(July 13, 2007)

To Paquito D’Rivera, It’s All Just Music

Peter D. Kramer/The Journal News

Time is important to musicians. Some tap their toes to keep time. Others bounce their heel up and down.

Clarinet legend Paquito D'Rivera taps his toe, bounces his heel, bobs his head and shrugs his shoulders on occasion.

To make sure he's not late, D'Rivera - the Cuban native who this summer is composer-in-residence for the Caramoor International Music Festival in Katonah - wears a bright yellow wristwatch with a bright yellow leather band.

Time is important to Paquito D'Rivera - and he's making the most of the time he has.

His compositions have earned him a Guggenheim Fellowship, which he's using to write "Cecilio Valdez," an opera about a Cuban who is "the king of dance and of the night."

He has won Grammys and Latin Grammys, was named 2006 Clarinetist of the Year by the Jazz Journalists Association, was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master and a "Living Jazz Legend" by The Kennedy Center.

Oh, and there was that trip to the White House when he received the 2005 National Medal of Arts, the highest honor bestowed on artists.

When NEA President Dana Gioia called to tell D'Rivera he'd be receiving the honor from President Bush, the musician thought his friend was pulling his leg.

"Yeah, I'm Christopher Columbus," he says he told Gioia.

He was humbled, he says, to get the same medal Dizzy Gillespie had received.

As for standing in the president's residence, D'Rivera quips: "They cook good there, but they need black beans on the menu. I'll call Cheney to tell him."

The White House was a long way from Cuba, where young Paquito was a child prodigy.

"My father was a classical saxophone player," he says. "He never had the ability to improvise, but he loved Lester Young and Stan Getz and, of course, the Benny Goodman Orchestra.

"He'd play for me, back-to-back, Benny Goodman at Carnegie Hall with his string orchestra and the Mozart Clarinet Concerto. So it was very happily confusing for me, Goodman and Mozart. I thought they lived at the same time."

To D'Rivera, "it was all just music."

Being tapped as Caramoor's composer-in-residence is "a happy responsibility," he says. "Anything that happens around (Caramoor CEO and general director) Michael Barrett is very inspiring. His enthusiasm is contagious. He's classically trained. He was Leonard Bernstein's right hand. You have to be a fantastic musician for a person like that to allow you to be around him."

It's clear he has fallen in love with Caramoor, a musical oasis deep in the Katonah woods.

"I breathe in music and nature up there," he says. "Usually, I don't like to play outdoors. It's problematical. Outdoors, for me, is for football. But for some reason, that place, the sound is good and it's quiet. I like Caramoor very much."

D'Rivera is enjoying himself.

His rehearsals are full of laughter - until the downbeat, when his clarinet or saxophone gets all his attention and the toe taps, the heel bounces, the head bobs and the shoulders shrug.

"It's about having fun," D'Rivera says. "Mozart and Dizzy Gillespie are two of my favorite people, because they had such a great impact on serious work, and still they are laughing. It's good to smile once in a while."

D'Rivera smiles more than once in a while. The tall Cuban walks into a room and the lights seem to come on.

Asked which instrument he preferred, he demurs: "It's like liking women with dark hair or yellow. They are still beautiful."

D'Rivera's tenure at Caramoor is a celebration of music with a Latin feel.

His partner in the effort is Venezuelan flutist Marco Granados, who serves as music adviser - "my musical consigliere," he says - for an eight-concert series titled "Sonidos Latinos," or Latin sounds. The series is so big, it will spill over into next summer's festival.

D'Rivera says the series is an opportunity to recognize the contribution of Latin composers to the classical realm.

One of the pieces he'll play tonight - with Granados on flute and Alon Yavnai on piano - is Pixinguinha's "Um a Zero" for Flute, Clarinet and Piano." It's a bouncy, playful song that was inspired by, of all things, a 1930s soccer match that ended with Brazil beating Uruguay, 1-0. In Portuguese, 1-0 is "Um a Zero."

His summer in Katonah also saw last month's world premiere of his Concerto for Double Bass, Clarinet/Alto Saxophone and Orchestra (Conversations with Cachao), a tribute to Cuban bass legend Israel "Cachao" López, a friend of D'Rivera's father.

Cachao was on hand for the concert, which for D'Rivera, was like having his late father in the Venetian Theater with him.

His gig at Caramoor isn't exclusive. He'll appear with the Baltimore Symphony and play with a big band in Boston this summer.

His residency is also not limited to 2007. He'll be back next year, when he hopes to play "Fantasias Messiaenicas," his composition for jazz quartet and symphony orchestra, dedicated to Olivier Messiaen.

Messiaen was the French composer who wrote "Quartet for the End of Time" after being captured fighting the German invasion of 1940. His quartet had its premiere in a POW camp in Gorlitz, Germany, in January 1941.

"I wrote this piece based on the clarinet part of the quartet," D'Rivera says, "because the clarinet player was the only Jewish member of the quartet. He escaped the camp three times - with his clarinet.

"I was fascinated by the personality of this crazy guy, Henri Akoka, who escaped a concentration camp with his clarinet," he says.

D'Rivera's recording career includes more than 30 solo albums that embrace jazz, bebop, Latin and classical styles.

His latest album, "Funk Tango," is credited to a group known as the "Paquito D'Rivera Quintet?"

Why the question mark in the group's name?

"Quintet is just a name," he says. "It's like 'symphony orchestra.' If you have a symphony orchestra, it depends on the budget, you could have 100 people or 30. I like the name 'quintet.' It just sounds good. It depends on the budget - and who showed up.

"The budget was good," he says. "It was my budget. If I received a (royalty) check, we would have called someone else to play with me," he says with a laugh. "Maybe Michael Barrett."

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