In a strange way, the best thing about Diego Rivera’s third album, Connections, is the extent to which we don’t hear him. Not that there’s anything lacking in what he does, as his playing is carefully phrased and beautifully nuanced, with a vocalist’s sense of melodic line. On the occasions when his tenor takes the lead, it speaks with persuasive confidence, bringing a wealth of sentiment to the jazz waltz “Mother’s Nature.”
But Rivera doesn’t often take the lead, preferring instead to submerge his sound in the ensemble, and that definitely works to the album’s advantage. For one thing, a hard bop tune like “Connections” builds a better head of steam through its harmonized, three-horn exposition, ensuring that Rivera’s tuneful tenor solo practically explodes out of the head. Likewise, the intertwined voices on McCoy Tyner’s “Passion Dance” supercharge the groove, while the Coltrane chestnut “Naima” is expanded into a mini-big-band chart, with a lightly Latin treatment that makes its familiar refrain feel refreshingly new.
Rivera’s ensemble approach generously cedes space to other soloists, which in turn makes the album sound bigger. Trombonist Michael Dease has the top supporting role here, and is perfectly cast, as his fondness for boppish, double-tongued 16th-notes makes a great contrast against Rivera’s more measured melodic approach, especially on soulful, mid-tempo numbers like “Love (Your Spell Is Everywhere).” Trumpeter Joe Magnarelli has a wonderfully lyric turn in “Passion Dance,” bassist Endea Owens’ solo on “Shade of the Cedar Tree” maintains command even as the horns offer a harmonized counterline, and baritone saxophonist Lauren Sevian nearly steals the show with her boisterous solo on “Naima.”
As the title suggests, this album is ultimately about connections—to mentors, to fellow players, and to the jazz tradition itself. That Rivera is able to realize that idea so vividly is more the mark of a leader than any number of solos.
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