Sunday, May 18, 2014

Paquito D'Rivera: Portraits of Cuba

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“The thermometer outside of the venerable St. Peter's Church in Manhattan's Chelsea district read in the low 20s. Due to a momentary malfunction of the heating system, it was even colder inside, thanks to two of the biggest blizzards of the century which buried New York City under more than two feet of snow.   That was until the downbeat of "The Peanut Vendor".   

With this work and the subsequent 11 pieces rehearsed on that freezing February afternoon, the temperature and excitement coming out of Paquito and the 14-piece band, (dressed as Eskimos to combat the arctic conditions), rose to fever pitch. While Bob Katz and his sound crew were setting up in double time to insure the perfection of the recording, Producer David Chesky was closely supervising every aspect of the production, including authentic Cuban cuisine every day for the musicians and crew.  

The next afternoon, after 3 takes of "La Bella Cubana", the session was launched with the panache of a maiden voyage.   There were smiles amongst the band members and Paquito - the music had taken over.   David Chesky said, "Sounds great - it's a take". Paquito smiled at Carlos and replied, "That's it". Carlos chimed in, "OK, guys, 11 more to go".”

I was so taken with Pacquito D’Rivera’s 1996 recording of Portraits of Cuba with arrangements by Carlos Franzetti who also conducts the orchestra, that I wrote David and Norman Chesky a “fan letter” for their role in producing it for their label [Chesky JD145].

In return, I received a nice letter of appreciation from David along with the artwork from the CD jewel cover and tray plate arrayed as a poster which I later had framed.

Imagine that!

Here I was sharing with him how admiring I was for what could only have been an expensive and time-consuming labor of love and here was the person who incurred the expense of the money and time involved thanking me!

But then, it seems, such self-effacement [let alone, self-sacrifice] has always been there for those involved in producing Jazz recordings for as Michael Cuscuna, who has had a long association as the keeper of the flame for Blue Note Records and who is the current proprietor of Mosaic Records has explained:

“The hardest thing about having a jazz label,' says Michael Cuscuna, "is that you never have enough money to pay yourself and you don't have the reserves to grow the business. You take every cent that comes in and put it into pressing-plant money or making new records. There's no time to sit down and think, or put money aside for anything.” [Richard Cook, Blue Note Records: The Biography, p. 186].

Portraits of Cuba has thirteen [13] tracks that feature Paquito on soprano sax, alto sax or clarinet in arrangements that are beautifully fashioned by Carlos Franzetti in such a way as to evoke reminiscences of Gil Evans’ collaborations with Miles Davis.

Fortunately, the background of and context for the music on Portraits of Cuba is well-documented thanks to an interview with Paquito as conducted by Allison Brewster Franzetti, the wife of the composer-arranger whose lush arrangements beautifully frame D’Rivera “intensely hot, firecracker phrases that do so much to enliven the date.” [Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.]

Here is that interview which forms the sleeve notes to the CD.

© Allison Brewster Franzetti/Chesky Records, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


The following took place at Carlos' and my home on February 21, 1996.

ABF: How was this project completely new for you?

Paquito: I suspected that it would be - Carlos Franzetti is an arranger whose imagination has no end. I remember that there once was a compatriot of Carlos', a pianist, and a conductor and arranger, too, and he said, "Here's Carlos again - he invented another chord!" Carlos is a person who invents chords. I don't know another person who invents chords. He does some new voicing or something, and the same thing happens when he arranges a whole work. We're talking about one chord, but when he reinvents it, I think he really reinvents it! This CD has nothing to do with pure Cuban music - it's a jazz tribute to the Cuban tradition. That's what it is - that's my idea. That is how I see this project.

ABF: I know that you and Carlos have worked together for many years, both live and in various recordings. How did this project come about?

