Originally from Panama and now based in Chicago, Daniel Villarreal is a DJ, percussionist and drummer with several progressive alt-rock or folk-infused bands he co-leads such as Dos Santos, the Valebo duo or Yda Y Vuelta and which were all born out of the Latinx cultural hubs in North America. The drummer derives his style from a blend of popular Latin dance rhythms like Columbian Cumbia, Afro-Caribbean Salsa or Mexican Son with psychedelic rock, afrobeat, funk and jazz influences.
Following on from two well-received LPs with Dos Santos for the excellent Chicago-based International Anthem label, a 2019 impromptu gig in Los Angeles with a small ensemble sowed the seeds for what would become Daniel Villarreal’s first solo album.
Recorded over 5 sessions between 2019 and 2020 in three different locations, featuring 12 guest musicians and released on 20 May 2022 last, Panamá 77 is a fantastic instrumental album brimming with a vibrant creative energy. Released a year later, Lados B features unreleased music from the same performances and showcases Daniel Villarreal’s music in a striking trio formation.
This album is an affirmation of both my origin story and who I am today. I see my life and my music as a collaboration of improvisation and intention all in the spirit of community and joy.
Kicking off his musical journey as a member of various progressive punk bands in the 1990s in his native Panama, it wasn’t before he emigrated to the United States in the early 2000s that the musician started exploring his Latin roots and probing the rhythmic intricacies of percussive dance music traditions. Transposing those skills to the drum kit alongside an assortment of shakers, bells, congas, bongos, claves and tambourines, Daniel Villarreal gradually integrated the Chicago jazz scene from the 2010s onwards where he became a sought-after sideman.
All the tracks on his début album emerged from collective jams and impromptu sessions with a vast cast of different musicians including Jeff Parker on electric guitar, Cole DeGenova on keyboards, Anna Butterss on double bass, Elliott Berg on baritone saxophone or Aquiles Navarro on trumpet.
An undeniable euphoric spark immediately transpires from swirling riffs like “Ofelia” or “In/On”. Song titles like “I didn’t Expect That” or “Uncanny” underline the musician’s sense of wonder whereby some songs didn’t turn out exactly into what was expected at the outset. “I remember starting the main groove and Bardo [Martinez – bass guitarist] jumping in with a wacky bass line. We celebrated how weird it was even though we weren’t playing the same groove together, it came out in a strange, wonderful way that surprised us” recalls the drummer.
There are beautiful string arrangements for violin and viola (Marta Sofia Honer) on “Cali Colours” and the soul-funk “18th & Morgan”, the latter song a celebration of the Chicago strip in the Pilsen neighbourhood where the musician resides. Panamá 77 is also a record where the psychedelic funk of “Sombras” or the cosmic jazz-tinged “Parque En Seis” overlaps with the reprise of a haunting and vintage organ-led waltz (“Patria”) originally composed by Avelino Muñoz harking back to 1950s Panama.
Daniel Villarreal’s follow-on release features double bassist Anna Butterss and guitarist Jeff Parker and was recorded over two days at the same outdoor venue in Los Angeles on 15 and 16 October 2020. It is impossible to ignore the fact that those sessions are closely associated with another recording released last year and sharing a similar aura.
Mondays at the Enfield Tennis Academy
In 2018, guitarist Jeff Parker set up a residency with a rotating cast at the Enfield Tennis Academy, a small jazz club in the Highland Park neighbourhood of Los Angeles. Curated from dozens of shows and released on Eremite Records (US) / Aguirre Records (Europe) on 28 October 2022 last as a digital download and a double LP, Mondays at the Enfield Tennis Academy showcases four extended side-length tracks. Each track is named after the day they were recorded on and features a live quartet comprised of Jeff Parker on electric guitar, Anna Butterss on double bass, Jay Bellrose on drums and Josh Johnson on saxophone. The recording captures the performances in what is probably an ideal environment for jazz music – an informal setting and a small audience.
The mesmerising long form improvisations see the musicians take turns at leading and supporting and pluck magic out of thin air in the process. Changing direction on a whim, the quartet nevertheless sustains a head-bobbing hip-hop groove throughout the entire sessions. As the extensive notes suggest, “The music is more free composition than free improvisation, more blending than discordant.” – an approach that Jeff Parker has perfected from the mid-1990s onwards together with the post-rock band Tortoise, Isotope 217, as a leader or a hugely prolific sideman in recent years.
The recordings for Lados B therefore ran in parallel with the Los Angeles residency and one can assume that the performances for each distinct recordings share a similar artistic impulse and feed off each other creatively.
The “Chicali Outpost” where the sets were captured is not a recording studio as such but an outdoor backyard at the house of recording label International Anthem’s co-founder Scott McNiece which features on the cover of Panamá 77. To put the house gigs back in their original context, “[…] it was the first ensemble recording session they’d done in-person since the pandemic locked the world down just seven months prior”, hence perhaps the gleeful dedication on the part of the musicians at the opportunity to play live again after such a long break.
This feeling of musical liberation is illustrated with “driving” videos, (“Sunset Cliffs” for Lados B and “18th & Morgan” for Panamá 77), emphasising at that time the sense of rediscovered freedom to move around.
Australian-born and LA-based upright double bass player Anna Butterss is a driving force throughout Lados B. She is equally present on the energetic “Chicali Outpost” as on quasi ambient-jazz tracks like “Bring It”. The bass player already shared the stage with Jeff Parker on the Tennis Academy sessions as well as on the Los Angeles side to Makaya McCraven’s Universal Beings. On the indie scene, she can be heard alongside Phoebe Bridgers, boygenius, Aimee Mann or Jenny Lewis on the electric bass. Anna Butterss released her début solo album Activities in July 2022 last.
Translating as “B sides”, it would be easy to infer that the recordings are just surplus tapes that didn’t make the cut to feature on Panamá 77. On the contrary, the record pursues a similar musical spontaneity, but this time within the much tighter constraints of a trio formation with minimal post-production. There is no leader as such and the entire record plays like a blissful and free-flowing three-way conversation underpinned by Daniel Villarreal’s deep pocket groove on a huge array of percussive instruments – including a delightful marimba-like loop on “Things Can be Calm”.