute to Dizzy Gillespie was many things, including an invitation to relax. It was also a showcase and world première for Camino de Cruces, Pérez’s contribution to the 500th anniversary celebration of the founding of Panama. His three-movement crossover work for piano and string quartet involved the collaboration of the Cecilia String Quartet currently in residence at the University of Toronto. The four ladies of the CSQ (Min-Jeong Koh, violin; Sarah Nematallah, violin; Caitlin Boyle, viola; Rachel Desoer, cello) were required to relax into Pérez’s musical meters that are written in 6/8 time but are felt in 3/2 time: no easy feat, as Pérez explained. The CSQ players were also required to relax their strictly classical trainings to accommodate a fusion of jazz, blues, African, Latin and native Panamanian musical languages. The model of relaxation and its main invitation came from the performance by Jon Patitucci on bass and Brian Blade on drums who, joined Pérez for a first-set tribute to Dizzy Gillespie.

Danilo Pérez
Danilo Pérez

They opened with Dizzy’s signature “Night in Tunisia” (1942). Pérez set the mood of mystery, noodling around the theme. You could see Patitucci poised, listening for an opening to join in, and when he caught it, he let a lightly oscillating line begin to bounce that after a while Brian Blade eased into, ornamenting it with faint tingling and splashes of cymbals. Thanks in part to great work by the Koerner Hall sound man, the separation of their three voices was pure, yet the harmony among them was perfect. Pérez got the mellow colours of the vibraphone going on his keys; Blade let the liquefaction of his metal bubble up into a gallop of mallets on skins, and Patitucci playing arco and pizzicato beamed a non-stop smile that radiated the relaxation of this supreme collaboration. This trio have played together for about a dozen years in the Wayne Shorter Quartet.

The Trio talked a lot of bebop through “Tunisia”, and the next number, co-written by Gillespie and Pérez. They finished the set with Gillespie’s “I Waited For You”, in which the piano strings a blue tale through discordant scales that set Brian Blade off on a memorably gleeful solo. The next set started off with actual talking by Pérez and Cecilia violist Caitlin Boyle. The theme of their talk was breaking boundaries. One line of talk explored the European intrusion into Panama when Vasco da Gama crossed the Isthmus to discover the Pacific Ocean in 1513. It was interesting to hear Pérez describe the decimation of the natives and the development of African slave trade in the interest of commerce as a “cross-cultural experience”. And it was interesting to hear Caitlin Boyle talk about her exhilaration at playing in a jazz-based composition, an experience that made her feel more “alive” because jazz puts players on the spot to be “in the moment”, and to improvise. The actual performance of the work proved somewhat less interesting. The writing is at the edge of tonality, not much further out than you get in Benjamin Britten and Aaron Copland. Despite the difficult journeys it depicts, the music is pleasantly melodic and reassuringly contrapuntal, with a nice variety of harmonies, rhythms and textures. The music is not nearly as exciting as Pérez’s description of the program, images and stories he had in his head as he was writing.

The real relaxation into crossover came when Pérez invited the full Trio to play with the Quartet. He got the Cecilia to do “their thing” with a passage of Bach counterpoint that he imitated on the piano teased out with long rests between phrases in lovely jazz-ballad colours that don’t seem to be going anywhere in particular. The ever-vigilant Patitucci took his moment arco imitating the Bach melody then improvising as Blade rolled in on muffled tom-toms running through what seemed like piano arpeggios: the Cecilias came back with improvisations on their opening Bach theme, and they all went out together. For a closer, the septet reprised “Night in Tunisia,” with some amazing solos by the boys in the band relaxing into each other’s spaces and the CSQ ladies gamely on the outside looking in. Though short on excitement, the evening ended in a mood of quiet exhilaration that carried forward through the night and into this time of writing.