Paquito: That was absolutely Carlos' idea. He called me and said, "You remember Sketches of Spain ?" I think that was the origin of this record - not to copy it, but the idea of Sketches of Spain, which is not a Spanish-music project at all. If you play Sketches of Spain to somebody from Galicia, he'll say that it isn't Spanish music, it's a jazz tribute to Spanish music. It's the same thing that Carlos has done here with Cuban music - it's a jazz point of view, it's a jazz tribute to Cuban music, using elements of Cuban music.

ABF: You're the one who actually chose the material that he was arranging.....

Paquito: Well, some of them. For example, la habanera Tu - I chose that because that was the first tune that I ever played live, with my father.

ABF: Your father was your teacher, am I right?

Paquito: Yes, my father was my teacher. He was a classical saxophone player and a very clever pedagogue. He taught me solfeggio and how to read by playing some ingenious educational games with me. He used to repeat like an evangelic (the gospel) -"Solfeggio is the base of all musical instruction". He was the person who introduced the French school of classical saxophone to Cuba. Tito (my father) represented a world famous instrument maker in Havana, and he had a little shop, where I met some of the most outstanding Cuban musicians, Chico O'Farrill and Jorge Bolet included. It was in that shop where I first heard recordings of Benny Goodman live at Carnegie Hall, and right then and there I decided to be a jazz musician in New York. Anyway, the first time I played live was a at a graduation party at the end of the year at the school "Emilia Azcarate" - and they have a party and a wonderful dinner. I played with my father and a saxophone quintet which was accompanying me, and the first thing I played was la habanera Tu by Eduardo Sanchez de Fuentes. I performed frequently with my father after that, playing on radio and television and in theatres. I was known as "Paquito D'Rivera - The Smallest Saxophone Player in the World!" [Paquito stops to look at the list of music on this CD] Well, then No Te Imports Saber -Carlos did such wonderful work here. I explained to him why I wanted to do this. This is a person I admire very much, Rene Touzet (the composer of No Te Importe Saber), a monster musician. He's a great piano player, a classical piano player, too. This is a more well-known piece. And I asked Carlos to write something very pianistic to honor this man.

ABF: Surprise! (What I am referring to here is that Carlos wrote an intricate virtuosic opening and closing for me to play.)

Paquito: Yes! And you sounded incredible. I didn't think it was going to be so heavy, that! I think that

this is the best tribute to this great Cuban musician. Mariana was written by Carlos Franzetti in the Cuban jazz style, and it's a coincidence that the name of this little lady (pointing to Carlos' and my daughter, for whom this work is named) is the same name of the mother of one of our most dearest father-founders, Antonio Maceo (1845-1896). Her name was Mariana. Quite a coincidence, huh? Carlos has a lot to do with Cubans - poor man! Even the name of one of his children has to do with one of the dearest of Cuban women! That woman is the representation, the symbol of Cuban women - Mariana, the mother of Antonio Maceo. Isn't that wonderful?

ABF: Oh yes! And whose idea was it to record Echale Salsita?

Paquito:  Carlos and I had the idea to do Echale Salsita. This is where Gershwin took his idea from, his main theme for his Cuban Overture.

ABF: Gershwin's Cuban Overture was performed on August 19, 1932, is that right?

Paquito: Well, I don't remember exactly, but I think so. In early 1932, Gershwin made one of his visits to Cuba. Upon hearing Ignacio Pineiro's Echale Salsita, and Cuban music at large, Gershwin used the first 4 bars of Pineiro's Echale Salsita for his Cuban Overture, which he composed in July, 1932. Cuban Overture was performed in an all-Gershwin program on August 19. As Gershwin had developed Pineiro's material into his own overture, Carlos thought about paraphrasing Gershwin in his arrangement of Echale Salsita with quotes from Rhapsody in Blue. And then Carlos and I listened to Ignacio Pineiro's work, and to the part of the tune that goes "G-C-B-A-G-C-B-A-G-C-B-A-G", and Carlos used the overture here. I asked him to do that, and he did it marvelously. Song to My Son is an arrangement by Carlos of my piece.

ABF: You wrote that for your son, Franco, didn't you?

