Daniel Villarreal – Panamá 77

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The rare artist on the International Anthem label roster that mostly falls outside the realm of jazz, Chicago’s Dos Santos—comprising musicians of Mexican, Panamanian and Puerto Rican descent—play music that’s simultaneously disparate yet interconnected. Their 2021 album City of Mirrors built connective tissue between cumbia rhythms, psychedelic atmosphere, surf-guitar riffs and an at-times Radiohead-like sense of art-rock ambition—and sure, a little jazz as well—reflecting less any particular study or commitment to any one genre so much as finding the space where they can all coexist in unpredictable harmony.

Panamá 77, the debut album by Dos Santos drummer Daniel Villarreal, is very much a jazz album, by comparison, though even that feels like an oversimplification of the varied and exploratory sounds that come tumbling out of each track. In much the same way that his band filters many different sounds and lived experiences into a fluid yet ever-changing blend, Panamá 77 feels like an autobiography through song, paying tribute to the Latin roots music that Panama native Villarreal was raised on, as well as the rebellious spirit of punk, which is where his musical journey began decades ago.

If there’s a constant on Panamá 77, it’s groove, which seems appropriate given that the artist behind it, by definition, is a rhythm keeper. That groove is always shifting, swirling through polyrhythmic spiritual Afro-jazz on opener “Bella Vista,” easing into a psychedelic waltz in “Ofelia,” and tumbling into a funky, synth-laden strut on “Parque En Seis.” That rhythm, whatever shape it takes, is always tight but loose-limbed, and feels fresh even when paying tribute to Villarreal’s influences, like “Patria,” a nod to Panamanian organist and composer Avelino Muñoz.

While this is in many ways a personal album, given that the music here is telling Villarreal’s story through melody and rhythm, it’s also one in which he’s happy to give his long list of collaborators a chance to shine. Irreversible Entanglements trumpeter Aquiles Navarro lends some bright exclamation-point flashes of horns to psych-dub standout “Uncanny,” and guitarist Jeff Parker’s signature, buttery tone glides over the buoyant pulse of “In/On.” Marta Sofia Honer likewise deserves special mention as well for her gorgeous string arrangements on “18th & Morgan,” a laid-back summertime groove in the vein of late ’60s-era Quincy Jones, with a warm, humid atmosphere you can practically feel on your skin.

Though jazz is at the core of Panamá 77, in its collaborative nature and loose progressions, in its embrace of unpredictability and above all, groove. But it often feels like a really good DJ mix, Villarreal playing selector as he transitions from a harder funk rhythm to a sultry slow jam, or from a more traditional Panamanian sound to the kind of shape-shifting style definable only by the International Anthem community of which he’s now a part. It probably also shouldn’t come as any surprise that Villarreal is, in addition to everything else, a DJ. To engage with Panamá 77 is to understand the sounds that shaped the artist behind it, and with any luck those same sounds will guide the listener to continue to dig deeper into those roots and influences. Simply enjoying it, however, is automatic, its warmly melodic and wildly animated mélange of sounds made for nonstop summer listening.

Label: International Anthem

Year: 2022

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