Most successful, creative jazz musicians today are adept at multi-tasking; they often lead several groups, cross various genres, and write original music. Saxophonist, clarinetist, composer and bandleader Paquito D’Rivera has done all that and more. Of course it doesn’t hurt that he’s also an acclaimed virtuoso.
Born in Havana in 1948, Mr. D’Rivera was a child prodigy who performed with the Cuban National Symphony, and at age twelve entered the Havana Conservatory. In 1965, D’Rivera and pianist Chucho Valdez formed the Orquesta Cubana de Musica Moderna, which later morphed into the Cuban Jazz-Rock supergroup Irakere.
Since arriving in the U.S. in 1981, D’Rivera has led his own combos and big bands, and is becoming increasingly well known for his classical chamber compositions. He has received numerous commissions and he’s appeared as guest soloist with symphony orchestras throughout the Americas and Europe.
D’Rivera has over 30 records in his discography, including two Grammy Award-winning titles, and his musical associates have included Dizzy Gillespie, Cachao, Astor Piazzola, McCoy Tyner, Carmen McRae, and Benny Carter. His latest recording, Habanera (Enja), features his work with The Absolute Ensemble.
As if that weren’t enough, the indefatigable D’Rivera has written his soon to be published autobiography My Saxual Life, and a novel, En tus brazos morenos.
1. Charlie Parker with Machito and his Orchestra
“Mango Mangue” (from Bird: The Complete Charlie Parker on Verve). Recorded in 1948. Charlie Parker, alto saxophone solo
BEFORE: (immediately starts singing along with the intro) C’mon in Bird. I think that’s Mario playing the lead alto in the orchestra. I never get tired of listening to this. My father was a personal friend of Mario Bauzá, and he always told me Mario went to the States and made it big there. He also said Bauzá was an alto saxophonist and clarinetist in Cuba, and learned the trumpet only after he came to the States. Of course that’s Mango Mangue.
AFTER: I had been a kid soloist playing classical and commercial music in Havana and I remember the first time I heard be-bop, it was a shock. My father was a classical saxophone player who loved jazz, especially the big bands; Ellington, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and all that. When he played be-bop for me for the first time, it was Charlie Parker and Dizzy (sings first eight bars of Red Cross), and I asked him what the hell is that? He told me be-bop and asked if I liked it? I said no, and he said he didn’t either but it was indisputably well-done. It was big confusion for us. It’s like we had all been listening to Mozart and someone played Stravinsky.
LA: How well does Bird play on clave?
PR: There is a tendency to idolize everything that the genius does, so I will tell you what Machito told me. I asked Machito about his experience with Charlie Parker and Chico O’Farrill and that wonderful era, and he told me that Bird was so musical, like Midas, everything he touched turned to gold. But he said Bird didn’t understand one single note of Cuban music. Machito played his music and Parker played his own thing on top. Dizzy understood Cuban music much better. I’m not putting down Parker at all. Red Rodney said the same thing. He said: “Bird and I tried to understand it and we always asked, where the fuck is the one?”
2. Duke Ellington
“The Air-Conditioned Jungle” Take two (from Duke Ellington and his Orchestra, Vol. Four, Circle). Recorded in 1945. Jimmy Hamilton, clarinet soloist, with Rex Stewart, cornet; Cat Anderson, Shelton Hemphill, Taft Jordan, Ray Nance, trumpets; Joe Nanton, Claude Jones, Lawrence Brown, trombones; Johnny Hodges, Otto Hardwick, Al Sears, Harry Carney, saxophones; Duke Ellington, piano; Junior Raglin, bass; Hillard Brown, drums. [Note: though Ellington and Hamilton are credited as composers, Walter van de Leur cites this as a Billy Strayhorn original with input from Hamilton]
BEFORE: (listens intently to entire piece) Wow! Beautiful, beautiful. I think that’s Jimmy Hamilton with the Ellington Orchestra. I don’t know that piece but it’s the sound; Ellington is Ellington, you know? It’s so contemporary, who wrote the arrangement? Wow, that shit’s scary. Hamilton is such a great player. I want to know the name of that piece because I want to play it. Is it out on CD? (laughs when told the title)
AFTER: This sounds very modern even for today, all that Stravinsky type of background. Hamilton was an underrated player, maybe because he was always behind Duke. I don’t know much about his story but he sounds like he has classical training, his articulation and focus. Very creative too. With the clarinet you either play it well or you don’t mess with it. The saxophone is like a toy in comparison.
3. Tony Coe/Roger Kellaway
“The Burgundy Bruise” (from British-American Blue, between the lines) Recorded in 1978. Tony Coe, C-clarinet; Roger Kellaway, piano.
