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Panamanian pianist Danilo Perez made a triumphant return to San Diego after an absence of 11 years last night as a part of the excellent, ongoing, Athenaeum Jazz at the Library series, brought back by jazz programming coordinator Dan Atkinson.

The Grammy-award winning Perez has straddled the worlds of jazz and Pan-American music for some time. His talents have led him to important positions in the bands of icons like Wayne Shorter, Steve Lacy and Roy Haynes.

His current trio, with bassist Ben Street and powerhouse drummer Adam Cruz have been a working unit since 2004.

Street is a thick, solid player out of the tradition of say, Coltrane's Jimmy Garrison. He favors an irrefutable pulse over obvious multi-note virtuosity and was often the glue that kept this ensemble together.

Cruz has a world of jazz and Latin chops at his fingertips--what makes him so special is the discriminating fashion with which he employs them. He often began a tune with a stripped down approach-- carefully placed rim-shots, a crystal clear ride cymbal, and wicked martial snare drum cadences. When the music was ready to expand--Cruz would take it exactly where it needed to go by building a virtual wall of percussive sound--always in support of a greater dynamic purpose.

As for the leader, it's easy to see why Shorter drafted him into his first all-acoustic quartet in decades. Although he's got scads of technique--his playing is never about that. He's got a beautiful sound, and his harmonies are always open enough to encourage a myriad of solo possibilities.

Beginning with the sprawling, episodic "Panama 500," Perez posited pastel voicings over the shimmering cymbals and throbbing bass. As new ideas began to layer upon each other, Cruz interjected short bursts of drum dialog, which elicited cascades of rushing melodic content from the leader.

A ballad in almost-lullaby form followed--Perez's lines floating over the soft-rain-on-a-tin-roof brushes of Cruz. Street took an excellent, full-grained solo--reminding me of the great Scandinavian bassist, Palle Danielson.

Using the pedals, and darkly sketched chords, Perez let the melody of Monk's "Think Of One," sneak out slowly--finally emerging with a shock after some inside the piano plucking and a wave of energy filled by bass and drums. He even quoted "Eleanor Rigby," somewhere, for good measure.

The pianist explored "Round Midnight," alone, as a delicate rhapsody that found both hands moving in opposite directions to fully sculpt its inherent beauty.

For the better part of two hours the trio created exciting vistas of rhythm and harmony--depth and surprise. They even launched into a joyous reading of Stevie Wonder's "Over Time," for an out-of-the-box delight.

The acoustics were once again, sublime. When Cruz would make a small change in the spot on which he struck his ride cymbal--it was abundantly obvious. Small changes make big differences when you can hear.

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