June 1999

Paquito D'Rivera: New Worlds, Old Worlds

Listening to Paquito D’Rivera’s Grammy Award winning collaboration with the gifted composer/arranger Carlos Franzetti (Portraits of Cuba Chesky JD145) on the bus ride over to New Jersey, I’m impressed anew by the uncompromising depth and breadth of this music, and by the technical and emotional equipoise of Paquito’s alto, soprano, and clarinet improvisations: his lyric focus and fierce rhythmic drive, the ease of execution in navigating complex harmonic changes, the dancing undercurrent of South America and the Caribbean, the complex chromatic elisions and bluesy grooves of swing and bop, the steely articulation and dynamic control of a classically trained saxophonist. I’m actually kind of stunned. I mean, this music isn’t nearly stupid enough to win a Grammy. What went right?

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Paquito D'Rivera
By Jimmy Katz
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Paquito D'Rivera
By Jimmy Katz
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Paquito D'Rivera
By Jimmy Katz

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“Very good, huh?” D’Rivera says proudly. “Carlos Franzetti. He is a heavy writer, a very versatile writer—and fast. And Portraits of Cuba was his idea. He had this idea for a tribute to Cuban music from a jazz point of view. And Miles Davis had this idea before with Sketches of Spain. So Carlos said, ‘Let’s do some sketches of Cuba.’ And some people protest to me, they say, ‘Look at all these titles, but that doesn’t sound like Cuban music.’ But of course it doesn’t—this is a jazz record. Just like Sketches of Spain is not a Spanish music record—it is a jazz record. Rodrigo had written a Spanish concerto for the guitar, and when they played for him the “Concerto de Arajunez” he didn’t like it all. But Miles say, ‘He will like it when he receive the check.’”

Part of what makes the music on Portraits of Cuba so satisfying is the sublime balance between D’Rivera’s forthright lyric touches and incendiary rhythmic outbursts. Because while D’Rivera clearly has the common touch, he is also a musician’s musician, one who can seemingly pull any arrow he desires from his creative quiver, an artist at peace with himself, a virtuoso who makes complex gestures seem simple and simple gestures seem profound—playing as if he has nothing to prove, save for a deep devotion to the mystery of music and a fascination with all manner of stylistic miscegenation.

“Of course, the mixture, yeah,” D’Rivera enthuses. “I think the music of the New World is wonderful, what happen here. And it didn’t happen in Africa or Europe—here. All of this wonderful music. The Argentinian tango, Mexican huapango, and the music from Cuba and Puerto Rico and Santo Domingo—you don’t find that in Europe or Africa. The music that we developed here has nothing to do with Africa. Even in Africa, they copy many Cuban orchestras. So I think they give even too much credit to Mother. For example, the samba is the music of Rio de Janiero; you don’t find samba in Senegal. And the same thing with jazz. There’s not any jazz in Gabon or Mozambique—the jazz is from here. Our American rhythmic accentuation on the 2 and the 4. The backbeat, right? Only here. Cowboy music is also on the 1 and 3. Country music. Probably because it derives in some part from the polka. That sense of swing was developed by the black population here. You don’t see that in Latin American music, either.”

“Only the music that was influenced by African elements and developed in America have that backbeat. So why are you supposed to call the music African? The music is from the New World. It’s from here. Jazz, that wonderful thing called jazz; that is American music—the music that represents the multi-cultural characteristics of this country. So Art Blakey was right—no America, no jazz. And everybody brings something—now they are finally recognizing the contribution of Latin American people to this art form.”

“The manner in which the black populations developed in America and how they developed in the Caribbean are totally different. The black music of America developed in a very bluesy way, a very sad way; the music of the Caribbean, there is more happiness in that. The blues is something that doesn’t exist in our culture. There is no such thing as a Latin version of a Negro spiritual, for example, in the Caribbean. You can find in the Indian music of the Andes for example, that type of sad feeling. We don’t have the blues—I learned the blues. And the harmonic development was a lot more sophisticated here. That doesn’t mean we don’t have harmony in the Caribbean and in South America. Brazil suffers less the effects of the dictatorship of the tonic and the dominant, which is very common in Latin American music, and is used to excess. They have a wonderful harmonic horizon, very open harmonically. I do not know. It is hard to understand why. Maybe the isolation; they are very isolated from the rest of the world, I think, so they developed a very unique culture. But here in the United States the sense of harmony is more generalized. Always I say, ‘the same tree, with different branches, different leaves.’ All of the elements came from Africa and Europe, yes—but the way they cook in America is unique.”

