For decades, the Havana-born saxophonist, clarinetist, and composer Paquito D'Rivera has followed his creative impulse wherever it leads, breathing his characteristic joy and vitality into everything from bebop to merengue to Mozart.
Listen. It’s all music. Just like Duke Ellington always said, you don’t need but two categories for it: Good and Bad. Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy ultimately frolic in the same gardens as Charlie Parker and Herbie Hancock, right? Johannes Brahms, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Frederic Chopin take their cards at the same canasta table as Astor Piazzolla, Joni Mitchell, and Thelonious Monk, yes? Genre has little, if anything, to do with overall quality, though genius does. Most of those who insist on sectioning everything you hear into compartments marked “Jazz,” “Classical,” “Pop,” “R&B,” and “World Music” (within which there are, so to speak, worlds within worlds from Portuguese fado to Jamaican reggae) are only packaging the sounds so they can sell them to you more easily.
Paquito D’Rivera has no problem with that, even though there are few musicians in the western hemisphere who cross musical marketing boundaries as effortlessly as he does. Over four decades, the 68-year-old Cuban-born saxophonist, clarinetist, and composer has recorded more than forty albums as a reed player with jazz combos, big bands, orchestras, string quartets, and quintets. If, in other words, you’re looking for him in whatever passes for a record store these days, there are plenty of places to look.
“It’s OK with me,” he says over the phone from his Bergen County, New Jersey home. “When you look for something [to listen to], you have to know where to look for it and sometimes you can’t find it easily. So, the thing with labels? So long as it helps people connect with what they want, I don’t mind.”
But D’Rivera isn’t disputing Duke Ellington’s ecumenical view of music either. “The reason I play so many different styles is because I get very bored too easily. It’s the same thing with eating. I love black beans and rice. It’s my favorite food. But black beans and rice every day? Why would I? Why would anybody? Too many people get attached to one kind of music and you can’t pry them loose from it. It’s not interesting and it’s probably not healthy either.”
So if something ails you, sampling some of D’Rivera’s work from any point in his prodigious discography would be a first resort for relief, whether to such Columbia albums of the 1980s as Paquito Blowin’, Mariel, Manhattan Burn, or Live at Keystone Korner or to the wide assortment of post-Millennial recordings that includes 2002’s Brazillian Dreams, with trumpeter Claudio Roditi (MCG Jazz), 2005’s Portraits of Cuba and The Jazz Chamber Trio (both on Chesky), 2006’s A Night in Englewood with the United Nation (Columbia) Orchestra, or the most recent discs released on the Paquito Records/Sunnyside label, including 2013’s Song for Maura featuring the Trio Corrente, 2014’s Jazz Meets the Classics, and 2015’s Aires Tropicales, on which D’Rivera plays clarinet with the string ensemble Quinteto Cimarron on a selection of works by Cuban composers.
D’Rivera is so prolific that it’s a wonder he can keep track of all his various projects and groups, much less spare an hour of his time on the phone. A couple days after we finish talking, he’s heading to Florida to perform pieces from Jazz Meets the Classics, in which works by Chopin, Beethoven, and Mozart are reimagined and rearranged for small jazz ensemble. D’Rivera’s love for the classical repertoire comes through in his solicitous treatment of each melody, while his instinct for rhythmic momentum injects energy and possibility into Chopin’s “Fantasie Impromptu” or Mozart’s “Queen of the Night” from The Magic Flute (under the title, “Die Zauberclarinete”).
“Tito Puente once told me,” D’Rivera says, referring to the late great percussionist-bandleader, “that if you put a Latin beat under any melody, it will sound better, even if it’s a Viennese waltz.”
D’Rivera came by his eclecticism early in his life, which began June 4, 1948 in Havana. His father Tito had retired from Cuba’s army band to work as the country’s sales representative for the Selmer musical instrument company. A classically trained reed player and, as his son recalls, “not able to improvise,” the elder D’Rivera was nonetheless also an aficionado of swing music from the thirties and forties, notably Benny Goodman, Count Basie, and Lester Young. He practiced the soprano saxophone five hours every day, though his son remembers thinking it seemed more like twenty-five hours a day. “I never saw that instrument in its case,” D’Rivera says with a laugh.
By the time Paquito was five years old, he’d heard so much music, on record and in person (hanging out with his father to meet and listen to the latter’s clientele in concert halls and nightclubs), he was inspired to take lessons from Tito on the soprano saxophone. He played his first public concert at age six on the soprano and began copying solos from some of his father’s records, notably from his first hero, Benny Goodman.
