Paquito D'Rivera on the Future of Cuba's Musicians

If you've never felt the endorphin rush of Irakere, call in sick, clear some room in your schedule for dancing, and stream up the Cuban band's self-titled debut record. At home, I can't help but dance and spaz out to the horn of Arturo Sandoval and punching sax of Paquito D'Rivera. With the Cuban supergroup on the car stereo, I drive with the lead foot of Max Rockatansky. Irakere is a who's who of its generation, akin to the '92 Dream Team. It's unlikely that such a ridiculous pool of talent could be assembled from one country ever again.

"When we put together that group, we had so much desire to do different things," saxophonist D'Rivera says. "It was something that doesn't happen very often. Doing that group, we didn't know the impact and influence we would have in what they call the Latin jazz scene around the world."

Irakere would go on to have a long and prosperous run, blending jazz, funk, and Afro-Cuban rhythms with a dexterity and fluency never seen before or since. But a year after the group's first album won the Grammy for Best Latin Recording, D'Rivera opted out. Long dissatisfied with the political oppression in Cuba and frustrated with the limitations that the embargo placed on his career, the saxophonist sought asylum at the American embassy in Spain in 1981.

Though 35 years have passed and diplomatic relations have been restored between the United States and Cuba, D'Rivera is still skeptical about progress in his homeland. "It's very cosmetic," he says. "I don't think the relations have been, like Obama says, 'people-to-people.'"

D'Rivera doesn't expect major steps forward for any musicians except the established talent. "Maybe now, some people, some elites, have the chance to go play with American musicians, like Wynton Marsalis going and playing there," he says, citing the American trumpeter's 2015 performance in Havana. "[Cubans] have an opportunity to see a couple of American musicians down there, but that doesn't change much."

For the bulk of his career in America, D'Rivera has performed with a core quartet of trumpeter Diego Urcola, bassist Oscar Stagnaro, and drummer Mark Walker. "Those people have been a gift for me," he says. 

In 2014, the quintet released Jazz Meets the Classics, recorded live at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola in New York City. The bright effort captures D'Rivera's childhood in music, when he played as a 17-year-old featured soloist in the Cuban National Symphony. He and Urcola take the fast verbose runs and contrapuntal swirls found in the classical tradition and place them over the rhythm section's Afro-Cuban pulse. "The concept was trying to imagine how the music would feel if Chopin, Mozart, and all those composers were born in Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Brazil," D'Rivera says.

Though classical music made a lasting impression during his childhood, his early years were consumed by jazz. When D'Rivera was 8 or 9 years old, his father brought home an album by clarinetist Benny Goodman recorded live at Carnegie Hall. The record had made its way to the island a few decades after it was laid to wax, but the young saxophonist spun his copy into the ground. "Since I heard that thing, I always had in my mind that I would come to New York and be a musician here," D'Rivera says. "I've had that in my dreams all these years. But now I am stuck here!"

Paquito D’Rivera’s Sextet with Lucrecia and special guest Malena Burke. 8 p.m. Saturday, February 27, at the Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-949-6722; arshtcenter.org. Tickets cost $59 to $154 via arshtcenter.org.

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