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Jazz Review

D'Rivera Lights Up Cuban Cultural Fest

April 13, 1998|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Cuban American Cultural Institute kicked off its Festival '98, a nine-day celebration of Cuban culture, with an explosive evening of music. The headliner was one of Cuba's finest gifts to jazz--saxophonist-clarinetist Paquito D'Rivera--performing with the extraordinary range and versatility that have characterized his music since the 1970s.

D'Rivera has been appearing in so many contexts lately--as the leader of the United Nations Orchestra, with the tropical jazz group the Caribbean Jazz Project, and in a variety of different recordings--that it would be easy to overlook his skills as a pure jazz man. But D'Rivera clearly seems to prefer an eclectic perspective, and his program bounced around happily among straight-ahead jazz, Cuban danson, the music of Cuba's Ernesto Lecuona and some Latin pop tunes.

Despite the variety, D'Rivera's remarkable improvisational abilities were ever present. He is a commanding technician on alto saxophone as well as clarinet, so comfortably virtuosic that he easily tossed off rapid-fire runs and blazing, exercise-book passages with stunning ease.

His best work took place on the clarinet, a largely overlooked instrument in current jazz. In D'Rivera's hands, however, it emerges as a strikingly contemporary voice, rooted in tradition but completely articulate in the '90s bebop approach essential to D'Rivera's style.

Working in tandem with D'Rivera was a sterling ensemble, most of whom appeared with him last year as part of the Caribbean Jazz Project. He was also aided by the solid trumpet work of Diego Urcola, a rapidly maturing young artist who placed second last year in the 10th International Thelonious Monk competition. Both horn players suffered from an annoying, rock music-oriented sound mix that frequently buried the music in over-amplified drums and bass. But sheer talent ultimately prevailed in a program superbly depicting the rich diversity of Cuban culture.

Further enhancing the extent of that diversity, the evening opened with a colorful performance by Lazaro Galarraga's singers and dancers. Earlier in the program, achievement awards were presented by the Cuban American Cultural Institute to D'Rivera, bassist Israel (Cachao) Lopez, actor Andy Garcia and the late drummer Chano Pozo.

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