Paquito D'Rivera, Count Basie and Nnenna Freelon at the Kimmel Center, Philadelphia

Victor L. Schermer By

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The Basie group was in top form throughout and magically evoked the sensational feeling of those heady days when Basie would make his short 'clinks' on the piano, and the group would break out into unsurpassed swinging ecstasy.
Paquito D'Rivera Quintet; The Count Basie Orchestra; Nnenna Freelon
The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, Verizon Hall
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
September 28, 2007

The first concert in the series of Mellon Jazz Fridays at the Kimmel Center kicked off in the midst of Phillies "fever, with our local baseball team vying to hold first place in the Eastern conference, so the concert was interspersed with updates of the scores of the Phils and the Mets games by Anne Ewers, the new Kimmel CEO, and Mervon Mehta, seasoned Vice President for Programming. There was also an announcement that Mellon Bank had recently merged with the Bank of New York but thankfully would continue its sponsorship of this outstanding and popular jazz series.

However, the audience's attention was quickly diverted to the anticipation of music as Paquito D'Rivera and his group came on to perform. It was clear even from the first few bars that this was a group of virtuosi making the finest quality Latin-based jazz instead of the pop-jazz mix all too typical of the genres comprising the world of latin pop. Diego Urcola's up-tempo valve trombone solo on the first piece, "What About That? from D'Rivera's new CD, Funk Tango (Sunnyside Records, 2007), was done with carefully measured artistry reminiscent of the great Bob Brookmeyer, and Urcola's full and rich timbre was a pleasure to the ear. Urcula's arresting tones, moreover, set the stage for what was literally a series of complex compositions, rather than just "tunes, by a group manifesting exceptional musical sensibilities.

Bassist Oscar Stagnaro's composition, "Mariela's Dream, also from the new CD, featured solos by the versatile Urcola on muted trumpet, D'Rivera on saxophone, and Stagnoro on his guitar-style bass, which he used to great advantage throughout. Starting out with the flavor of a "Dizzy bebop tune (Dizzy Gillespie was D'Rivera's mentor and colleague in the early days), the piece evolved through various movements, developing each while undergoing several transfigurations, ultimately culminating in a powerful tango-style rhythm. Such transformations can only be executed by the most proficient players and accomplished improvisationally by the very best of jazz musicians. A nod must be given to Gillespie here, because he was one of the pioneers, along with Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Gil Evans among others, in the coming of age of jazz as a full musical form—not exclusively an improvising soloist's idiom but an extemporaneous-sounding compositional expression influenced by the spontaneity of the individual player.

In keeping with the theme of the new CD, a tango composition by the great Argentinian composer, Astor Piazzola, revealed still further complexities in the capable hands of D'Rivera, who incorporated shifting moods, tempos, and intensities, as if his performance were a deconstructive and reconstructive study of Piazzola's melody and erotic rhythmic pulsations. D'Rivera showed himself to be in total possession of the music both as instrumentalist and leader. Pianist Alex Brown, a twenty-year old boy wonder, played an astonishing solo both in terms of technique and musical expression. Brown is simply a budding genius of jazz piano (think Art Tatum and Bud Powell) and is likely to lay claim to some spectacular achievements in the future.

"Fiddle Dreams, originally written by D'Rivera for violinist Regina Carter, proved to be a rich, elaborate work starting out in a bebop mode and developing a feeling of the gang "rumble from West Side Story. Taking the notion of musical composition to still further heights, this piece literally included several "movements in sonata form.

The set ended on a spectacular note, with an upbeat bossa nova. Super-rapid soloing by Stagnaro and a cool cornet solo by Urcola with shades of Art Farmer, led to an extended section with a Bach-like theme and variations suggestive of the "Well-Tempered Clavier, including solos by all the members of the group. It reminded me of a mind-blowing recording of a jazz version of a Bach fugue by the transplanted French pianist Bernard Peiffer, an unsung hero of jazz who influenced Michel Legrande. You've got to be very confident in yourself as a complete musician to pull off something like this, and the D'Rivera Quintet certainly met the challenge with flying colors. All in all, they provided a magnificent set of serious music combined with the "lightness of being which Mr. D'Rivera brings with him wherever he goes.


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