“Back then, one of the records my father played a lot was the 1938 Carnegie Hall concert which, for some reason, didn’t come out [on record] until 1956, when I was nine. My favorite was his version of the Mozart concerto for clarinet and I would try to make my own transcription of his solos…And not just his, but also the other members of his band, [trumpeter] Harry James, [saxophonist] Toots Mondello, even from [drummer] Gene Krupa, and [vibraphonist] Lionel Hampton. I loved the sounds I would get out of the soprano and I still do.”
By the time D’Rivera was 11 years old, his father helped him move on to clarinet. “I was skinny and my fingers were very thin back then,” he says. “So my father imported from the Selmer people a covered-hole B-Flat clarinet, which is so rare now that they have one in the Smithsonian.”
Not long after he started on the clarinet, D’Rivera was admitted to the Havana Conservatory of Music, where he would eventually branch out to the alto saxophone. His training was primarily classical, but he started to enjoy improvising just as much, even though he concedes he didn’t take to Charlie Parker’s music years before. “My father played me an LP with Charlie Parker on alto, Dizzy [Gillespie] on piano and Miles [Davis] on trumpet. I listened very quietly and when it was over, he asked me, ‘Do you like that?’ And I said no, because I was so used to the sounds of swing music. It didn’t sound like Goodman, Artie Shaw, Duke Ellington, and all the music I’d grown up with. I didn’t know yet how important bebop would be for me.”
By the time he was 17, D’Rivera was a featured soloist with the Cuban National Symphony Orchestra. In 1967, he and his conservatory classmate, the virtuoso pianist Chucho Valdes, co-founded the Orquestra Cubana de Musica Moderna, authorized by a Cuban government that had hitherto considered jazz “imperialistic” music “for reasons,” D’Rivera writes in his 2015 collection of autobiographical essays, Letters to Yeyito, “that were never clear.” (He’s published two other books, including a novel, Oh La Habana.)
In 1973, D’Rivera, Valdes, and other members of the Musica Moderna orchestra formed the groundbreaking supergroup Irakere, which fused elements derived from American jazz, Afro-Cuban folk music, Cuban dance-band, and amplified rock to create a potent sound that galvanized the Latin Jazz scene and made international stars of D’Rivera, Valdes, trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, and others throughout the late seventies and early eighties. They won wide acclaim and awards, notably a 1980 Grammy, the first of fourteen D’Rivera would receive to date.
Irakere also drew attention from American jazz royalty, and in April, 1977, D’Rivera had his first fateful meeting with Dizzy Gillespie, perhaps the most significant, life-altering friendship he’s made with a musician. The story of that encounter is in the aforementioned Letters to Yeyito, though D’Rivera admits to some dramatic enhancements. This much he’ll admit: That month, a cruise ship named Daphne had docked in Havana with such notables as Gillespie, Stan Getz, David Amram, and Earl Hines on board. One very hot day, D’Rivera found a note in a paperback left by his door, saying that Dizzy Gillespie had been looking for him.
“I thought it was a joke,” he recalls. “So I went to a corner bodega where this note came from and somebody there tells me there was this chubby black guy here dressed like Sherlock Holmes looking for me. So I figured that must be Dizzy.” He recounts how, not long afterwards, a police car picked him up at his home. “I was scared shitless,” he says. “I’m thinking, ‘I didn’t do nothin’!’ And they say, ‘No, no, come with us.’ So they took me to the former Hilton Hotel, which is now the Habana Libre Hotel and there’s this jam session with American musicians. Dizzy was there. Rudy Rutherford, very old saxophone player, [pianist] Joanne Brackeen was there. I had never seen so many American jazz musicians in one place. That was how I met Dizzy.”
In 1980, chafing under the restrictions placed on his musical choices by the Cuban government, D’Rivera, by then 32 years old, defected to the West while Irakere was on tour in Spain. By the time he got to New York, D’Rivera was reveling in expanded possibilities and Gillespie was there to help him adjust—and thrive.
“In 1981, I got a call from Dizzy saying that Toots Thielemans was having a stroke and would I sub for him on a European tour. I tell him, ‘Dizzy, I am not as famous as Toots Thielemans. He is a star. He screams at me over the phone, ‘You want to come on the tour or not?’ I say, ‘Yessir! When do you want me, sir?’” He laughs. “The following year, I got my own European tour and that was the beginning of my own career as a touring jazz artist.” He pauses. “I owe everything to Dizzy.”
