The City Pulse

Wednesday, November 20,2013

Baby, baby

Saxophone man Diego Rivera taps into the cycle of life with infant daughter and new CD

by Lawrence Cosentino

Diego Rivera has picked a hell of a time to climb onto the national stage with his new CD, “The Contender.”

“I’m hanging in there,” the homegrown East Lansing tenor sax powerhouse and MSU Professor of Jazz said. He was absorbing a bowl of Beggar’s Banquet gumbo between an afternoon class at MSU and an evening gig in Detroit. 

Rivera, 35, is playing and arranging with more intensity and focus than ever, teaching a full schedule of jazz studies at MSU and hopscotching through the Midwest for a series of CD release gigs, including one this Saturday at Old Town’s Creole Gallery. He dotes on his 4-month-old daughter, Nefeli, so fondly that his colleague, trumpeter Etienne Charles, has a new Diego imitation. He puts on an excited grin and points to an iPhone.

Both of Rivera’s babies are thriving. Last week, “The Contender” reached No. 8 on the JazzWeek charts, nestled among big releases by stars like Kenny Garrett, Ahmad Jamal and Steve Turre. As satellite radio picks up on Rivera’s muscular tenor sound and talent for making complex arrangements go down like mellow Scotch, he’s getting calls for interviews from San Francisco to New York.

The burst of music making comes as a relief to Rivera, who wasn’t sure for a minute that his life’s passion would survive the coos of his baby girl.

Two days after Nefeli (named after a cloud Zeus turned into a goddess) was born in early June, Rivera went straight from the maternity ward to the East Lansing Jazz Festival to play with the Professors and the Lansing Symphony Big Band. Immediately afterwards, he rushed back to the hospital with the plastic bracelet still on his wrist.

Otherwise, Rivera’s horn sat in its case all May and most of the summer, a thing that hadn’t happened in over 15 years.

“My future looked completely different,” he said. “My priorities changed completely. Everything just became about family.”

A doubt plagued him. Since high school, Rivera lived, ate and slept music, much like his idol, John Coltrane. After all this, would the embrace of jazz feel the same?

The vinyl finally flipped back to Side A on a drive to Detroit with bassist Rodney Whitaker for an early August gig at New Center Park.

“I was terrified, but we got on the gig and I had a blast,” he said. “It reaffirmed how important music is to me. Even when I´ve really understood what was important in life, music was still way up there.” The next day, Rivera played a blistering set at Lansing JazzFest, matching force for force with the Professors and formidable guest trumpeter Terrell Stafford.

“Every time I´ve played since then has been an absolute joy,” he said.” I know that in my heart of hearts, I love being a musician.”

Rivera can adapt to bebop, R&B, soul and pop, but his zone is in the red-meat school of Coltrane, Johnny Griffin and Ben Webster. Coltrane, often called “the heavyweight champion,” was the inspiration for “The Contender”’s title track.

“That’s about putting myself out there, planting my two feet, speaking with a loud voice,” Diego said.

But Rivera differs from all of his idols, especially Coltrane, by keeping his solos brief and boiled down, at least on the album. Clichés and indulgences are triple-filtered into a dark stream that churns instantly to a froth and cuts off like a hearty stout from a high-pressure tap. You’re left wanting more, although trumpeter Greg Gisbert matches Rivera blast for blast on the CD.

To hear Rivera really stretch out, he said, “You’ll have to come to the gig” at the Creole. MSU trombone man and “Contender” producer Micheal Dease will play trombone, with Columbus-based Dwight Adams, a former Detroit staple and MSU instructor, on trumpet, former MSU professor Rick Roe on piano, Sexton High teacher David Rosin on bass and Detroit’s Nate Winn on drums.

The CD features a hotter-than-hot New York band, put together by Dease, with Whitaker on bass. Incredibly, it was finished in a day, with two takes each of 12 Rivera originals. The tunes juggle Latin-tinged workouts with straight shots of hard bop and earnest emotion, driven on by a subtle narrative momentum. “Frida” is a nod to painter Frida Kahlo, closely associated with Rivera’s namesake, the painter Diego Rivera.

Rivera wrote “Frida” while his wife-tobe, Maria, was visiting her family in Greece.

The two were in love, but hadn´t yet decided whether, or where, they could settle down, in Greece or in East Lansing. It felt like limbo.

