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Everything you always wanted to know about sax with Paquito D'Rivera
D'Rivera reveals all at the Wisconsin Union Theater
D'Riveria escaped from Cuba during a tour abroad.
D'Riveria escaped from Cuba during a tour abroad.

One of the world's great reed players, Cuba's Paquito D'Rivera swings high 'n' mighty with his regular quintet at the Wisconsin Union Theater on Nov. 17. What a start to this season's Isthmus Jazz Series. Right now I'm listening to his new Funk Tango CD (with pretty much the same band), and I'm blown away.

This is mostly a Funk Tango tour, so let me fill you in. D'Rivera, 59, has countless albums (and nine Grammys) under his belt, but this one's his baby - his first self-produced CD. The recording features the Paquito D'Rivera Quintet?, with the maestro on alto sax and clarinet, Buenos Aires-born Diego Urcola on trumpet and trombone, Oscar Stagnaro, from Peru, on bass, Windy City native Mark Walker on drums, Curaao's Pernell Saturnino on percussion, and Israeli Alon Yavnai. For this tour, Yavnai's replaced by hot young Chicago-born piano man Alex Brown.

The question mark is because there are eight players on the recording, D'Rivera says. "My quintet's an elastic band. It can be a solo or a symphony orchestra, and you never know when someone's gonna be in town and sit in. But the basic quintet's been together a long time. The album's a symbiosis. Everybody contributed an arrangement or a composition."

This super-tight ensemble struts its stuff on Funk Tango's tracks. There's the title cut - Urcola's heavily deconstructed post-bop tango - and John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" as post-bop guaguancó. Between a saxy rendition of Astor Piazzolla's "Revirado" (with renowned Argentine tanguero Hector del Curto on bandoneon) and Stagnaro's gentle "Mariela's Dream," with its satisfyingly salsa-fied finale, D'Rivera drops his rapturous, old-fashioned "Contradanza," a tribute to legendary Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona. "La Yumba-Caravan," a Cubop-to-hard-bop tapestry of Osvaldo Pugliese's 1946 tango and Juan Tizol's famous contribution to Duke Ellington's legacy, is shot through with ingenious teamwork. Listen to D'Rivera's alto sax sizzle over Yavnai's steady piano montunos!

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.

D'Rivera's musical leaps are equally large. Jazz no longer contains him. Right now he's using the 2007 Guggenheim fellowship he was just awarded to write a comic opera based on Cecilia Valdés, a '30s Cuban zarzuela about a black girl who falls in love with a white slave owner. D'Rivera's operetta, Cecilio Valdés, Rey de la Habana, is about a white girl working in the tourist industry who falls in love with an Afro-Cuban. "Que jodienda! [What a screw-up!]," he laughs. "It's got operatic voices, jazz and rumberos, sometimes all in the same scene."

In 2003, D'Rivera copped double Grammys - Best Classical, for his recording of Stravinsky's "L'histoire du soldat," and Best Latin Jazz for Brazilian Dreams, with the New York Voices and Brazilian post-bop trumpet king Claudio Roditi.

D'Rivera's been plying his world classical chops lately, too, playing with Yo Yo Ma and Brazil's Assad Brothers. He performed here, at the Wisconsin Union Theater, on tour with the Assads in '05. You can hear him on Ma's Appassionato, released this year, and with the Assads and Ma on Obrigado Brazil (2004).

"It's hard to describe what I do," D'Rivera says. "Sometimes people don't get it. After an entire night of playing chamber music with the Assads and Yo Yo Ma, a woman in the back of the audience screamed 'salsa!' How can you play salsa with two guitars and no maracas?! Even playing jazz I take people by surprise. After an hour of playing [Thelonious] Monk once, someone asked me to play 'algo bueno' play something good? Monk isn't good enough?

"My 1996 album Portraits of Cuba - it's like Miles Davis' Sketches of Spain. That wasn't supposed to be Spanish. It was jazz using elements of Spanish music. That's what Portraits is, jazz using Cuban elements. The arranging, by Carlos Franzetti, is fantastic. But there are all these titles of Cuban songs on the album. A guy came up to me to complain about how we played 'Peanut Vendor.' He says 'Man, that's not how Chappottin played that in Cuba!' I said you want me to be [the great sonero Felix] Chappottin? He played trumpet! But I don't mind."

Portraits of Cuba was D'Rivera's first Grammy winner after Irakere, in 1979, and it's his personal favorite, along with Funk Tango. Portraits is brilliantly boppy, but unless you're like D'Rivera's heckler you can't fail to find Cuba in every single cut. And if salsa you must, "Echale Salsita" will take you there. Plus Portraits wraps with a wink at America only a Cuban could pull off with a straight face - the I Love Lucy theme.

D'Rivera cooks Cuban, too. A few weeks back I saw him on Iron Chef America's judge panel talking about making sofrito, the sauté of oil, garlic, onion and green pepper that's the base of all Cuban Creole cuisine.

"I love doing that show. It's a break from what I usually do. I like to eat. And yeah, I cook. I do black beans and rice, and I like fish. My specialty is camarones enchilados."

Sounds delicioso. But you can bet your booty D'Rivera cooks best when he's swingin' with his quintet.

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