Latin Jazz Conversations: Paquito D'Rivera (Part 5)


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Depth and diversity really define the magnitude of an artist's career, and determines the impact that their musical will have over time. Most artists pick a direction that dictates their musical output, but only a select few dig far into the history and potential of their chosen path. If they do, they rarely change course and continue their fully encompassing exploration. The ability to go in-depth in several different directions only exists in a rare breed of artist, and that artist will give us a wealth of important music.

Alto saxophonist and clarinetist Paquito D'Rivera has covered all these bases during the course of his highly charged musical life. Instructed in the intricacies of the saxophone and clarinet by his father Tito, D'Rivera graced the stage with the Havana Philharmonic while still a pre-teen. Jazz became his passion, and despite the wavering support of Fidel Castro government, he eventually became one of the island's leaders in the style through his work with the Orquesta Cubana De Musica Moderna. D'Rivera joined with fellow band mate pianist Chucho Valdés to form Irakere, and their explosive combination of jazz, Afro-Cuban music, rock, and funk took the Cuban musicians onto a world stage. The confines of the Cuban government took their tool upon D'Rivera though, and during Irakere's 1981 tour of Spain, he claimed political asylum and headed to the States. When he arrived in the States, D'Rivera found a welcoming community of jazz musicians that appreciated his presence, leading to work with a wide array of artists including David Amram, Dizzy Gillespie, and McCoy Tyner. D'Rivera formed his own group that brought together several of New York's top Latin Jazz artists, and a series of successful albums, along with a high profile position in Dizzy Gillespie's United Nation Orchestra, made him a widely respected jazz musician in the States. With some artistic credibility behind him, D'Rivera made some major efforts to pay tribute to the legends of Cuban music. He featured bassist Israel “Cachao" Lopéz prominently on his album 40 Years of Cuban Jam Sessionand produced pianist Bebo Valdés' long overdue return to the studio on Bebo Rides Again; as a result, both musicians experienced worldwide success in the later part of their careers. He also found a group of young musicians—trumpet player Diego Urcola, bassist Oscar Stagnaro, drummer Mark Walker, percussionist Pernell Saturnino, and a rotating cast of pianists—to form a new quintet that has fueled his work to the present. Still looking ahead, D'Rivera continued to dig deeply into new directions, starting with Tango Jazz: Live at Jazz at Lincoln Center, a collaboration with bassist Pablo Aslan. The recording features D'Rivera along with an all-star cast of Argentinean musicians that blend jazz and tango traditions in new and exciting ways. At the same time, D'Rivera expanded his core quintet to include instrumentalists from across the Caribbean and South America, recording the Panamericana Suite. This live recording showed the vast unexplored potential remaining in Latin Jazz, and D'Rivera's uncanny ability to ably traverse these realms. Moving into the future, D'Rivera continues to display an unbelievable thirst for new artistic experiences that drives him far into new musical horizons.

After a lifetime filled with cutting-edge musical experiences, D'Rivera could simply recreate his former successes, and most likely continue a comfortable career. His thirst for new artistic directions continues to fuel his creations though, making him a continually relevant and important artist on the modern Latin Jazz scene. In Part One of our interview with D'Rivera, we explored his early musical training, the influence of his father, and his first moves into jazz. We looked at D'Rivera's time with the Orquesta Cubana De Musica Moderna, the evolution of Irakere, and his first meeting with Dizzy Gillespie during the second piece of our interview. Part Three of our interview focused upon D'Rivera's move to the States, his early gigs in New York, and his time with Gillespie's United Nation Orchestra. In the forth section of our interview, we dug into D'Rivera role in Cachao's revitalized career, Bebo Valdés' resurgence, and the formation of his current quintet. As we complete our interview today, we investigate D'Rivera's classical compositions, the recording of Tango Jazz: Live at Jazz at Lincoln Center, and the creation of Panamericana Suite.

LATIN JAZZ CORNER: You're doing a lot of writing in the classical vein lately. Can you tell us a little bit about your classical composition?

PAQUITO D'RIVERA: I have been receiving a lot of commissions to write pieces. Just last year, I premiered my sonata for clarinet and piano, called “The Cape Cod Files." It was written for clarinetist Jon Manasse and pianist Jon Nakamatsu. Now I am orchestrating a piece that is going to be called “The Cape Cod Double Concerto." I'm still working on my opera. It is an opera that includes different types of voices—from operatic voices, to Cuban rumberos, jazz voices, rap, and everything. I recently wrote a piece for a children's choir based upon a poem from a Puerto Rican poet. I am working on a lot of projects. I just presented my new book called “Portraits and Landscapes"—right now it's only available in Spanish, but I'm looking for an English publisher.

LJC: Tango Jazz: Live at Jazz at Lincoln Centeris a great album that you did with Pablo Aslan. It's a live recording with Pablo's group—how did you get involved in that?

