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Familiarity breeds virtuosity

January 27, 2005|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

Clarinetist Paquito D'Rivera and the Assad brothers -- guitarists Sergio and Odair -- first got together in 2003 as participants in Yo-Yo Ma's "Obrigado Brazil" project. The partnership was a logical one, in that all the participants -- Ma, D'Rivera and the Assads -- are eclectic artists, comfortable with music that ranges across genre boundaries.

So it's not surprising that D'Rivera and the Assads decided to take their creative relationship further, broadening the perspective to emphasize their common roots in the music of the Western Hemisphere. Their "Dances From the New World" concert program was the result, a collection of works reaching from Argentina and Brazil to Cuba and the United States.

On Tuesday at UCLA's Royce Hall, the trio played in a relaxed, even casual manner. D'Rivera is always an ebullient performer, and his easygoing manner -- joking with the Assads and the audience, rolling his eyes after playing a particularly difficult passage -- helped create a pleasing, in-your-living-room listening experience.

The music was a fascinating mix of sounds and styles: tango-based pieces by Astor Piazzolla, offbeat contemporary Brazilian works by Egberto Gismonti and Hermeto Pascoal, classics from Cuba's Ernesto Lecuona, Brazil's Heitor Villa-Lobos and Argentina's Alberto Ginastera, pivotal Brazilian works by Ary Barroso and Pixinguinha.

The broad range of compositions, embracing myriad styles and rhythms -- tangos, sambas, choros, Habaneras, boleros -- was handled with great ease and subtlety. The Assads' playing is so seamlessly integrated that their ensemble passages flowed with the living, vibrant voice of a single instrument. Their brief solo segments, as well as a duet rendering of Gismonti's "Baiao Malandro," were equally impressive examples of the sort of playing in which the music completely transcends the mechanics of music-making.

D'Rivera added character and individuality to everything he played. Classically trained, he brilliantly executed rapid-fire, finger-busting passages in pieces such as Pixinguinha's "Um a Zero," without losing the jazz-tinged individuality of his sound and phrasing. In a few numbers, space was opened up for him to explore his extraordinary improvisational skills.

One of the evening's highlights was D'Rivera's improvisation on themes by Dizzy Gillespie (including an effort to have the audience join in the vocal exclamations of "Salt Peanuts").

Call it one of the most engaging musical presentations of the season. Better yet, call it a stunning display of the music of the Western Hemisphere, performed by three of that region's (and the world's) finest artists.

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