The D.C. Jazz Festival, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this month, has presented a remarkable array of talent over the years. Yet multiple Grammy winner Paquito D’Rivera always manages to stand out — not just as a virtuoso in jazz and classical settings, but also as a performer who loves to keep a crowd laughing.
A perennial fest favorite, the Havana-born saxophonist-clarinetist has performed every year, delighting fans with his multifaceted Afro-Caribbean repertoire, harmonically fluid bop and irrepressible wit. If his humor reminds older concertgoers of Dizzy Gillespie’s playful demeanor onstage, it’s no coincidence. The late trumpeter was one of D’Rivera’s prime inspirations and supporters.
Close friend and D.C. Jazz Festival founder Charlie Fishman was quick to ask the renowned reedman to appear at the festival’s inaugural season. And D’Rivera was quick to say yes.
“The festival was a great idea,” he says by phone from his New Jersey home. “I love working with Charlie. He’s totally nuts, but he’s such a creative guy.”
This year, the Hamilton is the festival’s downtown hub, with an impressive series of concerts featuring D’Rivera and the Dizzy Gillespie Afro-Cuban Experience, among many other artists. And, as always, a long list of performers will be appearing at Twins Jazz, Bohemian Caverns and many other venues across the city throughout the festival, which opens Tuesday and runs through June 29. (The Washington Post is a corporate sponsor of the D.C. Jazz Festival.)
The signature event is Jazz at the Capitol Riverfront, at Yards Park and overlooking the Anacostia River. It is being billed as a three-day “blowout,” with a lineup that includes Trombone Shorty and vocalist Gregory Porter, for starters. There will also be wine and beer tastings, chef demonstrations and a marketplace.
D’Rivera will perform two shows at the Hamilton next Friday, leading a sextet that features trumpeter Diego Urcola. They will play selections from D’Rivera’s 2013 Grammy-winning album, “Song for Maura,” a Brazilian foray dedicated to his mother, as well as tunes inspired by some of his earliest childhood memories.
“As a very young kid, I was in love with classical music,” says the 66-year-old National Endowment for the Arts jazz master, who defected from Cuba in 1980. “So we’ll be playing some music from Chopin, Mozart and a little bit of Beethoven, of course with elements of jazz.”
D’Rivera is best known as a jazz artist, but he has performed and composed classical music throughout his career. Indeed, his accomplishments in that arena are nothing short of astonishing, and he’s busier than ever writing works commissioned from around the globe. Still, D’Rivera is most comfortable performing jazz with his core quintet and occasional guests, since the ensemble is well versed in Latin polyrhythms.
“Sometimes it’s hard playing with an orchestra,” he says, “because I’m used to being surrounded by musicians with a great sense of humor and a great sense of rhythm. When you go play with a symphony and you have those kind of jazz syncopations, you get in trouble all the time. I really try not to write so much syncopation, but with me it’s almost impossible.”
D’Rivera might never have cultivated a taste for jazz in his youth had it not been for a beloved Washingtonian: Willis Conover, the late Voice of America broadcaster whom D’Rivera credits with introducing him to the canon of great jazz recordings.
“In those days in Cuba, jazz was a four-letter word, but we loved that music so much. I remember when I did my first radio broadcast with Willis. Broadcasting from here back to Cuba, it was a dream come true. One day I’m going to make an album for him — he deserves that.”
Fans may have to wait, though. Topping D’Rivera’s wish-list now is a studio recording with his old friend Chick Corea. The session would be a first for the pair and, with a little luck, could inspire a performance at a future D.C. Jazz Festival. That’s a possibility, D’Rivera says: “I live like I play jazz — I improvise.”
Tuesday through June 29 at various D.C. locations. www.dcjazzfest.org. Paquito D’Rivera performs at 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. next Friday at the Hamilton, 600 14th St. NW. 202-787-1000. www.live.thehamiltondc.com. $25-$35.