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Diego Rivera: The Contender

Jud Branam By

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Diego Rivera: Diego Rivera: The Contender Like the famous muralist from whom he got his name, Michigan tenor saxophonist Diego Rivera covers a lot of stylistic ground while adhering to a workmanlike theme on his new CD, The Contender.

Rivera leads a powerful sextet through an 11-song set of brawny, orthodox post-bop that carries on the blowing session tradition in the best sense of the phrase.

The title-track opener sets an aggressive and upbeat mood with an angular, John Coltrane-styled sax intro by Rivera, backed by some hot call-and-response from trumpeter Greg Gisbert. The song sets a great tone for the rest of the session as Rivera, Gisbert and trombonist Michael Dease trade fluid solos and the rhythm section of pianist Miki Hayama, bassist Rodney Whitaker and drummer Ulysses Owens, Jr. lays down a rock-solid platform to dive from.

The next track, El Pachuco, "The Hipster" in Latin culture, is just that, growing assuredly from lovely harmony lines in the head into a hard, swinging tenor lead. It gets a boost from the always fat, woody tones of bassist Whitaker.

Rivera, like Whitaker and Dease a professor of jazz studies at Michigan State University, shows he's knows what he's teaching with a tight, tuneful set that's alternately New York spiky and Latin fluid. What's more, the record has a terrific sound to it, with a nod to recording at Owens' AlleyCat Studios.

Singer Bria Skonberg lends a world-weary and heartfelt ambience to Rivera's "Don't...Can't... Won't," a sweet ballad he composed to honor his love and connection with his wife, Maria. Whitaker and Hayama provide a smooth piano trio accompaniment that delivers the earnest mood.

Energy comes back up for Jerome Kern's "Yesterdays," highlighted by Rivera's strong tenor lead, some well-arranged ensemble play and a crashing drum track from Owens.

Lots of Stevie Wonder tunes get borrowed by jazz players, but it's hard to find one that sets up more seamlessly for combo jazz than "My Cherie Amour." This take is less reinterpretation than celebration and works beautifully, punctuated by a lovely, bouncing solo by pianist Hayama.

Swinging cool jazz is the order on Rivera's "The Whit," in which Whitaker's stellar bass tone gets mixed up front in a great bit of mixology right up there with a well-poured Scotch and soda. Every instrument sounds delicious on this one, from fat piano keys to a grin-inducing sax-bass unison line.

Two figures admired by Rivera get nods on the next tunes. "Frida" pays an homage to the muralist's wife and muse, Frida Kahlo, followed by a take on Horace Silver's classic "Silver's Serenade." Both are in keeping with the rest of the record: swinging, high-level and great sounding.

Hard bop purists will enjoy "Little Giant," in which Rivera pays homage to Johnny Griffin with a tight, cooking jam, replete with the brisk tempo and soaring licks suited to the honoree. Behn Gillece adds a swinging vibraphone solo to the outstanding mix.

The set wraps up with "Tinte Latino," a Rivera meditation on the idea of jazz, the quintessential American music, having deep African roots in South America. The set triumphs because it is what it sets out to be: a great new jazz record for people who love great old jazz records.


Track Listing: The Contender; El Pachuco; Don't...Can't...Won't...; Yesterdays; Para Los Muertos; My Cherie Amour; The Whit; Frida; Silver's Serenade; Little Giant; Tinte Latino.

Personnel: Diego Rivera: tenor & soprano saxophones; Greg Gisbert: trumpet; Michael Dease: trombone; Miki Hayama: piano; Rodney Whitaker: bass; Ulysses Owens Jr.: drums; Bria Skonberg: vocals; Behn Gillece: vibraphone; Andrew Swift: percussion.

Year Released: 2013 | Record Label: D Clef Records | Style: Straight-ahead/Mainstream


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