Recording of October 1996: Portraits of Cuba

PAQUITO D'RIVERA: Portraits of Cuba
Paquito D'Rivera, alto & soprano sax, clarinet; Lew Soloff, Bob Millikan, Diego Urcola, Gustavo Bergalli, trumpet, flugelhorn; Lawrence Feldman, alto sax, flute; Thomas Christensen, tenor sax, flute; Andres Boiarsky, tenor sax, clarinet, flute; Roger Rosenberg, baritone sax, bass clarinet, bassoon; John Clark, French horn; James Pugh, trombone; David Taylor, bass trombone; Allison Franzetti, Dario Eskenazi, Carlos Franzetti, piano; David Finck, bass; Mark Walker, drums; Pernell Saturnino, percussion; Carlos Franzetti, arr., conductor
Chesky JD145 (CD only). David Chesky, prod.; Bob Katz, eng. DDD. TT: 60:36

The brainchild of producer David Chesky, Portraits of Cuba celebrates saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera's life in Cuban music through richly scored big-band arrangements by Carlos Franzetti, an Argentinian composer of film scores and other works. Chesky and Franzetti have worked together before: Franzetti was also the arranger of Orquestra Nova (Chesky JD54), a strikingly beautiful collection of Latin popular and light classic pieces arranged for classical musicians. When it came to writing for Paquito D'Rivera, Chesky gave Franzetti his freedom. So did D'Rivera: "When [Carlos] 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.' "

Franzetti has created contemporary versions of Cuban pieces, most of which are connected with D'Rivera's performing career in one way or another. The model was the Gil Evans/Miles Davis collaboration Sketches of Spain; Portraits of Cuba shares with the Evans work a deep, fluid, often brassy sound, and a seemingly ideal balance of written segments and solo spots. Franzetti's writing is finally a lot hotter than Evans's: he is, after all, celebrating Cuban music, with its powerful dance rhythms, rather than the more stately sounds of Spain, and he has in D'Rivera an extraverted, virtuoso instrumentalist.

Still, not everything here sounds particularly jazzy, or was meant to. The familiar habañera "Tu"—you'll recognize it if you hear it—was an inevitable choice. Composed by Eduardo Sanchez de Fuentes, "Tu" was the first tune D'Rivera performed live. A child playing in his father's band, he was soon billed as "The Smallest Saxophone Player in the World." "Tu" begins with some Evans-like mystery—an introduction that opens with a sudden long chord by muted low brass, bass clarinet, and flutes. Soon the flutes swirl independently away, and muted trumpets enter with their own figure as the bass clarinet and piano add colorful side comments. A steady repeated line begins, and D'Rivera states the initial theme on soprano sax. Few arrangements are so full of exotic colors, yet soon "Tu" is swinging over a strong Cuban rhythm section. But many listeners will be most struck by the sound of the band in the more static moments.

Franzetti was freely imaginative with D'Rivera's own pieces: almost ruefully, it seems, D'Rivera notes the way Franzetti stuck a theme from "Aires Tropicales" on the ending of D'Rivera's "Portraits of Cuba." No matter. Franzetti's arrangements are powerful as well as colorful, and he keeps the band swinging through a grand variety of music, beginning with the wistful hundred-year-old "La Bella Cubana" with which the disc opens and ending, perhaps with some irony, with the "Theme from I Love Lucy." He's no snob, and he isn't afraid of the obvious: Franzetti includes "The Peanut Vendor," made popular by Stan Kenton. He notes that percussion is at the heart of Cuban music, but concentrates instead on the colors he can elicit from a big band of fine New York professionals.

It helps that Chesky has recorded this band with the company's usual care. The soundstage is natural, the soloists stand out as they should, and the whole is beautifully balanced, from the lustrous bass upward. D'Rivera plays with his customary panache, but, as he says, this is really Franzetti's session.—Michael Ullman