Panama-bred jazz pianist, composer, and educator opened himself up to some scrutiny after he announced during Saturday’s concert that this was his jazz trio’s first public performance. But although the players weren’t always on the same page, it was an impressive debut.

Perez’s trio included bassist Essiet Essiet and Adam Cruz on drums, and both men have impressive jazz credentials. Essiet has performed with jazz greats such as Jackie McLean, Benny Golson, Freddie Hubbard, Curtis Fuller, Abdullah Ibrahm, Cedar Walton, Louis Hayes, and especially the Art Blakely Jazz Messengers, while Cruz has performed with Chick Corea, McCoy Tyner, Eddie Palmieri, and Mingus Dynasty.

The set included a commissioned piece, a popular ballad, and the jazz standard “Stablemates,” the Benny Golson piece first recorded by Miles Davis. But the highlight of the concert was when Perez called Dr. Tim O’Dell to the bandstand with his soprano saxophone and announced to the audience that they would be performing “Lament,” dedicated to its legendary composer, J.J. Johnson, who had died the previous Sunday. (When he heard the news earlier in the week, Perez was almost in tears.) O’Dell outdid himself with his solo honoring the great trombone player over the accompaniment of Perez, Essiet, and Cruz.

Perez concluded his set with a blues in which he did an outstanding job of getting the audience involved. Perez created some Count Basie/Kansas City-style riffs with his melodica and easily got the audience to hum them.

The Augustana Jazz Ensemble took the stage under O’Dell’s direction for the first part of the concert, before Perez and his bandmates took the stage.

During the ’80s and early ’90s, the players in many college jazz ensembles I saw could read the notes with ease but had trouble when it came time to solo because they hadn’t been listening to jazz and obviously had no interest in it. This has clearly changed.

There were some tremendous soloists on Saturday night, and two of the best were Kevin Carrier – who really shined on his soprano solo on the ensemble’s opening number “The First Circle” by Pat Matheny – and drummer Bill Golden. And baritone saxophonist Nikki Bowen sound very nice playing Duke Ellington’s “Agra,” with a sound very close to the legendary Harry Carney himself. Tenor saxophonist Daniel Anderson showed exceptional talent with two of his compositions, “Casanova” and “Salty Pants,” both of which were performed by the ensemble.

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