November 19, 2007


Paquito D'Rivera: Everything you always wanted to know about sax (Susan Kepecs, 11/16/2007, Isthmus)

D'Rivera leaves plenty of room for everybody to stretch out, but he's the star of the show. He wails. He blows Benny Goodman, Miles modals, mambos. You'd call it Latin jazz, but D'Rivera calls it music.

"I grew up with a father who played classical sax and loved Lester Young. I didn't know the difference between Mozart and Machito till I was 11. I'm as at home with Brahams as Ellington. But when I first heard Benny Goodman's Live at Carnegie Hall, recorded in 1938 — my father played it for me in '55, when I was seven — I was so impressed, right then I wanted to come to New York and play jazz."

D'Rivera's wish took 25 years to come true. "My first inspirations were my father and Benny Goodman, and then [ace Cuban pianist] Chucho Valdés," he says. "I met him when I was very young, just 14 and starting to play Havana's Teatro Musical. Chucho was there, and [guitarist] Carlos Emilio Morales."

Valdés cut his first album in '64, featuring D'Rivera, Morales and a set of radical tracks mixing Cuban son y rumba, post-bop, funk and classical influences. In '67 the revolutionary government organized the Orquesta Cubana de Musica Moderna, giving the island's best musicians a sanctioned chance to play jazz – but also charging them with interpreting the Beatles and other foreign pop. Valdés, D'Rivera, Morales and Arturo Sandoval (who's bringing his Mambo Mania Big Band to Overture Hall next month) were in the lineup.

But the Orquesta's size, along with its government-dictated agenda, led Valdés to start Cuba's iconic Irakere in '73, taking D'Rivera, Morales, Sandoval and others with him. "We wanted to travel, see the world," D'Rivera says.

Much of Irakere's music was dance-worthy jazz fusion, groundbreaking in Cuba and accessible in the States. During the partial thaw in U.S./Cuba relations under Jimmy Carter, Irakere became the first Cuban group to record on a U.S. label, Columbia. In Madison, in the late '70s and early '80s, Ricardo Gonzalez regularly featured Irakere's hits on the Cardinal Bar turntable and his WORT radio show, "La Junta." (In fact, after multiple incarnations, Irakere's still around, both in Cuba and on "La Junta.")

One of the great contradictions of the Cuban revolution is Irakere's long-lived success, and the fact that Valdés today is one of the island's greatest musicians, despite the government crackdown on jazz.

"There was a little window for jazz in Cuba at that time," D'Rivera says, "but Fidel has no idea about music. He prefers sports. There was always jazz in Cuba, but after the revolution the government called it the enemy's music. When I was in the army, to hear jazz we'd go up on the roof and play the radio quietly. We tuned in to Willis Conover's 'Voice of America Jazz Hour' coming out of Washington, D.C. From that we learned about Joe Henderson, the new Miles Davis quintet, Woody Shaw, Ron Carter, Freddie Hubbard. Someone was always on guard, ready to whisper 'the captain's coming, turn it off!'

"In my free-jazz days, in the '70s, I was very influenced by Eric Dolphy," D'Rivera continues. "I was in a trio with the fantastic Cuban pianist/drummer Emiliano Salvador, and Carlitos del Puerto, who was also in Irakere, on bass. It was our illegal period — it's an unknown episode in my career. That music was never recorded, but I keep it as a treasure in my mind."

D'Rivera left Cuba in 1980. He'd considered getting on the infamous Mariel boatlift, but ended up making his run while on tour with Irakere.

"The band flew from Cuba to Spain, on its way to Sweden. I escaped in the airport — it was just me — and asked for asylum in Madrid. I tell it as a funny story now, there's humor with distance. But it wasn't funny then, it was a mess."

He's never been back to Cuba. "Jazz is a four-letter word there now. Chucho has the Havana Jazz Festival, which used to be directed by Arturo Sandoval, who defected 10 years after me. But the government just allows it 'cause it brings in tourist bucks. They prefer you to play something else."

Valdés probably wouldn't agree. D'Rivera, in his recent memoir, Mi Vida Saxual (My Sax Life), talks about the emotional distress he suffers when the press casts him politically against the great pianist, so I feel a little guilty writing this. Playing with Valdés again in Havana, "with our photos in the arts section, not the political section," is one of D'Rivera's fondest dreams.

But besides the doses of bitterness D'Rivera shares with so many Cubans in the States, My Sax Life leaps between the booming, macho sense of humor the title implies – hijinks in the army and outrageous stories collected over a lifetime of touring with fellow musicians ("there's a picture of me and Dizzy [Gillespie] naked in a sauna in Finland," he says) — with surprising tenderness for his son, Franco, and second wife, soprano Brenda Feliciano, whom he married in New York.

Chucho Valdes presents a painful dilemma but we learned to live with a similar one where Herbert von Karajan was concerned.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 19, 2007 4:02 PM
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