The Jazz Legacy of Jim Pepper: An American Original

CD: John-Carlos Perea’s First Dance

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originally published by AllAboutJazz

by Bill Siegel

jcperea2005.jpgWhat do a Mescalero Apache electric bassist, a Michoacan-Mexican percussionist, a Chicano guitarist, a Nicaraguan-Jewish drummer, and French-Iranian, Argentine and Chinese-American saxophonists have in common with John Coltrane and Jim Pepper?

The answer comes in the form of John-Carlos Perea’s First Dance. Perea – who plays fretted and unfretted electric bass – produced the CD and composed all but one of its cuts. First Dance is a testament to, and a statement of, Perea’s identity as a modern urban Indian and his love of Coltrane’s and Pepper’s music.

Joining Perea are Mario Barrera on percussion, Chris Gonsalez Clarke on electric guitar, Elliot Humberto Kavee on drums, Enrico Del Zotto on alto sax, Hafez Modirzadeh on alto clarinet (as well as alto and tenor sax), and Francis Wong on soprano and tenor sax. This gathering of talents claiming the heritage of so many countries, ethnicities and musical traditions could give a whole new meaning to the concept of “world music.”

Highlights are Perea’s “Blues for My Blood Quantum” and his rendition of Coltrane’s “Naima.” Perea deftly makes “Naima” his own – remaining true to its spirit while transforming it into a jazz-infused expression of his Native American identity. (He told me once that “Naima” is his window into the work of the late Native American saxophonist Jim Pepper, who frequently performed it and whom Perea credits as both a major musical influence and a role model.)

‘Naima’ is one of the most beautiful love songs ever composed,” Perea says; he also says that it reminds him of love songs played by Northern Plains Indians on cedar flutes. He opens his nine-minute rendition with a soulful, unaccompanied chanting of the “Naima” melody that you may find yourself wishing would never end. Instead, after two minutes of chant, Perea picks up his bass and is joined by Kavee and Barrera on percussion and drums. An updated Trane-esque chorus of reed players is layered over the earthy rhythms, reminding us of the song’s origins. When the horns suddenly drop out, we’re treated to an extended percussion/guitar tour-de-force. The reeds return with the melody and ease the tempo down, grounding the listener (and, presumably, the musicians themselves) in a wholly satisfying manner.

With “Naima,” Perea brings himself full circle. “My first experiences listening to jazz revolved around the music of John Coltrane,” he recalls. “It was through his music that I first began to hear the parallels between American Indian music and jazz and how the two could function together at the same time.”

In a different vein entirely, “Blues for My Blood Quantum” conjures up visions of TV-Hollywood images of American Indians and, as Perea describes it, brings together “all the worst qualities of the more insidious American Indian stereotypes that have become accepted parts of our popular culture.”

Modirzadeh gives the piece an unmistakably modern sound and feeling, in counterpoint to Clarke’s almost-comic electric guitar riffs which provide a twangy TV-Hollwood backdrop. The piece is punctuated in unexpected spots with radio-show horses’ hooves clip-clopping across the tongue-in-cheek, and yet deadly serious, landscape. Towards the end of “Blood Quantum,” the tempo suddenly accelerates with Kavee interjecting a quick but decidedly Jewish hora dance interlude.

First Dance is a forcefully political CD, and yet a highly personal statement for Perea. The integration of improvisatory jazz and traditional ethnic musical forms can be a powerful weapon in the struggle to preserve cultural identity. For Perea, it’s a choice he can’t avoid. “By holding our American Indian identity hostage to popularly perceived stereotypes of ‘purity’,” he says, “we doom our culture to a quick death.”

But works like First Dance will surely help relegate that “doom” to the dustbin of history, to borrow a phrase from Leon Trotsky.

Visit John-Carlos Perea on the web.

John-Carlos Perea
First Dance
Aerep Music (2001)

Track Listing: Opening Prayer; First Dance; Blues for My Blood Quantum; Naima; Three for Phil McGee; Closing Prayer.

Personnel: John-Carlos Perea fretted and fretless electric bass, American Indian cedar flute, voice; Mario Barrera congas, timbales; Enrico Del Zotto alto sax; Chris Gonzalez Clarke electric guitar; Elliot Humberto Kavee drums; Hafez Modirzadeh alto clarinet, alto and tenor sax; Francis Wong soprano and tenor sax

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Written by Bill Siegel

February 26, 2008 at 10:12 pm

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