Paquito D'Rivera was a child prodigy who began playing music at the age of five. His father, Tito, was well-known saxophonist and conductor in Cuba. After performing at the National Theatre in Havana at the age of ten, D'Rivera began studies at the Havana conservatory. He continued to perform throughout his teenage years as well as co-founding the Orchestra Cubana de Musica Moderna. Several members of this group collaborated with D'Rivera to form the band Irakere, a jazz-rock group who was clearly influenced by traditional and classical Cuban music and who became the first Cuban musicians since the revolution to record in the U.S.
In 1981, while on tour in Spain, D'Rivera sought asylum with the American Embassy there, and left his homeland. It was at this point that he recorded the series of albums for Columbia Records that form the basis of The Best of Paquito D'Rivera. The first two, Paquito Blowin' and Mariel, recorded in '81 and '82 respectively, helped to increase D'Rivera's recognition with American audiences. He's become increasingly known as a composer as his career has progressed, but he was already composing some excellent material in the early '80s. "Monk-Tuno", for example, is a wacky Monk-like angular melody set against a funky bass and laced with Latin percussion. "Song for My Son" is a melody of stunning beauty played with a clear, clean alto sound that was unusual at the time, owing much more to Charlie Parker than to the harsh tone being utilized at the time by top studio musicians such as Tom Scott.
D'Rivera also kept some amazing company, both on these recordings and in his live work. The Columbia recordings sample here find him collaborating with such accomplished musicians as Eddie Gomez, Hilton Ruiz, Randy Brecker, Claudio Roditi, Michel Camilo (who also composed some fine tunes for the sessions and whose latest recording, Triangulo, is not to be missed), and Makoto Ozone. This makes the set doubly interesting, since not only do you get the incredible sax and clarinet work of D'Rivera but the considerable talents of his sidemen as well. Columbia should have provided personnel listings for the tracks, though, since most of the albums in question are not currently available on CD.
At the same time as these albums were recorded, D'Rivera was touring with Dizzy Gillespie, spreading the gospel of Afro-Cuban jazz around the world. You can hear a modernized version of Dizzy's "Manteca" here, from the Why Not! Album. It is a great arrangement by D'Rivera and Helen Keane, marred only by the occasional exclamation of an ersatz synthesized "horn section". The real horn section is excellent, as are the solo contributions of pianist Michel Camilo and harmonica player Toots Thielemans. Live at the Keystone Korner was also a nice piece of Afro-Cuban roots jazz, and is represented here by "Song For Maura", a Paquito original.
By the time Explosion was released in 1986, D'Rivera was experimenting with virtually every style available, from near-smooth jazz to funk and beyond. "Just Kiddin'", a Michel Camilo composition from the album, demonstrates the huge sound and varied elements that were going into Paquito's music at this time-check out his quote from "Salt Peanuts" that opens his fiery solo. In 1988, D'Rivera released Celebration and became a U.S. citizen. "Wapango" features a stunning neo-classical string arrangement that is unlike anything D'Rivera had done before. Unfortunately, Columbia saw fit to drop D'Rivera after the release of this album.
D'Rivera became a founding member of Dizzy Gillespie's United Nation Orchestra and continued to lead the band after Gillespie's death in 1993. He's recorded for an array of labels since then and continues to produce music that is an authentic blending of jazz, Latin, and African elements and rhythms. Much of his post-Columbia work has presented a more authentic, less popularized look at the music of his native Cuba. His Columbia work, however, offers a combination of jazz, funk, fusion, and Afro-Cuban elements that is unique to its time. Perhaps this compilation is a test balloon by Columbia to gauge the interest in the full albums, but it is clear that some of D'Rivera's work from this period should again see the light of day.