Different Music, Same Guy

by Paul Weideman, The Santa Fe New Mexican
July 25, 2008 

Paquito D'Rivera is unquestionably eclectic, performing with equal comfort and mastery in jazz, Latin, and classical settings for more than four decades. Lately, he's also taken up writing, turning out the autobiographical My Sax Life and a novel, Oh, La Habana! The story revolves around Havana's night life in the 1940s and '50s, featuring such characters as Cachao, Bebo Valdes, Ernest Hemingway, Desi Arnaz, Tony Bennett, and Superman.

D'Rivera was born and raised in Cuba, where he was a founding member of the Orquesta Cubana de Msica Moderna and played with the Cuban National Symphony Orchestra. In his late 20s, he co-founded the eclectic Cuban group Irakere, which won a Grammy for its first album.

D'Rivera has taken home nine Grammy and Latin Grammy awards. He was the first musician to win Latin Grammys in both classical and Latin jazz categories, in 2003. His most recent was a Best Latin Jazz Album award for 2007's Funk Tango.

He has recorded more than 30 albums and has made music with Dizzy Gillespie, McCoy Tyner, Clark Terry, Astor Piazzolla, Herbie Mann, and Jane Bunnett as well as with Yo-Yo Ma and the London Philharmonic. His accolades include the Living Jazz Legend Award, presented at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., last year; the President's Award of the International Association for Jazz Education; a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship in Music Composition; and the National Medal of Arts.

He brings his Funk Tango Quartet to Santa Fe to play at the Lensic Performing Arts Center on Sunday, July 27. It's D'Rivera on sax, Diego Urcola on trumpet, Alexander Brown on piano, Massimo Biolcati on bass, and Mark Walker on drums.

Before the concert on July 27, the public is invited to a free conversation between D'Rivera and poet and jazz historian A.B. Spellman, also at the Lensic. This "Meet the Artist" session is the third in a series that began with Spellman's interview with McCoy Tyner in 2006 and Sonny Rollins last year.

Pasatiempo recently conducted an e-mail interview with D'Rivera.

Pasatiempo: Mario Bauza said you were the only musician around playing "the real Latin jazz; all others are playing Afro-Cuban jazz." What are the essential differences between the two forms?

Paquito D'Rivera: Mario was a dear friend, so he was exaggerating a little bit. There were some musicians like Gato Barbieri, Jorge Dalto, and a few others using elements of Latin American music, some of them even before I did, although the immense majority were using exclusively Cuban roots, or on the other hand, the Brazilian cultivators. But it is truth that musical elements of Venezuela, Argentina, Puerto Rico, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and the Caribbean Islands were overlooked for the longest time. That's changing from a few years to the date, with the valuable work of people like Michel Camilo, Miguel Zenn, David Sanchez, Andy Narell, Danilo Perez, Dave Samuels, Edmar Castaneda, Oscar Stagnaro, and Diego Urcola, among many others.

Pasa: Were you more influenced by the New York jazz tradition going back to Charlie Parker and Lee Konitz after you came to this country, or were you listening to them when you were in Cuba?

D'Rivera: I was a follower of Charlie Parker and Lee Konitz since I was very young, and in the beginning they were main influences for me, along with Jackie McLean, Coltrane, and Paul Desmond; and although I did some work with South American music back in Cuba, it was after coming to live in New York in 1980 that I became more hip to Latin American music and its application to jazz.

Pasa: You're touring Japan this year to conduct and perform Mozart concertos, I believe. Can you talk a bit about going back and forth between the jazz and classical worlds?

D'Rivera: My father was a classical saxophonist. He never had the ability to improvise but always loved Lester Young, Ellington, Stan Getz, and the Benny Goodman orchestra. He used to play on his phonograph Benny's beautiful rendition of the Mozart Concerto in A for clarinet, back to back with his 1938 live recording at Carnegie Hall with his jazz band. There was no difference for me; it was just a different kind of music, played by the same guy.

Pasa: How important is improvisation, the chance you and other members of your bands can relate ideas and feelings in a spontaneous fashion?

D'Rivera: Although I love playing Brahms or Stravinsky's music, improvisation is the activity I love the most in my life. That's the reason I frequently record different versions of the same tunes on different CDs; they come out totally different. That's the magic of improvisation.

Pasa: Improv is of course one of the definitions of jazz, but is it also possible in your classical endeavors?

D'Rivera: Improvisation has virtually disappeared from the classical world. They even play cadenzas written by other people, which is a nonsense, since in the days of Mozart, Bach, or Vivaldi, cadenzas were supposed to be improvised by the soloist.

Pasa: Last year you won a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship in Music Composition, and you have a 2007-2008 appointment as composer in residence at the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts with the Orchestra of St. Luke's. What music is coming out of these ventures?

D'Rivera: As composer in residence of Caramoor [International Jazz Festival], in 2007 I already premiered my Conversations With Cachao, a double concerto for sax/clarinet, contrabass, and symphony orchestra. Cachao flew from Miami to attend the premiere. Now I'm working on my Cuban opera, Cecilio Valdes, King of Havana, along with librettist Enrique del Risco and lyricist Alexis Romay. It's a very exciting project. Lots of fun!

Pasa: Your bio is extensive. Is it true you are now artist in residence at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center; artistic director of jazz programming at the New Jersey Chamber Music Society; and artistic director of the Festival Internacional de Jazz de Punta del Este in Uruguay?

D'Rivera: My bio is mostly a book of memoirs, written in a very "jazzy" style, with guest writers et al. -- like in a jam session. There is a picture of me and Dizzy Gillespie, naked in a Finnish sauna. I used to be the artistic director of jazz programming at the New Jersey Chamber Music Society, but that wonderful organization is not working anymore. And I'm still the artistic director of the Festival Internacional de Jazz de Punta del Este in Uruguay -- a beautiful annual event we're very proud of.

Pasa: You have created music on the themes of social justice, liberty, and love with pieces such as "Three Poems From the New World" and "Kites." These are, to some degree, windows into your philosophy. What do you want your music to mean, or what kinds of impacts do you seek in your listeners?

D'Rivera: I usually don't mix my music with politics; only when the occasion rises. "Gdansk," dedicated to Polish leader Lech Walesa; "Kites," a hymn to freedom; "Song for Peace," written long before September 11, and a few others are just exceptions. My music is mainly about happiness, nice melodies, and lots of rhythm and improvisation.