Image from Annual Report

Two of the world’s most influential and innovative jazz artists today — Panamanian pianist/composer Danilo Perez and Cuban drummer/composer Dafnis Prieto — brought their trios to WestConn as featured performers in the 15th Annual WCSU Jazz Fest from April 30 through May 2.

The Dafnis Prieto Trio performed with the WCSU Jazz Orchestra under the direction of Assistant Professor of Music Jamie Begian on May 1 and the Danilo Perez Trio was featured in concert on May 2 in Ives Concert Hall.

Faculty and student performers from the WestConn music department presented two free concerts to kick off the festival on April 30. A matinee concert featured a seven-member WCSU Jazz Faculty Band playing with a select group of eight WestConn music students. Performances by the WCSU Jazz Sextet, Jazz Ensemble and Jazz Faculty Band showcased faculty and student artists in an evening concert.

Critically acclaimed for his pioneering recordings and live performances of his unique blend of pan-American jazz, Perez has led his own jazz groups since the early 1990s, earning Grammy nominations for his “Motherland” and “Central Avenue” albums. He continues to perform with award-winning artists including the Wayne Shorter Quartet, recipient of a Grammy Award in 2006 and Best Small Ensemble of the Year honors from the Jazz Journalists Association in 2002 and 2004. Perez also received association nominations in 2001 and 2002 for Pianist of the Year.

“Danilo Perez has all the attributes of a performer, conductor, impresario and purveyor of musical expression, so greatly needed in these uncertain times,” observed the legendary jazz saxophonist and bandleader Wayne Shorter. “His effort to bring to the world a beacon of hope and inspiration … is a prime example of confidence in a future laden with cornucopian gifts for all humanity.”

Perez, who also serves as a good will ambassador for Unicef and cultural ambassador for his native Panama, leads a trio that also includes bassist Ben Street and drummer Adam Cruz. “Trust and deep knowing are the foundation for the spirited and soulful interplay among the musicians in this trio,” the biographical summary on Perez’s Web site noted.

“I know them very well, and we all try to practice brotherhood, love, equality and freedom in our personal lives and in our music,” Perez said. “All of us have become a family, and there is a feeling of celebration, of transcending communication when we play that is very magical to me.”

Prieto, a native of Cuba who emigrated to the United States in 1999, has made a dramatic impact on the New York and international music scenes over the past decade as a groundbreaking performer and composer in the Afro-Cuban, Latin and jazz genres. His three recordings to date — “About the Monks,” “Absolute Quintet” and “Taking the Soul for a Walk” — have earned widespread critical acclaim, with “Quintet” receiving a Grammy nomination for Best Latin Jazz Album and Prieto winning the 2006 Up and Coming Musician of the Year prize from the Jazz Journalists Association.

“In a remarkably fertile period for Latin-infused jazz in New York, the drummer Dafnis Prieto stands out for his energy, his creativity and, perhaps most of all, his borderless musical worldview,” wrote Nate Chinen in The New York Times. Noting his collaborations with leading contemporary jazz innovators such as Henry Threadgill, Chinen cited Prieto’s “forceful yet flexible sense of groove, derived from traditions of Afro-Caribbean hand percussion, but also informed by polyrhythmic post-bop. Prieto mines the same territory as a composer, with impressive results: He has written sweeping arrangements for the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra as well as compact missives for his own small groups.”

Reviewing “Taking the Soul for a Walk,” Larry Blumenfeld wrote in The Wall Street Journal that Prieto “has transformed Afro-Cuban rhythms to the trap set with a light touch and a gracefully deceptive manner of speeding up and slowing down tempos. These pieces are emotionally charged and stylistically diverse, carried along not just by rhythm but also through lovely harmonized passages and powerfully conjured moods.”