BEFORE: Huh! The high notes make it sound like Tony Scott. In the last part of Tony’s career he was playing more of that free type of thing, but Tony played louder than that, really loud. This is a very original player. If it’s not Tony, I have no idea. I like the piano player too. I like the contrast between the traditional piano blues and the free clarinet. It’s like Ornette Coleman playing the clarinet. I like that. Now there, the piano player went a little out too. I like the combination of the out and the in. I can say that it sounds totally improvised. Both of them are very creative. He reminds me a little of Don Byron on some things, the high notes you know? Even at this tempo, it swings. It’s hard to be consistent at that high a range. It takes great control. You need the chops and this guy obviously has it. This is an unorthodox way of playing the clarinet. It’s a very good combination of tradition and the avant-garde. Who’s that?
AFTER: (with admiration) Oh yeah, Kellaway. He’s one of my very favorite musicians. I am fortunate enough to have played with him a few times. He’s a great composer and a beautiful pianist who can play any type of music. I don’t know the clarinetist, but he’s very good and he was smart enough to play with Kellaway.
4. Art Tatum and Buddy DeFranco
“A Foggy Day” (from The Tatum Group Masterpieces, Vol. 7, Pablo) Recorded in 1956. Art Tatum, piano; Buddy DeFranco, clarinet; Red Callender, bass; Bill Douglass, drums.
BEFORE: A Foggy Day, eh? Sounds like Art Pepper or Jimmy Giuffre. Ahhhh, it’s Art Tatum! Now who could be playing clarinet with Art Tatum? Lester Young? Whoever it is can swing and play beautiful phrases. I had so much fun listening to that, I don’t know who the hell is that but if this were that other magazine I’d give it 500 stars. WOW! Who was the clarinet player?
AFTER: Really? His sound was so airy. That’s not the Buddy DeFranco that I know. Buddy usually plays more clarinetish, brighter and more precise. This is more saxophone oriented, more breathy like Lester Young, with a different kind of vibrato. But it’s fantastic what he played, fantastic. That was a surprise. Buddy’s a monster. Tatum played more like Peterson here, more of a be-bop kind of thing. Buddy was an inspiration to me. My father brought home a 78 rpm recording of him playing Out of Nowhere with a big band, and I said, what is that? A clarinet player playing be-bop? Impossible!
5. Sonny Criss
“Smile” (from Portrait of Sonny Criss, Prestige) Recorded in 1967. Sonny Criss, alto saxophone; Walter Davis Jr., piano; Paul Chambers, bass; Allan Dawson, drums.
BEFORE: That’s one of my favorite songs, though I’ve never recorded it. Charlie Chaplin’s tune Smile, right? It reminds me of a very young player that I know named Alex Hahn. It’s a nice rendition of that song. It’s a simple song with a simple message, nothing pretentious about it. You know, let’s just get together with a rhythm section and play Smile. Sometimes the most philosophical things are the simplest ones. I cannot say this is an extraordinary recording, but that’s not the intention. The intention was to have fun improvising on a beautiful melody.
AFTER: Ah, Sonny Criss. Maybe he’s overlooked because he plays so simply. But with feeling. I haven’t heard of him for a long time.
6. Paulo Moura
“Tempos Felizes” (from MISTURA E MANDA, Braziloid) Recorded in 1983. Paulo Moura, clarinet; Joao Pedro Borges, guitar.
BEFORE: That sounds a little like the Brazilian clarinet player Paulo Moura. He plays with a plastic clarinet, it’s a translucent clarinet. Paulo’s just different, he‘s got his own voice. He’s a symbol of the Brazilian culture, the choro and all those things. I learned a lot from him about the Brazilian way to phrase on the instrument and I’m proud that I’ve been invited to Brazil to play those choro festivals. That’s one of those Brazilian waltzes, though I don’t think this is his best recording.
AFTER: (points to the cover photo) You see, that’s the plastic clarinet. Every time I see Paulo I back up and say the King is here. Paulo Moura, my respects to him. Have you ever met him? You know he is black and has blue eyes, like Cachao. Very dangerous (much laughter).
7. Jane Bunnett
“La Comparsa” (from Alma de Santiago, Blue Note) Issued in 2001. Jane Bunnett, soprano saxophone; Geovanis Alcàntara, piano; The Santiago Jazz Saxophone Quartet, saxophones; Ernesto Lecuona, composer; Hilario Duran, arranger.
BEFORE: (sings along with the melody) La Comparsa by Ernesto Lecuona. Very good intonation on that soprano saxophone. Wow, the quartet is perfectly in tune. The soprano saxophone is a difficult instrument to play in tune. It’s simpler, mechanically, than the clarinet. But the intonation can be problematic. Here it’s perfect, no problem at all. Probably the Havana Sax, no? Beautiful arrangement with the bass and the soprano. The mix is a little off, there needs to be more soprano out front. There’s a tendency in Cuban music for the percussion to overpower. I want to hear the saxophone. The soprano saxophonist is probably a classical player.
LA: Do they sound authentically Cuban?
PR: Yeah, very much to me. Don’t tell me they’re not Cuban, I can’t believe that. I have a theory, though. You don’t have to be Austrian to play Mozart. Of course it helps. And there’s no one who plays the steel drum like Andy Narell, and he’s from Brooklyn, not Trinidad.