It is this swelter of influences which define D’Rivera’s emerging New World order. They also help explain why, try as you might, you cannot typecast the man or his music. He’s earned yet another Grammy nomination for the roiling orchestral explorations of Paquito D’Rivera & the United Nations Orchestra Live At Manchester Craftsman’s Guild (Blue Jackel/Jazz MCG 1003), which extend on the pan-cultural modernism of big band visionaries such as Dizzy Gillespie and George Russell, freely mixing the harmonic and melodic richness of North American music (or jazz, if you like) with the variegated rhythms of both North and South America. Of course, we’re trying to draw a musical analogy, and nothing is that cut and dried. But if one were to break down and analyze the role of the Latin tinge in general (and D’Rivera’s contributions in particular), you could certainly make a case for how much of our New World music is derived directly from the culture of the drum.

“From the drum,” D’Rivera repeats by way of a musical amen. “A pianist like Chucho Valdez, he has a very drum approach to the piano. I think that helps a lot, to use that approach to the instrument; to have something rhythmically in the way of a style. My bass player is a very fine Peruvian from Lima named Oscar Stagnaro, and once I saw him with a student. And he told him if you want to learn how to play good bass, buy a conga. And I laugh and ask him, ‘Why did you tell this guy that?’ He say, ‘Because if you learn to play the conga, he will see the rhythm in his hand, and you don’t have to explain rhythm to him. When he learns to play [sings pocka-pocka] he will automatically translate that into the bass language.’ It is very important for everyone to know some percussion instrument, if you want to have a rhythmic approach in your playing. You want to just play melody, well, go in peace, but if you want to be rhythmic, you must know the drums. All rhythms. That is the heaviest contribution of Latin people to jazz, is that sense of rhythmic feeling. All those different rhythms. Jazz rhythms can get so boring, and don’t misunderstand me, because I love to swing, I love to play that. I love lobsters, too. I love to eat lobsters, but not every day. There are so many different rhythms you can use.”

The common element in all of D’Rivera’s music is the integrity of an artist primed to take on the new millennium with fresh, exploratory ideas based on solid traditional attitudes and disciplines. Thus, on a decidedly lyric recital such as 100 Hundred Years of Latin Love Songs (Heads Up HUCD 3045), D’Rivera takes a yearning, nostalgic look back at the romantic music of his youth. On the driving combo music of Tico Tico (Chesky JD34) and the big band explorations of A Night in Englewood (Messidor 15829-2), the reedman weaves a seamless musical web from seemingly disparate stylistic materials and musical cultures. Through it all, D’Rivera steadfastly refuses to acknowledge any intellectual hierarchies or to adopt specious, exclusionary postures. Which is why, just when you think you’ve gotten a handle on what Paquito is all about, he’ll take you on a rehearsal, as he did with me, where he plays some extraordinarily fluid, articulate clarinet in a classical setting with pianist Pablo Zinger and cellist Gustavo Tavares (documented on Chamber Music From the South, a Brazilian import on the Mix House label), performing Latin American chamber music by the likes of turn-of-the century Brazilian composer Pixinginha (“Little Pixie”)—whose music has clear connections to the venerable melodic traditions of European concert music, even as it parallels the rhythmic innovations of turn-of-the-century ragtime.

Paquito D’Rivera and his wife, Brenda Feliciano, live on a quiet, tree-lined block in Weehawken, New Jersey, about a block away from the Hudson River, in the same neighborhood where the Baroness Nica and Monk once lived, and where Barry Harris lives now. The alcove of their house is alive with Volkswagen Beetle paraphernalia: everything from model cars to a Beetle potty trainer—you name it. Out back in the garage Paquito keeps a pair of mint condition Beetles, one from 1974, the other from 1964...all original. Kind of a whimsical touch. Hardly the kind of macho automotive gesture one would expect from a Cuban jazz musician, but then where I live in northern Manhattan—”The Dominican Republic,” Paquito quips—big, brassy meringue-mobiles shake the air with subsonic bass, like using a sport utility vehicle for a headset.

Brenda greets me warmly, beckoning her husband with a ringing clarion call.
“Paquiiiiiii-tooooo,” she sings in a rich soprano, “Chip is here for the interview.”

Paquito emerges from the kitchen, aglow with positive energy. “I didn’t realize your wife was an opera singer, Paquito.”

“Well,” he answers dryly, “Nobody’s perfect.”

