Paquito D’Rivera Quintet at the Regattabar

Nat Seelen By

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Paquito D'Rivera Quintet
Cambridge, MA
October 19, 2018

For over four decades, Paquito D'Rivera has been an institution in the global music scene. Flitting between jazz, latin, and classical music since he was a boy studying at the Havana Conservatory of Music, he's logged thousands of miles, more than fifty albums as leader, and fourteen GRAMMY awards (He's won in both the Latin Jazz and Classical categories. In the same year. Twice.) over the course of an illustrious career. So let's just say I was excited to catch his 10 o'clock set at the Regattabar Jazz Club on a cool Friday evening this October.

The Regattabar seats about 225 on a full night, and it was packed to the walls and buzzing with anticipation when I strolled in at 9:43 pm. I grabbed a high chair at table 217, near the back of the room, stage left, and ordered a drink. Out in the hallway, I could hear a clarinet warming up with the overture to Mozart's Nozze di Figaro. Then the lights dimmed, the door swung open, and in walked the Paquito D'Rivera Quintet.

Without a word, pianist Alex Brown dropped his fingers to the keys and began a latin jazz-inflected take on Frédéric Chopin's Fantaisie-Impromptu in C# minor, Op. 66. (Titled "Fantasia Impromptu," it's also the lead track on D'Rivera's 2014 album, Jazz Meets the Classics, recorded live at Dizzy's Club Coca Cola. Here's Daniil Trifonov's rendition, for the originalists in the audience.) D'Rivera came in with the melody and ripped through the fastest of the runs on both clarinet and alto saxophone, while Diego Urcola switched from burning bop licks on the trumpet to a laid-back largo on valve trombone as they played down the entire composition. With one final unison passage that somehow stitched together bebop, latin, and a romantic solo piano composition from 1834, they hit the final cadence and the audience roared its approval.

"You don't think Chopin would like some congas?" D'Rivera chuckled as he took the mic. One of the most distinctive voices of his generation on both clarinet and saxophone, he is also a consummate entertainer and a joyful master of ceremonies, borrowing from the legacy of his longtime collaborator, Dizzy Gillespie. Over the course of the next 90 minutes, D'Rivera delivered a masterclass in friendly banter sandwiched between sparkling solos and ensemble work.

In the second piece of the set, Mark Walker's samba, "What About That?," D'Rivera, Urcola, and Brown stretched out in improvisations that offered a glimpse into the rest of the evening. It's common in the jazz world to quote liberally from well-known tunes and solos. Each of D'Rivera's quotes seemed to not only relate to the past but also foreshadow the next piece. Bits of "A Night in Tunisia" and "It Ain't Necessarily So" drifted out of his bell and the next thing we knew, the heads appeared in the rest of the band. The web of references bound the set together into a consistent whole despite the mix of disparate pieces.

After "What About That?," the band launched into an original by Urcola, "Blues for Astor Piazzolla," dedicated to the great Argentine tango master and bandoneonist. A fun romp through blues, tango, and bebop, this again featured solos from D'Rivera, Urcola, and Brown.

Halfway through the evening, D'Rivera invited two students to join him on stage: Juan Fernando Ruiz, a clarinetist from Colombia, and Soojung Lee, an alto saxophonist from South Korea, both of whom came to Boston to study at Berklee. Lee had a beautiful tone and a monstrously powerful blues. I could feel myself getting pulled up from my seat as she played, so infectious was her energy. Ruiz had a lovely, flutey, sound on the clarinet and marvelous fluidity across the range of the instrument. D'Rivera took the final solo, then kept the students on stage for a run through "A Night in Tunisia" in 7/8. Lee again shined with a brilliant solo that leapt to the very top of the range with perfect control. To finish the tune, D'Rivera took an extended cadenza, then passed it to Ruiz and then Lee, who opened with a sweeping rendition of the Chopin from earlier in the evening before steering the band into a vamp and launching into another round of solos. She is clearly going somewhere, and fast.

Brown, Stagnaro, and Walker slid into a slow vamp while D'Rivera took the mic to introduce the band, then hit the tag to "Salt Peanuts" to end the show. The crowd clamored for an encore, stamping and hollering through the house lights and the background music turning on. He left us cheering for what felt like a solid three minutes before returning to the stage for one final number. "Dizzy Gillespie, when he was happy, he loved playing this piece. When he was sad, he loved playing it, too." It was the theme from "Black Orpheus," and it was absolutely lovely. Somehow, they transitioned from that into "Oye Como Va" and "Tequila" to finish the night. And what a night. Seventy years old this past June, D'Rivera continues to dazzle with his brilliant command of his instruments and styles and I, for one, look forward to many more years of his playing.

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