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Paquito D'Rivera: Jazz at the Heart

Paquito D'Rivera: Jazz at the Heart
R.J. DeLuke By

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I am very proud to be a Cuban American, to be able do the music that I love, and to be accepted in a city and a country that I came to, fearing for my life ... It's a pity that I had to do it the way I did.
There is almost nothing Paquito D'Rivera hasn't accomplished since his arrival on the U.S. jazz scene in the early 1980s, when the young Cuban arrived from Spain—the first spot he hid when he defected from his home nation and its Communist rule that denied personal freedoms and forced musicians playing jazz to call it something else in order to avoid punishment.

It was in Madrid that he bided his time until he could make it to New York City, a location where he longed—dreamed—to make music—far so many years. Worth the wait.

Since then, the 62-year-old reed man (alto saxophone and clarinet)/composer/arranger has won nine Grammy Awards in Latin, jazz and classical categories and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from Carnegie Hall for his contributions to Latin music. In 2005, he received the esteemed status as National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, the same year he went to the White House for the National Medal for the Arts, with people like Wynton Marsalis and actor Robert Duvall. In 2007, D'Rivera was honored with the Living Jazz Legend award in a ceremony at the Kennedy Center, in Washington, DC.

So there's much to appreciate about this proud Cuban-American, and so very much music to enjoy. It's all come after paying some heavy dues. D'Rivera doesn't stand pat, however. He's continually writing and performing music. He's always working on new projects and ideas. He's even written two books, including his memoirs, and is looking for a publisher for a third.

In 2010, he had two recordings released, Panamerican Suite, a project with a large band released on the MCG Jazz label, and Tango Jazz: Live at Lincoln Center, a smaller group encounter on his own Paquito Records, being distributed by Sunnyside. The latter came out November 2010.

It seems like a lot, but music has always been the life force for this child prodigy who was performing live at the age of seven and performed with the National Theater Orchestra of Havana at the age of 10. He has more than 30 albums under his own name to his credit.

Panamerican Suite was recorded in April 2008, but "I never found the right time to put it out," Rivera said.

"Finally, MCG put it out together with my own production (Tango Jazz), so I am competing with myself," he added. "It's nice because we were having so much fun when we recorded Panamerican. Putting all those friends together and all those different instruments. It was fun. Then, Tango Jazz is like an old dream. Recording a CD of tango music with jazz, with real tango musicians imported from Argentina, was a thrill for me."

The suite album is a thoroughly engaging marriage of Latin and jazz, the writing coming from inspirations with origins from Canada to South America. All have the unmistakable Latin rhythms that are so ingrained in D'Rivera's joyous soul.

"I like combining the different rhythms and melodies from America. Those rhythms are very much influenced by Africa. It's in my blood. It's part of my title," he notes. The idea came in 2000 Marsalis asked him to write music for the Jazz at Lincoln Center organization.

"They have a series and they commissioned two jazz composers. The other composer was Nicholas Payton, the great trumpet player from New Orleans. He composed an entire first part, and then they thought about the contribution of musicians from the Latin American regions to the jazz language. So I talked to my friend, the poet Annie Colina, who lived in exile for many years. I asked her to write for me a poem that paid tribute to the entire continent. Not only to North America but Central and South America and the Caribbean. Then I put music to this poem ("Song for Peace"), using not only elements, but different instruments from different parts of Latin America. The bandoneon from Argentina. The bata drums from Cuba, the Venezuelan cuatro, the marimba from Central America. The steel pan drums from the Caribbean Sea. The result was the 'Panamerican Suite.'"

It premiered before Jazz at Lincoln Center had its own building. Later, it was recorded live at Manchester Craftsmen Guild in Pittsburgh. "Most of my music is recorded live. I usually like that," he adds.

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