Good humor and an exuberant spiritual force pervade Paquito D’Rivera’s music, so one is hardly surprised to find these aspects of his artistry mirrored in the man himself. It was as a member of the progressive ensemble Irakere that Paquito first attracted notice as an improvising saxophonist and soulful stylist of the first rank, but his life and his music have evolved by leaps and bounds since those heady early days of fanfare and international exposure—in part, through the midwifery of Dizzy Gillespie. In a sense, D’Rivera is a man of two worlds, a progressive thinker who cherishes his Cuban roots, but relishes the creative and artistic freedom he has found in the United States since seeking political asylum during Irakere’s 1980 tour of Spain. “For Cuban musicians, traveling is an obsession—you know, getting out, seeing the world. Even if it means going to the Persian Gulf in a canoe with the Israeli flag atop, they want to go,” he laughs. “But get the fuck out of there. My mother was an American citizen since 1968, but I had to stay there because they invented this thing called the military law. You cannot leave until you are 27. And before that I had to serve in the army for three years; army band, yes, but still the army. You couldn’t go back home or visit your family. Bullshit. Three years in the army on a small island—it doesn’t make sense. Anyway, that’s the way it was. Jazz was called imperialist music. You tell that to black musicians here, they laugh in your face. Castro, he love baseball but hate the arts. In Cuba they discriminate against jazz. So our band, it came together in 1973. We called the band Irakere because jazz was a four letter word in Cuba. Paradoxically, they now have a yearly jazz festival where musicians come into Cuba, which I founded much against the will of the Castro regime, but they need the money, so now they let it go.”

“My father was a very good saxophone player,” Paquito says proudly, by way of trying to explain the origins of his muse. “Tito D’Rivera played the tenor, and was the Selmer representative in Havana, yet he never played Selmer. They never found that out—they find that out, and they fire him,” he chuckles. “He played always the same old Martin tenor, and that was the only instrument he ever used, and he recommended Selmer as the best instrument in the world during that particular period, but he never associated himself with the sound of that instrument. Can you believe that?

“My father never had the means to improvise. He was a practitioner of what is called the French school of the saxophone, and he brought that school to Havana. Also he did some transcriptions from the music of Mozart and Webern, transposing flute concertos and clarinet concertos to the tenor saxophone. He also created a group called Conjunto Sinfonico de Saxofones. They used to play European classical music and also American classical music, people like Aaron Copland.

“I don’t think that the jazz and classical approach to the saxophone are contradictory—they are just a different way of looking at something. And the way you approach the instrument. And you know as a percussionist yourself, that the type of thing you play in a classical setting is a different style than what you’d play in jazz. The good thing about being exposed to the classical training, is that you need a lot of discipline for that. It is more delicate music; not better or worse, it just demands more concentration on the intonation and articulation. It’s a particular way of approaching the instrument.

“The more you know is better for your playing. All of this knowledge is of value. Because my father was a lover of every type of music, he was curious to know how all these types of music worked. I am very thankful to my father for exposing me to all of this music. He didn’t even explain anything. If I asked, he would go blah, blah blah. So I got used to listening to all types of music. And I would go, ‘Hey, I don’t like that shit.’ And he’d go, ‘Me, either.’ And he’d put on something else—but you listen to every type of music, and you take a little, you leave a little. And you store something away, and maybe it comes out in another form sometime later, when you are better equipped to deal with it.

“Like with 100 Years of Latin Love Songs. You store something away, and maybe it comes out in another form sometime later, when you are better equipped to deal with it. I grew up listening to those tunes, and only now am I returning to those songs with something to say. So I give all the credit to my father. There is a lot that I owe him; but I claim my own thing. I developed my own style from modern music, so I am not my father.”

Born on June 4, 1948, D’Rivera was inculcated into a musical environment from the time he could walk. “No, my father didn’t waste any time. He gave me solfeggio lessons when I was like four years old, and started teaching me how to read. So first he train the ear, then he give me a mouthpiece, then I learn to read. I always played, since I was five years old. The curved soprano was my first instrument. Sounds like a little tenor. This was a very fine instrument, a Selmer, and very fine tuning for a soprano. La habenara “Tu.” That is on Portraits of Cuba because that was the first song I ever played in public. So you see, I end up using that forty years later.

