CD Review: Danilo Perez “Across the Crystal Sea”

Danilo Perez

“Across the Crystal Sea” (Decca)

By Don Heckman

Unabashed lyricism is the goal – desired and achieved – in this remarkable collaboration between composer/arranger Claus Ogerman and pianist Danilo Perez.

Danilo Perez
Danilo Perez

The concept is similar to the 1965 album, “The Bill Evans Trio with Symphony Orchestra,” in which Ogerman adapted classical themes into settings for jazz piano trio and orchestra.  And, as gorgeous and memorable as that collaboration was, there is something equally fascinating about this partnership.

Different in approach, it positions both participants as extraordinary composer/arranger/performers – Ogerman with the orchestra, Perez with the piano (and the backing of bassist Christian McBride, drummer Lewis Nash and percussionist Luis Quintero).  The result is a classic outing, underscoring Ogerman’s great orchestral skills, while thoroughly identifying Perez as one of the most imaginative, lyrical pianists of his generation.

Five of the eight tracks are based upon themes by classical composers: Hugo Distler, Jean Sibelius, Manuel de Falla, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Jules Massenet.  Two standard songs – “It’s A Lazy Afternoon” and “(All of a sudden) My Heart Sings” – are rendered by Cassandra Wilson.  And the final work – “Another Autumn” – is a nearly ten minute excursion through an original piece by Ogerman.

The title track is based on a choral theme – from the Moerike Songbook Op. 19 — by the German composer Hugo Distler.  Although the original music reflects Distler’s melancholic qualities (he committed suicide in 1942 at the age of 34 to avoid serving in Hitler’s Wehrmacht), Ogerman interprets it with a trace of Caribbean rhythm, opening a lush, oceanic space for Perez’s floating improvisation.

Here, as elsewhere, Ogerman’s mastery of orchestral timbres is never less than astonishing.  The strings play with a textural sheen recalling the sound of the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy, and even the most striking harmonic dissonances emerge as emotion-gripping masses of sound and feeling.  Always acknowledged as an orchestrator, Ogerman receives too little credit for what he brings to a project, for his capacity to reach far beyond the creation of attractive ensemble sounds.  Like Gil Evans, everything he touches emerges as a kind of re-composition, a newly imagined view of existing melodies, harmonies and rhythms.

Other highlights include “The Purple Condor,” with Spanish textures based on Nana from Manuel de Falla’s Six Popular Spanish Songs.”  Perez takes the opportunity to move beyond jazz invention, with a spontaneous, creative addendum to Ogerman’s orchestration.  Similarly, listen to what Perez does with the introductory piano chorus to the deceptively simple, descending scalular melody of the ballad “(All of A Sudden) My Heart Sings.”

Wilson, moving beautifully through dark, Shirley Horn-like chest tones, adds the right lyrical touch to her two numbers.  Especially “Lazy Afternoon,” in which she captures the song’s mysterious underpinning: “If you hold my hand and sit real still you can hear the grass as it grows.”

Which provides a pretty good paraphrase about how to enjoy this thoroughly intimate, emotionally moving CD:  Sit real still and feel the music as it grows.

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