Jazz Interview ‘I am a jazz musician born in Venezuela’

LUIS PERDOMO, born in Caracas, Venezuela in 1971, is one of the great jazz pianists of the Americas. An integral part of the quartet led by Puerto Rican alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon, along with bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer Henry Cole, he figures strongly on the quartet’s new album, Musica de Las Americas.

I asked him about his musical life and the insurgent sounds of the album.

He grew up in a family that loved music. His mother was a nurse, his father employed by the American firm Proctor & Gamble (the multinational health products company).

Several of his uncles were professional musicians, and it was his father, playing by ear, who first taught him songs on the piano at the age of seven.

“When I was 12 or 13, I became interested in Latin jazz. My dad always listened to Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Oscar Peterson and Ray Bryant. Then I heard a quintet on a local jazz TV show play something that sounded like salsa but with something else in it – improvisation.

“My first piano teacher was the Austrian Gerry Weil who taught me to keep my mind open to all types of music. I started playing professionally at 12, but my first jazz gig was at 15.

“Then I moved to New York in 1993, on a scholarship to study at the Manhattan School of Music. My main teacher was the brilliant Harold Danko, but I also took lessons with Jackie Byard and studied piano classical with Martha Pestalozzi and I also had the good fortune to study with Sir Roland Hanna at Queens College.

The Musica de Los Americas album explores and celebrates the tradition and groundbreaking roots of Latin American and Caribbean music.

I asked Perdomo why he thought music was so central to this tradition. “I feel like the music has aspects of the African people’s struggle. Sometimes people of the same tribe or even of the same family deliberately dispersed throughout the Americas and the Caribbean, in order to avoid riots and to break them spiritually. The music kept a sense of hope and connection between these people.

I asked him what it was like to play alongside the greater freedom and creativity of Zenon’s saxophone. “First there is this warm sound. Sometimes I find myself measuring the tone of other alto players like: this guy has a bright sound, this guy has a darker sound, this guy has more of a midrange – but then I realize the barometer is the sound of Miguel.

“The same thing happens to me with the tenors. I hear their timbre in relation to that of Ravi Coltrane (son of saxophonist John Coltrane), with whom I played for several years. Then, with Miguel, there is this rhythmic precision and that clarity of execution that I share and how I hear my own playing.

I asked him about his relationship with great Afro-Cuban pianists like Chucho Valdes and Gonzalo Rubalcaba. “I was able to meet them, spend time and listen to them in Venezuela when I was very young. I was always in awe of their playing. But music critics like to generalize and stereotype Latin musicians and think they will all playing Afro-Cuban music.

“I am a jazz musician born in Venezuela. That’s how I consider myself musically, even if that in itself is very narrow-minded. I’m on a much broader musical path than people assume when they say Latin or Cuban.

“As a pianist, I draw from Cecil Taylor to Glenn Gould, from Fats Waller to Kenny Kirkland, from Cesar Camargo Mariano to Papo Lucca. All are equal to me. So when I hear: ‘Luis Perdomo? You sound like a Cuban player!’ I roll my eyes and continue.

I asked him about the Quartet’s power of unity. “We all share the same love for rhythm and groove,” he said, “in all its forms: Brazilian, African, Caribbean – you name it! It’s definitely one of the ‘glues’ of the Quartet, each with a master of our instrument in terms of sound, technique and sound production.

“We are also very good friends who like to mess around and joke around, it also helps with the chemistry on stage. But the main unifying force is Miguel’s brilliant and methodical writing. After 22 years, he is definitely writing for us and to bring out the best in all of us.

Perdomo says he likes all the tracks on the album. “Each one has a different thing that I like. Some have a very heavy groove, some were extremely difficult technically, which I appreciate.

“For me, the most memorable tracks are Opresion y Revolucion, drawing on the Haitian voodoo tradition and featuring master percussionist Paoli Mejias, and the Antillano album finale, with Daniel Diaz’s raging congas.”

From Caracas to Granada, from Bolivar to Bishop and Castro and Che, from L’Ouverture to Sandino, there is a beautiful rebellion in the sounds of this haunting and throbbing album with the singing horn of Zenon and the piano-drum of Perdomo in full agreement with Glawischnig and Cole. Grab it!

Musica De Las Americas by the Miguel Zenon Quartet was released by Miel Music.