“Reading is very, very important to me, because saves a lot of time—I hate to rehearse. Okay you play this, we go on to stage, we have the basics, boom, we improvise. Reading is so important. Because when you are creating, you have the fundamentals already, you solve that problem, and you are able to go to your talent and bring that out. You learn how to use that talent. So because of my father, I was able to immediately visualize whatever I was playing, and when he showed me where the notes were on the horn, I already knew what they meant. Made things a lot easier. Some people are so funny. They don’t read music, like it is a disease. Maybe you don’t read now, but you can learn. Is very simple. You learn to read music in a couple of weeks. That is easy. Being creative is the hard part. There is a joke out there. How do you convince a rock and roll guitar player to turn down? Put some sheet music in front of him.”

“Benny Goodman was my first jazz experience; the concert at Carnegie Hall. Harry James, Gene Krupa, Teddy Wilson—my God. I memorize everybody’s solos off the records. Then as a kid, I would go to jam sessions and play the same solos I learned at home. Then, as I got older, I learned to do solos on top of the solos I already knew. I developed a very good parallel ability to read and listen at the same\ time. When I was around 14, I was playing like a combination of Paul Desmond and Jackie McLean. That’s some combination, eh, like Celia Cruz and Maria Callas. Jackie so hard and swinging, Paul so lyrical.”

“Until 1962 we had a jazz scene, and then Castro came to power and that was it. Nothing about that man makes sense. He love sports, but he doesn’t like artists. When Castro came to power, no American records were allowed to come into Cuba. So the only way to hear the new music was through Willis Conover’s radio broadcasts—to us, Willis was a hero. That is how I would’ve heard Coltrane with Miles, and the new Miles Davis Quintet with Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter and Tony Williams and George Coleman. It was magical, that band. Before that, American jazz musicians would come through. Philly Joe Jones was there, and a very fine jazz saxophone player, Bill Barron, Kenny’s brother. Sarah Vaughan\ was there. Nat King Cole was there with a trio. Zoot Sims. I was very little, but I grew up in those clubs, and I heard those guys play with the local players. But not Dizzy. Funny, because he had such good relationships with Cuban musicians: Chano Pozo, Chico O’Farrill, Mario Bauza, yet he didn’t come to Cuba until 1977. To see Irakere. He contact Bruce Lundvall to bring us here.”

Before Irakere there was a band called Orquesta Cubana De Musica Moderna, which also featured Chucho Valdez, but it was Irakere that introduced Paquito D’Rivera to the world, and more importantly, to Dizzy Gillespie, who was something of a spiritual father to D’Rivera.

“I was never really a regular part of Dizzy’s quintet. I was in and out, mostly for special occasions. In 1981 I did my first European tour with Dizzy, subbing for ‘Toots Thielemans, who’d had a stroke. Dizzy called me in Washington, and said, ‘Toots had a stroke and he was supposed to go on tour with me. You want to sub for him?’ And I said, ‘But Toots Thielemans is such a famous name.’ And Dizzy goes,’ ‘You want to go on tour with me or you don’t?’ he laughs. “And so I went out with Dizzy for four weeks, and from that tour on I got my own tours of Europe. Dizzy was very good to me. Dizzy was very good to a whole lot of people. He was a good person. Completely crazy, but he was a wonderful man to be around.”

Dizzy set the highest possible standards for musicianship, and the lessons Paquito learned from his spiritual father and from Tito D’Rivera continue to inform. Musical lessons. Spiritual attitudes. Inexorably connected in the music, and in the man.

“Articulation is so important. There are many jazz people who don’t pay much attention to articulation. That’s why I tell people that Wynton Marsalis uses different articulation all the time. Most jazz players they use a standard type of articulation, and that is no good, because articulation is a very powerful means of expression. And there are so many types of different articulation. Most jazz players, they play everything legato. First of all, when you play everything legato you lose the sense of rhythm [hums a blurred line]. That’s like a pianist who uses a lot pedal or who never pedals at all. When you use articulation, the rhythm is so much stronger—you swing a lot more [sings a crisp, elliptical, rhythmically phrased line]. Wynton uses a lot of articulation; Claudio Roditi, too— and I love that. It’s very important to pay attention to each sound. You see, it is the same way they talk. It has to do with their culture.”

“Another thing is dynamics. Many jazz musicians, they forget about dynamics— they play at only one intensity. That is what I talk about with students, articulation and dynamics, because that is what makes a difference in the music; the variation in articulation dynamics so important. It’s like eating the same thing every day, having black beans and rice every day.