Paquito: I wrote that for Franco, yes.

ABF: When did you write that?

Paquito: I believe it was before I came to this country. In fact, I wrote that when he was born, and when I went to see him I felt a very strange feeling of happiness. I was so impressed, and I was a little sad, too, for some reason. It was a combination of both things. And then I wrote that song. I think it's a little nostalgic mainly because my mother wasn't there and my father wasn't there. They were not able to assist, to be present, to attend that happy event. That is why that song is a little nostalgic. I remember that.

ABF: Portraits of Cuba was written when?

Paquito: Portraits of Cuba is one of the themes of my wind quintet called, Aires Tropicales. I wrote that for the Aspen Wind Quintet. I was commissioned by the Aspen Wind Quintet to write a piece for them, an extended piece which is called Aires Tropicales, and this is the opening movement. I call it Portraits of Cuba because it's a portrait of my land.

ABF: And when Carlos arranged it, he took the beginning of the Aires Tropicales, which you orchestrated, and put it at the end of Portraits of Cuba exactly as you wrote it.

Paquito: Yes, he did. He likes to change the order! He did the same thing with No Te Importe Saber. The verse is in the middle of the introduction - you call that the verse, right?

ABF: That's right.

Paquito: And then he put the introduction in the middle of the song, like a bridge. He likes to move things around. So, basically, we chose this repertoire very democratically between us. Drume Negrita - that was something that came to our minds immediately, in unison. This is a favorite lullaby. Cuban musicians like this song very much - there is a preference for this piece of music amongst musicians, from classical musicians to jazz musicians and popular musicians.

ABF: It's universal, then.

Paquito: Yes, it's universal.  The Peanut Vendor, El Manisero, well, it's The Peanut Vendor....

ABF: Everybody knows The Peanut Vendor. I learned it in school, we ALL learned it in whatever music program we were in. I'm talking about public school, not music school.

Paquito: Yes, everybody knows The Peanut Vendor. And of course it's dedicated to Jimmy Carter (we laughed)! Tu Mi Delirio was an idea of Carlos'. This bolero is probably the third or the fourth piece by the great Cesar Portillo de la Luz. That man is a favorite of all time. I previously recorded another arrangement of Carlos' of one of his wonderful pieces called, Contigo En La Distancia for one of my records, and I have also recorded a couple of other works by him, including Noche Cubana What else?

ABF: La Bella Cubana....

Paquito: Ah, La Bella Cubana. I think this was an idea of Carlos Franzetti. Carlos wanted to do La Bella Cubana for some reason, I don't know why.

ABF: I know why … We heard La Bella Cubana used in the movie based on the Graham Greene book, "Our Man in Havana", and this music evoked such
nostalgia and emotion, like most Cuban music.....

Paquito: You're right about that.

ABF:  .......Anyway, Carlos thought that La Bella Cubana would be a great addition to this collection.

Paquito:  You know that Jose White, who wrote La Bella Cubana, wrote a beautiful violin concerto, too?

ABF: Oh yes, I have heard it - the Brooklyn Philharmonic performed it several years ago.

Paquito: I read that he was an amenable person. You know that he was black, and for a black soloist at that time life was difficult. He was the founder of the Royal Conservatory of Rio de Janeiro, and he was a teacher at the Paris Conservatory, being a Black Cuban in the 19th Century. He was a remarkable man. We are very proud of this man.

ABF:   We haven't yet discussed   Como Arrullo de Palmas.

Paquito: This is our tribute to the most universal Cuban musician, Ernesto Lecuona.

ABF: I remember when you called Carlos, and you spoke with me, saying "We can't do Portraits of Cuba without Lecuona".

Paquito: Lecuona is Cuba. Lecuona is the most representative Cuban composer. He also plays an important part in the history of Spanish zarzuela and Spanish music in general. Malaguena and the Andalusian Suite - these are part of the Spanish music repertoire. Some Spanish people don't want to call Lecuona Cuban - they consider him to be a Spanish composer. But this isn't true.

