Sunday, June 01, 2008

I May Not Be Able To Define "Funk Tango" For You, But I LIke It

COLCHESTER--The Flynn Center was once again the site of an outstanding musical performance tonight, as the legendary Cuban saxophonist/clarinetist Paquito D'Rivera brought his "Funk Tango" quintet to the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival.

By now, many know the Paquito story: A classically-trained child prodigy who received his first alto at the age of three, and a member of the legendary Cuban Latin jazz-fusion group Irakere in the 70's, he would seek asylum in the U.S. in 1981 (another member of that group, trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, would do the same thing a few years later). Equally at home on alto saxophone or clarinet (although the latter would be de-emphasized somewhat in his groups until, as he puts it, a late-'80s recording by Eddie Daniels "gave everyone permission" to play clarinet in jazz again), he is known for a big, bright sound and dazzling technique. (He also is very engaging and has a wicked sense of humor--qualities that were encouraged, no doubt, by one of his mentors, Dizzy Gillespie, but with roots in his own parents back home.)

Having never gotten to see him in concert before, the personnel of this band was largely unfamiliar to me before tonight. On most of the recordings in my collection, Paquito was teamed with the brilliant Brazilian trumpeter/flugelhornist Claudio Roditi, who has since left to become a leader in his own right. But his replacement, the Argentinian Diego Urcola, has proven to be a more-than-able replacement, mixing technique, sensitivity and very good high chops, and playing trumpet, flugel and valve trombone. A recent addition to the band, the 20-year-old American pianist Alex Brown, proved to be a crowd favorite and received a lot of solo space. Bassist Massimo Biolcati, of Italian and Swedish descent, is another fine newcomer in the band, and the American drummer Mark Walker was a fine blend of chops and style.

The quintet's portion of the concert was preceded by the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival Big Band. I had seen them in '05 with Randy Brecker doing "Sketches of Spain," but they were no mere opening act this time around, as Paquito's rhythm section was integrated into the band, and the man himself was onstage from the very first downbeat. (The unconventional setup of the show would continue when the big band took a break in the first set so the qunitet could whet the audience's appetite for the Grammy-winning 2007 CD--conveniently for sale in the lobby--and the big band would return in the second set for the finale.)

The concert opened with a big-band version of "Chucho" (a dedication to pianist Chucho Valdes, the third renowned founder of Irakere and the only one of the three to remain in Cuba), and from there, it was off to the races. One of the most enjoyable things about Latin jazz is its energy and optimism, and those were out in full force tonight--even on the slower tunes, the best of which ("I Remember Diz") featured an extended clarinet cadenza by Paquito that quoted nearly every famous Dizzy Gillespie tune in existence. The second half roared into place with "Pere," the opening track from the CD, and the energy continued unabated for the rest of the evening (punctuated by Paquito's impish sense of humor; among other things, he noted that if people in the audience bought his CD, he would autograph it afterwards, and then "even if you don't like it, you can sell it on eBay the next day").

It was noted during the pre-concert activities (which included a panel discussion led by trumpeter Ray Vega, a soon-to-be faculty member at the University of Vermont, and a one-on-one interview with Paquito by the eminent jazz critic Bob Blumenthal) that Paquito may not always get his due because he is pigeonholed as a "Latin jazz saxophonist." Tonight proved beyond a doubt that, instead, he is a great jazz saxophonist who just happens to play music that's often highly influenced by styles from Latin America. The mix of cultures in his quintet (which he once wryly referred to as his "band of illegal aliens") added considerably to the music and took it in many wonderful directions. Was there a tune that stayed in swing feel the whole night? Not at all. But did the music itself swing? You'd better believe it.

As noted above, Paquito is not only a stellar player, but he knows how to put on a show. It was said in the Blumenthal interview that not everyone does that--you wouldn't go to a Miles Davis show, for example, to experience interaction of any sort (indeed, the one time I saw Miles live, he didn't speak a word). But taking a cue from his mentor Gillespie, Paquito kept the audience in stitches all night, which added to the lively nature of the show.

So what is "Funk Tango," anyway? Well, in the Blumenthal session, Paquito said it was a tune on the CD, written by a former associate, pianist Alan Yovnai (and he noted that it's so hard that he's "too nervous" to play it without the composer on board). While it may not be an actual style of music, it's a good enough description of the wonderful gumbo of styles found within this band. The typical sax-and-trumpet-led jazz quintet (which expands to many more players on the recording) has been taken to new heights. I hope our paths cross again soon.

All in all, this was another great evening of jazz with a legendary performer. The first weekend is in the books; if I'm able to catch any of the up-and-comers during the week, they'll be reviewed here. If not, expect a Dave Brubeck posting on Friday night.

Another voice, again: Here's a review of the concert by Burlington Free Press reporter Paul Kaza, who's blogging the entire festival here.

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