“When I first came to New York I got a feeling for what it is to be a jazz musician. Then when you travel and you appear on the same festivals as McCoy Tyner Trio and Bela Fleck & The Flecktones and Cassandra Wilson and Wynton Marsalis—then you feel what it is like to be a jazz musician, and not to play too many notes. Not try and impress people with too much volume and too many notes. Dizzy say it take him thirty years to figure out which notes not to play. Miles came out and plays two notes and kills every other trumpet player. Some music is very impressive, but no emotion. You have to learn to tame your technique, distill things down to what really counts or it gets really boring. And be original, dare to be yourself. David Sanborn is wonderful. The way he plays that blues and R&B and rock saxophone is so wonderful; he create something very special and individual; but the people who play like David Sanborn, who cares—they are very boring. You have to take the time to find out who you are.

“Jazz is not about any one thing or one style. Like bolero or flamenco, jazz is a way to see life. It is the way you feel. Jazz is something more than notes, especially too many notes. It’s not about the notes—it is an attitude about life.”

Gear Box

“Charlie Parker played Conn first, then King, and when he died he was playing a Selmer with a metal mouthpiece. But the instrument we most associate him with was that Conn with the white Brilhardt mouthpiece. And the best recording of Charlie Parker was on an instrument that wasn’t even his instrument. That plastic horn he played at Massey Hall. Man! The sound of that horn and all that he played on an instrument that was not his—maybe because he had to concentrate more to make that instrument sound right? I don’t know. One of James Moody’s most famous solos was made on an instrument that was not his. ‘Moody’s Mood for Love’ was played on an alto that belonged to Lars Gullin, the Swedish baritone player. Sometimes when you play with another instrument you have to concentrate more, and you play differently—it’s a mystery. I play a Yamaha Custom alto, a new model in a black lacquer. I play Selmer all my life, but this is a very fine horn. I love the color, and after I got it, they tell me also that the sound is darker, so that is what I was looking for, so that is fine with me. Before, I played a 1957 Mark VI Selmer, which was originally silver, and the silver instruments tend to be brighter, so after a while I had it gold-plated to make it darker—a wonderful horn, but I don’t play it anymore, because I am very happy with the Yamaha. I still use a metal Selmer F mouthpiece for jazz, and then I use a hard rubber Selmer D for classical. For classical, it’s a smaller mouthpiece, so it’s a little easier to articulate the staccato passages; a more conservative mouthpiece; less overtones, but much easier to control when you have to blow real soft and clean; is also easier for the lower register. Then for the soprano I also have a Yamaha. A straight soprano, very special horn. The machinery is perfect; a very comfortable instrument. Is very hard to play another soprano when you learn about this horn. The intonation is a lot better, is a very easy instrument to blow. And with that horn I use a hard rubber Otto Link #6. And I use a Rico #3, which is like a medium, medium-hard reed. On the soprano I use a Rico #3.

Tenor saxophone? That I only play with Jamey Aebersold. For the clarinet I have a custom made Louis Rossi, an Argentine classical virtuoso. This is a rosewood instrument. He only makes a handful every year. The sound is very warm, very cozy—is a really wonderful instrument. The wood is not so much a factor, because I play his personal clarinet, which is an ebony clarinet, and is the same thing. The same, warm, cozy sound; even better, because is an older instrument. For a mouthpiece I use an Italian crystal Ria, and I have also a copy of that crystal Ria in hard rubber made by Hynes Viotto in Berlin. It’s a bit darker. And I use Vandoreen #3 reeds in that, as well as a very fine Argentinian reed called Zonda #3.5. And I still have a couple of old Selmer clarinets, beautiful instruments, but when I first brought them up to New York, the wood cracked. So I’ve had them repaired, but I am scared to take them on the road, and they crack in the middle of a tour. Now, I take a bit of fresh orange peel and keep it in the case when I travel with the clarinet. That is for the humidity. I learn that trick from Louis Rossi. Clarinet is a very hard instrument. Because of the soprano saxophone, after Coltrane no one takes the time to really learn the clarinet, and I can’t say that I blame them. It is a very hard instrument. Very unforgiving instrument. Sometimes you blow on it and nothing comes out, you have to work very hard to get the right intonation and articulation. But if it came down to playing one instrument, it would be the clarinet.”

Listening Pleasures

“Anything by Stravinsky. My Funny Valentine by Miles Davis. Jazz at Massey Hall with Bird and Dizzy and Bud Powell and Mingus and Max Roach.The Best of Leny Andrade, a very fine Brazilian singer on Velas, which is Ivan Lins’ label. And then Stardust by Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond.”

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