“I think we’re in a world where we have to decide what we are and we can’t be more than one thing,” says Patricia Zárate Pérez, seated a few feet from the drum kit and grand piano dominating the office of Berklee’s Global Jazz Institute. A couple of hours later she would teach that day’s session of her graduate course on “Music Performance and Global Activism.”
Zárate Pérez has rejected such restrictions in her own life. She describes how she chose to study math in her native Chile rather than the humanities track saxophonists are typically guided toward, and how frustrating she found it when, applying for a master’s degree program in jazz performance at New York University after earning her undergraduate degree in music therapy from Berklee, she was challenged about whether she was a music therapist, an ethnomusicologist, or a musician. Why not all of the above?
“I’ve always been that way,” she says, having earned that NYU degree and now an assistant professor. “It’s not gonna change. I am a teacher here at Berklee. I play the saxophone. I’m a music therapist. And most importantly, since I was 29 years old, I’ve been a mother — and I’m a homeschooling mother.”
Zárate Pérez omitted several things from that list, high among them overseeing the Panama Jazz Festival, finishing up her work as a doctoral student in Global Inclusion and Social Development at UMass-Boston, and writing a book on the historical relationship between Panama and the United States through music.
Little wonder that it took her until age 45 to finally release her debut album as a leader, “Violetas,” which she will celebrate Friday with a performance at the Museum of Fine Arts.
Among the international cast of musicians performing with her will be her husband, renowned pianist Danilo Pérez, a native of Panama and longtime member of the Wayne Shorter Quartet. Pérez produced his wife’s album and is featured on it as well. The couple met 23 years ago, shortly after her arrival in Boston to begin her music therapy studies. Someone had suggested she check out Wally’s Café Jazz Club some Thursday for Latin Jazz Night if she wanted to speak Spanish. When she did, Danilo asked her to dance, they spent the entire evening doing so, and have been together ever since.
Danilo dismisses the suggestion that they’ll be reversing roles when he performs as Patricia’s sideman on Friday. ”I back her up all the time at home,” he says. “We have a dynamic back home. I have to carry out the trash. I support her music because I think she has a unique voice. I love her sound. She has a story to tell. That’s why I’m involved with it. To me it’s a very artistic choice, and I want her to have an opportunity for people to experience her music. So whatever she wants me to do to support her, I will be there.” He pauses a beat and laughs. “And then I go home and I have to carry the trash again.”
They’ll play one unrecorded song of Danilo’s at the MFA, “Beloved,” a tribute to Nobel laureate Toni Morrison. Patricia met Morrison at Harvard years ago, is a big fan of her books, and devotes a session of her Berklee class to Morrison’s novel “Jazz.”
Everything else played Friday will come from the new album, which is equal parts personal and political. It opens with one of two covers: Danilo’s arrangement of the Víctor Jara’s “Ni Chicha Ni Lemona,” a song Zárate Pérez describes as being about political opportunists. A leading folk singer and political activist, Jara was arrested, tortured, and murdered within days of the 1973 coup that installed Augusto Pinochet as Chile’s dictator.
“The harmony in the arrangement is hard and nasty,” Zárate Pérez says of her album’s version of the tune. “I tell Danilo, ‘There is a lot of poison in those chords.’ You can’t really say, OK, this is a major chord, this is a minor chord. It’s difficult to find out even what key — at some point there is a key, but then it goes into another key. It’s a song that reflects that you’re not this or not that.”
Zárate Pérez wrote both music and lyrics for her four originals. "Continental Cliff” is an instrumental piece for sax, bass, and drums, performed on the album with drummer Nate Winn and Danilo’s Shorter Quartet bandmate John Patitucci, who also wrote the album’s liner notes.
The album’s title track is named for Violeta Parra, the mother of Latin American folk music, but also for Patricia’s own mother, Violeta Díaz Tapia, the first and only woman to have directed the neurology department at the University of Chile, as well as for Patricia’s love of flowers and the garden she created at her home in Quincy.
“Cuequita Triste” (“Sad Little Cueca,” cueca being Chile’s national folk dance) is a sentimental reminiscence of Zárate Pérez’s native country, and she says she plans on someday making an entire album of modern cuecas.
Her most deeply personal and political piece on the album is titled “Flaco,” for a common nickname for tall, thin Chilean men. It is dedicated to one such man, Zárate Pérez’s uncle Isidro Manuel Pizarro Meniconi, who was abducted and disappeared by the Pinochet regime on Nov. 19, 1974. Zárate Pérez’s father, also nicknamed Flaco, was forced to flee Chile because of his political beliefs when Patricia was 2, and she hasn’t seen him since.
“I had that song in my head for a long time,” she says.”Maybe 10 years. And I changed the lyrics many times. This is a very difficult subject for my family to talk about.”
But she wanted her uncle’s story told. Music and memory as therapy. She is mindful, too, that the 1.5 million Chileans who took to the streets to demand a new constitution last month represented 10 percent of the country’s population, and that the last time that large a proportion of the nation’s population took part in protests was in the Pinochet era. She doesn’t want the passage of time to cause people to forget and assume “this will never happen to me.”
“I have no intention whatsoever in playing music that is not therapeutic,” says Zárate Pérez. “For me, for my family, for my children, for humanity — whatever you want to call it. I only want to make music that is going to be therapeutic, because that is my profession, that is who I am. I am a music therapist first before I am even a musician.”
PATRICIA ZÁRATE PÉREZ
At the Harry and Mildred Remis Auditorium, Museum of Fine Arts, Nov. 8 at 8 p.m. Tickets $20-$29, www.mfa.org