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Jelly rolling back the years

Panamanian pianist Danilo Perez is clear about one thing: you must get back to your roots.
WHILE WE can take Jelly Roll Morton's claim to have invented jazz (all by himself, in 1902) with a pinch or two of salt, he was right on the button when he identified what he called "the Latin tinge" as one of the defining characteristics of the new music. Throughout the century, Afro-American improvisation has intermingled with the musical modes of Latin America (heard in the seaport of New Orleans long before jazz was invented, by Morton or anyone else), to the extent that you'd be either a fool or a segregationist to try and say exactly where one leaves off and the other begins.

For the Panamanian pianist Danilo Perez - who comes to London to play the Pizza Express from next Wednesday to Saturday - the subject is something he has given a lot of thought to. His own music is also a wonderful testament to the happy co-existence of the two strains: it swings like the clappers to a clave beat, but it takes in the great tradition of ballads and blues in as "classic" a manner as anyone could wish for.

"What Jelly Roll Morton said was really true", Perez says. "He said that Latin music is what separated ragtime from jazz, because of the syncopation. And did you know that WC Handy - the father of the blues - wrote "St Louis Blues" just after he had served with the American army in Cuba?"

Perez says he first became conscious of how deeply-rooted Latin American music was when he began to play with Wynton Marsalis's band. "They're from New Orleans - the island connection is so strong there that I actually consider it part of the chain - and the way they play swing is like Latin music. I started to research Second Line beats and found lots of clave- related patterns. I was also playing Thelonious Monk's music at the time and I found a lot of those patterns in his tunes too, the same habanero and clave beats that Morton was talking about. Monk retained that percussive- feeling in his music, from before jazz got divided between classical and Afro-American styles."

Accordingly, Perez's last album, Pana-Monk, treated the compositions of Monk to a further Latin makeover. His new album, Central Avenue, goes deeper still, and features, on the track "Panama Blues", a folk-singer from the country's rural interior, Raul Vital, who sings a "mejorana" - a kind of deep Latin soul ballad - which is stunningly different to what we think Latin music sounds like.

"I went down to Panama for a day to record him, and when I hear the blues in his voice, I say `My God'," Perez says. "Through Dizzy Gillespie [with whom Perez played in the United Nations All-Stars until the great trumpeter and advocate of Latin music's death in 1993] I was inspired to keep going deeper, and to explore further than Cuba - to Panama and South America, where the African culture and the Indian culture meet. The way Vital sings is almost Middle Eastern, and if you play for any Panamanian band, that voice is the voice of the people from the countryside."

Perez's father, Danilo Sr, was a singer with dance bands in Panama City, and the new album acts as a kind of homage to the jazz heritage of a country which has produced, among many others, the saxophonists Carlos Ward and Carlos Garnett, and the drummer Billy Cobham. "One of the things Dizzy taught me was to learn about my own heritage even more than I knew already," Perez says. "He said it was more important for jazz for you to get to what your own roots are, than to learn about other things."

Jelly Roll Morton would surely agree, although he would insist that he got there first.

Danilo Perez and his trio play the Pizza Express, W1 (0171-439 8722). from Wed-Sat. `Central Avenue' is on Impulse Records