Paquito D’Rivera Heads Funk Tango Quintet


by Mel Minter,
July 24, 2008

On virtuoso clarinetist/saxophonist and award-winning composer Paquito D’Rivera’s most recent Latin jazz recording, Funk Tango, his omnivorous musical appetite provides a wide-ranging feast for the ears—from a bop-infused tango (Astor Piazolla’s “Revirado”) to a dreamy bolero (“Como un Bolero”) to a classically tinged tribute to Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona (“Contradanza”) to an original Latin take on John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” Along the way, he quotes from Cole Porter’s “Another Opening, Another Show,” The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” and the Mexican folksong “La Cucaracha,” among others.

Over his career, the Cuban-born D’Rivera, who first came to prominence mixing genres as a member of the Cuban fusion band Irakere, has embraced many genres to satisfy his appetite. His multiple Grammys demonstrate that he is equally at home with classical, Latin and jazz music.

The only kind of music that does not appeal to D’Rivera, he says, is “bad music. ... I prefer to keep on the side of tasty music, good music well done.”

This Sunday, the Paquito D’Rivera Quintet (with Diego Urcola, trumpet; Alex Brown, piano; Massimo Biolcati, bass; and Mark Walker, drums) will provide an appetizing concert at The Lensic in Santa Fe as part of the New Mexico Jazz Festival.

Happy Confusion

A child prodigy who started playing the saxophone at 3, D’Rivera got his first taste of jazz at age 7 in his father’s saxophone shop in his native Cuba. His father, Tito, an accomplished classical player, dropped the needle onto the live recording of Benny Goodman’s 1938 Carnegie Hall performance, and what D’Rivera heard changed his life.

“I hear so much happiness and beautiful sounds,” says D’Rivera. “For me, that was—I don’t think I have enough words in either language, in Spanish or English, to describe what I heard when they played ‘Let’s Dance.’ [He hums the tune.] And I was so impressed, and said, ‘What the hell is that?’

“Then my father answered, ‘That is swing.’ He never called the music ‘jazz,’ for some reason. He called it ‘swing.’ He loved the word ‘swing.’ He said, ‘This is swing, and this is in the city of New York, and this is Carnegie Hall.’ And I understood ‘carne and frijol,’ ‘meat and beans!’ ” says D’Rivera, laughing.

His father also had an older 78-rpm Goodman recording of Mozart’s clarinet concerto, which he played back-to-back with the Carnegie Hall LP. “So for me it was a very happy confusion,” says D’Rivera, “because ever since, it’s just music. It’s my father’s and Benny’s fault.”

So moving from one genre to another has always been pretty easy. “I have, for example, an old Bel Air ’57,” he says. “I also have a 1973 Volkswagen [stick shift]. It’s a different feeling. You want to do an adjustment when you drive one car or the other. So it’s the same thing.”


Absorbing classical and traditional Cuban music in his formal training, D’Rivera picked up his education in modern jazz, in part, via the radio and shared recordings. He recalls secretly listening to “The Jazz Hour” on the Voice of America, hosted by “a very, very dear man,” Willis Conover, “who kept us informed about what was happening [in the United States] about modern jazz.”

In Cuba, D’Rivera found only limited opportunities to play jazz, which the Castro regime frowned on. Since defecting to Spain in 1980, however, D’Rivera has taken the opportunity to compose and play whatever he wishes, with whomever he wants—from trumpeter Claudio Roditi to cellist Yo-Yo Ma—at a staggering pace.

Funk Tango marks a new accomplishment, as it is his first self-produced project. “I am very happy with my quintet,” he says. He’s apparently not alone, as the CD won the 2007 Grammy for Best Latin Jazz Album.

All of his work is informed by a passionate exuberance, even in the smallest details—say, the stunningly abrupt upward exit from his clarinet solo on Funk Tango’s “What About That!” That cheerful exuberance, perhaps D’Rivera’s most fundamental gift, celebrates every fleeting moment with commanding artistry.