AFTER: Ah, Jane. She’s good. She knows more about contemporary Cuban music than I do. They call her Havana Jane (laughter). And I know Hilario very well, fantastic musician. Astonishing. He lives in Canada now. This is very good, now I know I have to buy this CD. Jane is brilliant and she’s been paying so much respect to our music. She’s been trying so hard to play the real thing, and she’s a fine saxophonist too. This is not really Cuban music, it’s jazz with Cuban elements. It’s what I do, too. What she’s doing is valid and legit. She uses the real ingredients.
8. Jimmy Giuffre
“The Sheepherder” from The Jimmy Giuffre Clarinet, Atlantic) Recorded in 1956, reissued on Collectables, 2001. Jimmy Giuffre, clarinet; Buddy Collette, alto clarinet; Harry Klee, bass clarinet.
BEFORE: A clarinet trio; soprano, alto, and bass. I love that format. It’s sounds like some of it is improvised and some is composed. That clarinet player plays like Jimmy Giuffre. Yes, it is Jimmy Giuffre. I love his playing. He doesn’t sound like a clarinet. It’s like Miles Davis doesn’t sound like a trumpet. It’s basically one chord, F minor. There’s an ostinato, and they improvise over that. It sounds like the soundtrack to a movie about medieval times. I love it. It also sounds like he never used the octave key. With one octave he played everything. I don’t know if it was a limitation or a conscious choice, but it works.
AFTER: Ah, Buddy Collette. He plays very good flute and saxophone also. I remember him with Chico Hamilton. The first time I heard Giuffre was in a fantastic quintet with Shorty Rogers. It’s the first time I heard the clarinet played with such a breathy sound. I like his playing very much.
9. Don Byron
“Theme From Hatari” (from You Are #6, Blue Note) 2001. Don Byron, clarinet, composer; James Zollar, flugelhorn; Edsel Gomez, piano; Leo Traversa, bass; Milton Cardona, conga, percussion, vocals; Ben Wittman, drums; Johnny Almendra, percussion.
BEFORE: It’s an Afro-Cuban rhythm in 6/8. They call it abacuá. They play it with four small drums (sings the various drum parts). The theme is really nice, but to my taste it doesn’t really go anywhere. Harmonically, it started very well. It sounds like traditional Afro-Cuban chants, and they put a melody on top. It’s a really nice melody. The percussion is really well done, but I don’t hear any development in the piece. It’s like the solo is part of another piece or something. It sounds like a friend of mine, a saxophonist named Javier Salva. It’s an Afro-Cuban group, no?
AFTER: Oh, it’s Don Byron. Yeah, this rhythm section is really good. It had to be Milton [Cardona]. He’s good, very good. He did the Calle 54 film with me. This is nice but I would have expected more. Don is one of the few great clarinet players around these days. He’s found his own way of playing the instrument, and he’s got great control. I saw him at Symphony Space and I was very impressed by the group that he has, because he combines the traditional thing with the avant-garde. He’s also one of the few who play both the clarinet and bass clarinet.
10. Joe Lovano
“Vesti La Giubba” from I Pagliacci (Viva Caruso, Blue Note). Recorded in 2001. Joe Lovano, tenor sax; Scott Lee, Ed Schuller, bass; Carmen Castaldi, brushes; Bob Meyer, mallets.
BEFORE: This is a man who can organize concepts very well. Joe Lovano is really something. He’s a character and he played this the way he is. He has that big sound, very warm. He also has a wonderful sense of humor and he’s so Italian. That’s Pagliacci by Leoncavallo. (sings along) Is that Cameron Brown on bass? Such a sad piece. I took Lovano to my jazz festival in Uruguay with Cameron Brown and Idris Muhammed, and they stole the show.
AFTER: I like this arrangement because it’s extremely dramatic. He’s a great improviser and he’s got that enthusiasm to play music and to learn. We also played together in a tango group with Pablo Ziegler. He likes to explore different things. He’s a great player and a great artist and I really love his music.
11. Artie Shaw
“Stardust” (from Artie Shaw and his Orchestra-Begin The Beguine, Bluebird) Recorded in 1940. Billy Butterfield, trumpet solo; Artie Shaw, clarinet solo; Jack Jenney, trombone.
BEFORE: Ahhhh. (sings along with the clarinet solo) So beautiful. Artie Shaw, right? He’s an amazing player, the way he constructs his solo. As a musician, he’s a lot better than Benny–a more advanced musician. Benny had a beautiful sound, but Artie had a beautiful sound too. I don’t like to compare musicians but Artie is amazing. Great trumpet solo at the beginning. Who was that?
AFTER: Artie Shaw was one of my father’s favorite clarinet players. Mine too.
LA: Your three favorite records of all time?
PR: Benny Goodman at Carnegie Hall, Bird&Dizzy: Jazz at Massey Hall, and Brubeck-Desmond playing their long version of Stardust.
This B&A with Paquito was recorded for JazzTimes in 2002.