ABF: Whose idea was it to do I Love Lucy which was priceless?

Paquito: Incredible! You can't talk about the history of Cuba without talking about the history of Cubans outside of Cuba, especially the Cubans in jazz music and in American culture. I Love Lucy was the creation of Desi Arnaz, and this television program represented a Cubano so much in this part of the world. That theme is part of the Cuban music story, and both Carlos and I agreed about that.

ABF: Does Portraits of Cuba represent your roots as a Cuban?

Paquito: It's an ideal framework to express myself as a jazz musician born in Cuba. I have always been combining Cuban elements in my music, but this was written especially for me, accompanied by a wonderful big band, expressing in a jazz way my Cuban music. It's amazing what Carlos Franzetti has done here. I was very pleased and very honored to record with people I admire so much, people like Dick Oatts, for example. Dick is a jazz musician I admire a lot, a great saxophone player. And Jim Pugh, Dave Taylor, John Clark, Roger Rosenberg, Lew Soloff, Gustavo, Bobby, Tom, you, and all of the people who work with me in my band - Carlos used to be one of my pianists, and Dario Eskenazi is now. Andres Boiarsky, Mark, Diego Urcola and Pernell all work with me frequently. Dave Finck is a monster bass player. Another reed player that I admire very much is Lawrence Feldman, a doubler - I wonder how he can play all of those instruments so perfectly!

ABF: I feel the same way about you. It was amazing to watch you switch back-and-forth between instruments so comfortably. I know that you're thinking about what you're doing all the time, but to anybody who doesn't know, it looks like you just pick up any instrument and there you's an amazing gift that you have.

Paquito: I have an opinion about that. I wrote a book about the saxophone, soon to be published, and in the liner notes I say, "Great artists make very difficult passages sound very easy". I think you have to make difficult things sound very simple, like Heifetz. It's an art.

ABF: How do you prepare for a project like this? I know that you had some of the charts in advance and a synthesizer tape that Carlos gave you of his arrangements.

Paquito: First of all, Carlos has a feature in his favor. He's a great arranger, but he doesn't write things to be difficult. It's not necessary to write things that are difficult. In general, Carlos writes things very simply -everything is there for you. I didn't suffer too much  - I had to study some things, but generally, Carlos writes music that is simple to read and is wonderful. Complications don't make good music.

ABF: What he also does is to write his arrangements exactly as he wants them to be played, including all of the voicings in his harmonies. When he has something very specific in mind, it's down on paper. Now, please tell me more about your early studies. Brenda (Feliciano, Paquito's wife) was telling me at the recording sessions for this CD about your studies with your father - how you perfected those incredible high saxophone notes that you play which influenced so many saxophonists in their own ranges.

Paquito: When I switched from soprano to alto saxophone, the range was too short for me. I didn't know what to do - I was desperate. And then my father taught me how to play the high notes with a book written by someone who happened to be one of Charlie Parker's favorite saxophone players, Jimmy Dorsey.

ABF: Brenda was also saying that you and Carlos have always been ahead of your time. Would you like to comment on that?

Paquito: Some people didn't believe in what we stood for in that period. For example, when I was talking about the roots of Latin American music, I remember thinking, "They're going to pay attention to us - there are a lot of Latin people here". And you see now what has happened - now everybody wants to be Latin, even Ronald Reagan's grandmother was Latin (we laughed)!

ABF: How would you describe your overall experience in working on this project? Paquito: We worked on this with so much love, and I trusted Carlos Franzetti completely. When he came to me with this idea, I said, "I don't know what you're going to do, but I don't care, really. I trust you to do this." This really was Carlos' idea and he should take full credit for this project.

To my ears, the most exciting piece of music on Portraits of Cuba is the title tune.

See what you think as it forms the audio track on the following video montage made up of images of Paquito and the CD cover artwork, Cuban travel poster from the 1940s and 1950s and historic postcard views of the island nation which antedate both.

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