Latin Jazz Conversations: Paquito D'Rivera (Part 4)


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When a musician moves into the mature stage of their artistic development, they carry a responsibility to themselves, their listeners, and the great musical community. After committing so many years of their lives to the art form, they need to make a significant statement that reflects their own personalities. At the same time, they need to show the world the musical possibilities inherent in unknown artists or young musicians. If they don't take these simple steps, the world will be robbed of a valuable exposure to culture.

Alto saxophonist and clarinetist Paquito D'Rivera spent years developing himself into one of the most influential artists in Latin Jazz, a position that he has used to sustain the vitality and history of the music. Guided by his father Tito, a strong classical saxophonist, D'Rivera developed solid skills on both the saxophone and clarinet as a child, leading to spotlights with the Havana Philharmonic while still a pre-teen. D'Rivera focused on jazz during his teen years, but had to put his interests aside when Fidel Castro's government outlawed the music. When the government changed its tune years later, they recruited D'Rivera as a member of the Orquesta Cubana De Musica Moderna, a big band that also boasted members like pianist Chucho Valdés, guitarist Carlos Emilio Morales, and bassist Carlos Del Puerto. After some time with the Orquesta, D'Rivera and several members of the group joined with Valdés to form Irakere, a distinctive blend of jazz, Afro-Cuban music, rock, and more. The band exposed D'Rivera to a world audience, but he still longed for greater freedom. In 1981, he defected while on tour with Irakere, and eventually made his way to New York. The Stateside jazz community embraced D'Rivera warmly, leading to work with Dizzy Gillespie, McCoy Tyner, David Amram, and more. D'Rivera formed his own group, recording a string of popular albums, and became a member of Dizzy Gillespie's United Nation Orchestra. As he became an increasingly prominent figure on the jazz scene, D'Rivera took the opportunity to honor several important Cuban musicians. He recruited Israel “Cachao" Lopéz for his album 40 Years of Cuban Jam Session, and later took part in the bassist's impressive revival. D'Rivera produced an album for pianist Bebo Valdés in 1994, Bebo Rides Again, capturing the public's attention and sending the legendary pianist into another stage of his career. A new group came together for D'Rivera in the nineties, a solid unit that included trumpet player Diego Urcola, bassist Oscar Stagnaro, drummer Mark Walker, percussionist Pernell Saturnino, and a rotating cast of pianists. The group has taken D'Rivera to the modern day, exposing this cast of powerful musicians to a new generation of jazz listeners. With every step of his mature career, D'Rivera pushed jazz and Latin music into the future.

D'Rivera's bold explorations as a young musician allowed him to share a well-developed musicianship as a mature artist that caught the world's attention. Fortunately for everyone, he shared that attention with a number of important Cuban musicians and upcoming artists. In Part One of our interview with D'Rivera, we looked at his young musical life, the influence of his father, and his first exposures to jazz. The second part of our interview focused upon D'Rivera's participation in the Orquesta Cubana De Musica Moderna, the evolution of Irakere, and his first meeting with Dizzy Gillespie. In the third part of our interview, we discussed D'Rivera's move to New York, his incorporation of a number of South American and Caribbean influences, and his early groups. Today, we dig into D'Rivera's role in the revival of both Cachao and Bebo Valdes, the formation of his current group, and more.

LATIN JAZZ CORNER: In the nineties, you had an impact upon Latin Jazz by bringing some of Cuba's legendary musicians into the spotlight. You had Cachao on 40 Years of Cuban Jam Sessionand you played on his Master Sessions Volume 1 & Master Sessions Volume 2 . . .

PAQUITO D'RIVERA: Cachao is a very special guy. He was so funny and he had such a great musicality. For some reason, he was known only for one type of music, but Cachao was one of most versatile contrabassists that I ever met in my life. He could play very good tango, jazz music, circus music, or whatever. He used to play in the Opera and the Havana Philharmonic for many years. He was a very versatile musicians and a loyal friend, a very sweet friend with a great sense of humor. He was very special for us. We almost daily remember times with Cachao.

