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Taking Dizzy's music to exotic places

In a way, it was almost inevitable that the Panamanian pianist Danilo Perez would organize "Things to Come: 21st Century Dizzy," an exploration of the music of Dizzy Gillespie playing Friday night at Symphony Center.

Perez had worked in Gillespie's United Nation Orchestra in the 1980s, a role that not only helped launch Perez's international career but, equally important, tuned him in to Gillespie's global view of music. For with the United Nation Orchestra, and with musical experiments dating to the 1940s, Gillespie showed that the future of jazz would embrace cultural traditions from around the planet.

So when Perez takes the stage this evening, he'll be partnering with a far-flung collection of players, including Puerto Rican saxophonist David Sanchez, Iraqi-American trumpeter (and former Chicagoan) Amir ElSaffar and Indian-American saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa.

"I call Dizzy the global jazz ambassador," says Perez. "He spent his life looking for the common tones with Africa, with Latin America, even with India.

"He did a lot of experiments. He brought a lot of people from different backgrounds together."

None of Gillespie's cross-cultural ventures was more influential than his work in the 1940s with arranger Maurio Bauza and percussionist Chano Pozo, both Cubans. This groundbreaking partnership produced jazz classics such as "Tin Tin Deo," "Manteca" and "Cubana Be, Cubana Bop." It also opened new possibilities for Latin jazz and encouraged subsequent generations of musicians to explore their own cultural roots — through jazz.

Few of Gillespie's disciples have carried his mission of globalization further than Perez, whose work with saxophonist Sanchez and others during the past 20 years has brought vivid ethnic currents into jazz.

Which is precisely Perez's goal.

"The way Dizzy talked to me at the end of his life, I felt really responsible" to continue Gillespie's mission, says Perez.

"When you played with Dizzy, you found yourself with people from so many different backgrounds. He encouraged us to look for the common tones in our own music and in our own roots. He always talked about Latinos learning more about jazz, and jazz musicians learning more about Latin America.

"I think his Bahai faith also played a role in this desire."

For Friday night's program, Perez and friends will be applying Gillespie's lessons to Gillespie's music, with several of the musicians creating world-music versions of classic works such as "Salt Peanuts" (reimagined by Mahanthappa), "Manteca" (newly arranged by Perez), and "Woody 'n You" (rewritten by Sanchez).

Even reconceived via the techniques of India, Panama and Puerto Rico, however, these tunes convey Gillespie's central message, says Perez.

"When I play his music, I feel very optimistic," says Perez. "His music brings a joyful experience. This is one of the things that we have to keep in jazz."


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