PDR: Pablo was commissioned to form a group to do a tango show; it was called Tango Salon. I was a guest artist. He brought in musicians from Argentina and one fantastic twenty-two year old bandoneonist from Switzerland, whose name is Michael Zisman. I think that he's the only jazz bandoneonist on the planet. His father and mother are musicians from Argentina, but he went to a jazz school in Switzerland with the bandoneon. He learned the language of bebop and all that with a tango instrument. The combination is tremendous. So when we were rehearsing, my wife Brenda, who is also my producer and manager, had the idea to record the concert. We asked the people from Jazz At Lincoln Center and we got the permission to do it. We paid for the tapes, we recorded professionally, and the result was Tango Jazz.

The musicians in Pablo's group really defined the spirit on that recording. They brought people from Argentina like my dear friend Gustavo Bergalli, the trumpet player. They had Raul Juarena, a Uruguayan bandoneon player who lives here in New York. They put together a band with two bandoneons—that was really fun. Pablo Agri was a great violin player—he was too much. Pablo Aslan is just so knowledgeable too. On that CD, all I did was play when they told me to play and stop when they told me to stop!

LJC: Tango is a music that is so strongly based around composition. How do you see that working for improvisation?

PDR: It's a combination of both things. We put the jazz element in there and they brought the tango. Plus the players that they brought here from Argentina, they were jazz players. They brought a very fine pianist from Buenos Aires named Abel Rogantini—he was a jazz pianist. Also Daniel “Pipi" Piazzolla was there, who is a fantastic drummer and the grandson of Astor Piazzolla. So there was a group of people there that knew both languages very well.

LJC: I've talked to Pablo Aslan about creating a language for improvisation around tango. Do feel like it's a totally different thing or do you play and it just happens?

PDR: You have to do some research about the language or the idiom—that's important. That is a mistake on the part of some jazz players—when they play on the top of a Cuban rhythm or any type of Latin rhythm, they keep playing those bebop lines all through the entire piece. That is not enough. The bebop language is a great tool, but it's just a tool. You should—based on respect to the music—learn something about the idiom of son montuno or the idiom of samba or the idiom of tango in this case. You have to do some research and try to immerse yourself in the style of music that you are going to be playing. Because playing bebop all the time on top of a samba . . . well, it will work, but it doesn't sound like you are playing any respect to the music. You're supposed to have some syncopation and something that represents the style—in any style of music. It's like going to the Dominican Republic and you're speaking French or German to everybody! People might understand you, but at least learn to say something in Spanish. You need to learn to say a few words at least!

LJC: Tango hasn't really been explored as widely by the Latin Jazz world—do you think that lack knowledge about the language is why?

PDR: They are doing more and more. After Astor Piazzolla, people were paying more attention to tango music. Jazz people are paying a little more attention to it.

LJC: Panamericana Suiteis a really ambitious recording that brings together several Caribbean and South American cultures. How did the music for that album come together?

PDR: Jazz At Lincoln Center commissioned me to write a jazz piece. In those days, they had a series called “As Of Now." That premiered many years ago. The other composer that night was Nicolas Payton; he played one half of the program and I played the other half of the program. Then I was assigned to put together an orchestra that encompassed different instruments—not only different styles, but also different instruments—from south of the border. This included a South American marimba, an Argentinean bandoneon, a Venezuelan cuatro, and Afro-Cuban batá drums. The lyrics were from Anna Nicolena, the Cuban poet who lives in Elizabeth, New Jersey. The music is based upon her poem that is called “America." It looks at America not only as North America, but also as the entire continent, including South America. Ever since we did that at Jazz At Lincoln Center, I've had the idea to do that not only for one concert, but also as a recording. We did that live recording, and we did a real Latin Jazz CD with everything. It also has the great Andy Narell playing the steel pan.

LJC: You've got a lot of musicians that you've recorded with before on Panamericana Suite, but you've also have some incredible young musicians such as Edmar Castaneda. How did they get involved and what did they bring into the project?

PDR: They have their own voices. Edmar Castaneda is brilliant. He's really tremendous. He's got a great sense of humor too. Edmar is something. They contributed a great deal of love and originality to the project. I am very happy to have the opportunity to have them in the Panamericana Orchestra.

We are trying to put the band together to go to Europe. That's not an easy task, but I think we will do it.

LJC: On Panamericana Suite, you've got some pieces that touch on several different traditions—there's the festejo version of “Con Alma," the tribute to Generoso Jimenez, “Tojo," and the suite itself—but it's all so fluid. How do you find the connection point between these different traditions?

PDR: It's very natural. When you have a rhythm section that knows what they are doing and knows how to play the music correctly, that comes very easily. It has to come naturally or else it sounds corny.

LJC: One of the things that amazes me about your work is that you produce so much, it's all different, and it all has such high artistry. What directions do you still want to go in that you haven't explored?

PDR: I will keep walking to see what I find in my path, and then I'll take it if I like it! I am in very good company with my group. We call it a quintet, but you noticed that on my CD Funk Tango, it says Paquito D'Rivera Quintet?—then there are eight people on the cover! So my quintet is elastic. As much as the budget allows, I include more or less people. The quintet can be two people or it can be twenty-one—it's my expandable quintet. So I am in very good company—they help me look for good music and new venues to explore. As I said before, I'm also looking for a publisher in English for my book “Portraits And Landscapes," so that everyone can read the musician stories in there. I am happy doing what I do.

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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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