D’Rivera repaid some of this debt in 1988 by helping his American mentor form the 15-piece United Nation Orchestra, celebrating the cross-pollination of Latin, Caribbean, and North American jazz music. Even though the group has outlived Gillespie, who died in 1993, D’Rivera is still compelled to remind people that it is the United Nation Orchestra, unaffiliated with the United Nations itself “because Dizzy was a member of the Ba’Hai faith and they believe the world should be united as one.”
The United Nation Orchestra is now one of many ensembles occupying D’Rivera’s attention. And though he’s written commissioned works for big bands and symphony orchestras, including a flute concerto, “Gran Danzon,” composed for Washington D.C.’s National Symphony Orchestra in 2002, and a 2008 piece for the Caramoor Latin American music initiative for orchestra, saxophone, and contra-bass in tribute to the legendary Cuban bassist-bandleader Israel “Cachao” Lopez, one gets the sense that it’s the smaller groups where he feels at once more comfortable and freer to take the kinds of chances he likes. He is as lyrically buoyant playing a Brahms trio on his clarinet with a cello and piano as he is charging through one of the Jazz Meets the Classics tracks with an acoustic jazz quintet.
“To me, these are all classic forms, whether improvised music is involved or not,” D’Rivera says. “The jazz quintet is my favorite; two horns in front, piano, bass, and drums in the back. If you consider a string quartet or quintet with a piano or a clarinet a classic ensemble when it plays Mozart, then it should be the same for a jazz quintet. ‘Classical’ can be used to describe different kinds of music and if the format is standard, then it shouldn’t matter what’s being played.”
As a player, D’Rivera is as agile and frisky an improviser as he was four decades ago. On the alto saxophone, he can still move phrases at top speed, splitting a plump tone in two with seeming nonchalance. The clarinet, however, seems to arouse a more romantic, contemplative spirit, brought to fruition with strings on the Aries Tropicales disc.
“You bring different attitudes towards different music,” he says. “When you play Brahms, you try to copy, to extract the spirit of that wonderful composer. And the Brahms trio is played with an A clarinet, which has the same fingering as a B-Flat, though the A is mellower. It’s also harder to play. It doesn’t respond as easy as when you play the B-Flat clarinet. It’s as though the instrument is giving you some resistance… Nevertheless, the sound is beautiful, even with the resistance. You can’t tune it with anything other than a cello, which happens to be my favorite of all the stringed instruments.”
When one brings up the cello in conversation, one can’t help but think of Yo-Yo Ma, with whom D’Rivera performed at the former’s 2004 “Obrigado Brazil” concert at New York’s Zankel Hall. One of that concert’s high points was “Merengue,” a piece composed by D’Rivera and performed by Yo-Yo Ma on cello, Kathryn Scott on piano and D’Rivera on clarinet. Clocking in at just under three minutes, the piece manages to compress a wistful, melancholy melody against a relentless, impeccably-calibrated rhythm befitting its dance-music title. It won yet another Grammy for D’Rivera, this one for Best Instrumental Composition.
“Yo-Yo was interested in having a merengue,” D’Rivera recalls. “And there are two types of merengue. One is the Dominican style, which is written in 2/4. But this merengue is more Venezuelan, which is written more in 5/4, 5/8. I had to learn from a couple of Venezuelan friends on how to write for it. I needed to analyze, break it down… and so I started to improvise something out with another pianist and Yo-Yo asked, ‘What is that?’ I said, ‘The merengue.’ So I came back with the whole thing written with the cello parts added on.”
There seems nothing in the music world that resists D’Rivera’s curiosity or his imagination. While audiences may still regard classical and jazz music as divergent, he insists there’s as much to engage the intuitive impulses in a composed piece as in a piece demanding he “play changes” like a jazz player.
“I guess it goes back to when I was growing up and being exposed to so much different music,” D’Rivera says. “Mozart, Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker… it was even confusing to me for a while. But it was so very happily confusing.
“As I say, when you play different pieces, you simply have to adjust to the style, even if it’s from the same composer. You adapt yourself to the music’s intention, whether it’s jazz or classical, major or minor. You just have to obey the adjustments. It’s all music. And like anybody else, I do what I need to do, what I have to do.”
Gene Seymour is a cultural critic and contributor to the Oxford Companion to Jazz (Oxford University Press). He has written about music, film, and books for such outlets at The New York Times, Newsday, The Nation, USA Today, and The Washington Post.