LJC: You also helped revitalize Bebo Valdés' career with Bebo Rides Again—how did that album come together?

PDR: From the very beginning of my arrival in the free world, I always had the goal to produce an LP of Bebo Valdés. I used to visit him in Sweden every time that I went there with Dizzy or my own group. I would say, “One day when I grow my career, I am going to come to you Bebo." Then in 1995 I talked to a producer in Germany, and I said, “I want to produce Bebo Valdés, he has been out of the studio for thirty-four years." He said, “And this guy is still around?!?" I said, “Yea, he's in Sweden and I want to produce him." So we put together a group for the project and Bebo Rides Againwas a success. Every body liked him; I think I gave him fifteen more years of professional life!

LJC: That had Juan Pablo Torres on it as well . . .

PDR: Yes, and Amadito Valdes, and Diego Urcola, my trumpeter from Argentina is on that CD also. I am very proud of that product. Bebo was a very dear friend of my father, besides being a grand musician.

LJC: Also in the late nineties, you reunited with your Irakere band mates on Cuba Jazz—what was it like to play with those guys after so many years?

PDR: That was fun, but that CD didn't take off for some reason. We did that and it was fun, but it died right there. Nothing happened! But it was fun because Bebo was there. I had the goal to reunite Bebo and Chucho and that was the first time that it happened. I tried to do it in Bebo Rides Again, but it didn't work. Chucho was supposed to play there, but when the time came, he didn't take the plane.

LJC: By the late nineties, it seemed like you had your current group in place with Oscar Stagnaro, Diego Urcola, Mark Walker, and Pernell Saturnino. How did you get these musicians together and what do you think they bring to your music?

PDR: That is the best band that I've ever had. We've stayed together for the longest time, we have common goals, and the mentality is very similar.

Diego Urcola was a person that subbed for Claudio Roditi. When Claudio left the band to do his own thing, I was a little depressed. Then I got a call from Victor Mendoza—he's a vibraphonist from Chihuahua, Mexico, who has lived in Boston for many years and he teaches at Berklee. He called me and said, “Don't worry about it. I have a kid here who plays very well, more or less in the same style as Claudio, and he's a good guy like Claudio." That was Diego Urcola. Later on I asked Diego to play the valve trombone and he said, “O.K., I will try." Now he's amazing at that instrument!

I met Mark in Chicago; he's originally from there. He came subbing for Portinho. Somebody told me, “That guy, he plays Brazilian music like he was born there." So he has been with me ever since.

Alex Brown is my current pianist; I have had a collection of great pianists in my band. Alex is no exception.

Pernell is extraordinary. To give you an anecdote, I was playing in the Puerto Rico Heineken Jazz Festival with my sextet. After the show, Chick Corea came to me and said, “Where did you find that percussionist?!?" I said, “I saw him first!" Chick called him and Pernell recorded with Chick. Pernell is a very reliable player in all senses—he can play different styles of music and he's always on time . . . he doesn't behave like a percussionist! He's a very fine player and very dear friend. We call him The Bear because he looks like a bear on two feet.

Oscar was subbing for Lincoln Goines. In those days, my bassist was Lincoln Goines. He couldn't make a gig at the Regatta Bar, and he said, “I'm going to send you a guy and you will love him!" He was right! He has stayed with me for twenty years now.

LJC: In the past ten years, you've gone back and forth between classical music and jazz a lot more. How do you balance your interests between those two worlds?

PDR: For every musical style, you've got to do major or minor adjustments to play in them. When you play Stravinsky, you don't play the same way that you play Mozart. When you play the music of Louie Armstrong, you don't the same way that you play the music of Ornette Coleman. So for me, its just music. I just have to move the switch, and adapt to the different styles.

The other day I even sat in with Dave Matthews in Madison Square Garden. It was different—I am not used to that type of volume! He's a very good lyricist and there are very fine musicians in that band. It was an experience, a totally different experience!

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This story appears courtesy of The Latin Jazz Corner by Chip Boaz.
Copyright © 2021. All rights reserved.

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