When Rivera brought in the tune for rehearsal, the run-through ended in silence.

At length, Rivera said, bassist George DeLancey looked at him and said, “Man, you miss your girlfriend.”

The building blocks of “The Contender” are drawn from tradition, but their confident interplay and pleasing nuances betray Rivera’s stamp. He says he’s wary of anybody claiming to have done something “new.”

“It´s taken me a while to see music and a lot of experiences as circular,” he said. “I don´t listen in a straight line.” A phase of obsessing over tenor sax legend Lester Young might lead Rivera to cerebral West Coast players like Lennie Tristano and Chet Baker, in turn to “Third Stream” classical-jazz composers like Bob Brookmeyer to straight classical stuff from Bach and Debussy until the siren voo-voo of Lester Young beckons again.

“Every time you go around the cycle you listen to something with a little bit more information, a more informed ear,” Rivera said.

He’s on his second and third revolutions with some favorites — probably his 20th with titans like Coltrane and Young.

“It doesn´t necessarily lead me anywhere,” he said. “It just keeps me coming back.” The trick, he said, is to get smarter every time he goes around, with music or life experience.

“I don´t want to be a completely different person,” he said. “I like who I am. I want to be more of who I am.”

As Rivera ruminated, our late lunch turned into an early dinner. We wrapped up at about 3:30. Rivera was due to hit at Detroit’s Dirty Dog Café with Sean Dobbins at 6:30. He was pleased at the timing.

"I´ll be hungry by then," he said. "I like to be a little hungry when I do a gig."

Diego Rivera Quintet 

‘The Contender’ CD Release Party 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 23 Creole Gallery, 1218 Turner St., Lansing $20/$10 students Hear a sample of Rivera’s muisc at

Diego Rivera: The Contender

By  Published: November 14, 2013

Diego Rivera: Diego Rivera: The ContenderLike the famous muralist from whom he got his name, Michigan tenor saxophonist Diego Rivera covers a lot of stylistic ground while adhering to a workmanlike theme on his new CD, The Contender. 

Rivera leads a powerful sextet through an 11-song set of brawny, orthodox post-bop that carries on the blowing session tradition in the best sense of the phrase. 

The title-track opener sets an aggressive and upbeat mood with an angular, John Coltrane-styled sax intro by Rivera, backed by some hot call-and-response from trumpeter Greg Gisbert. The song sets a great tone for the rest of the session as Rivera, Gisbert and trombonist Michael Dease trade fluid solos and the rhythm section of pianist Miki Hayama, bassist Rodney Whitaker and drummerUlysses Owens Jr. lays down a rock-solid platform to dive from. 

The next track, El Pachuco, "The Hipster" in Latin culture, is just that, growing assuredly from lovely harmony lines in the head into a hard, swinging tenor lead. It gets a boost from the always fat, woody tones of bassist Whitaker. 

Rivera, like Whitaker and Dease a professor of jazz studies at Michigan State University, shows he's knows what he's teaching with a tight, tuneful set that's alternately New York spiky and Latin fluid. What's more, the record has a terrific sound to it, with a nod to recording at Owens' AlleyCat Studios. 

Singer Bria Skonberg lends a world-weary and heartfelt ambience to Rivera's "Don't...Can't... Won't," a sweet ballad he composed to honor his love and connection with his wife, Maria. Whitaker and Hayama provide a smooth piano trio accompaniment that delivers the earnest mood. 

Energy comes back up for Jerome Kern's "Yesterdays," highlighted by Rivera's strong tenor lead, some well-arranged ensemble play and a crashing drum track from Owens. 

Lots of Stevie Wonder tunes get borrowed by jazz players, but it's hard to find one that sets up more seamlessly for combo jazz than "My Cherie Amour." This take is less reinterpretation than celebration and works beautifully, punctuated by a lovely, bouncing solo by pianist Hayama. 

Swinging cool jazz is the order on Rivera's "The Whit," in which Whitaker's stellar bass tone gets mixed up front in a great bit of mixology right up there with a well-poured Scotch and soda. Every instrument sounds delicious on this one, from fat piano keys to a grin-inducing sax-bass unison line. 

Two figures admired by Rivera get nods on the next tunes. "Frida" pays an homage to the muralist's wife and muse, Frida Kahlo, followed by a take on Horace Silver's classic "Silver's Serenade." Both are in keeping with the rest of the record: swinging, high-level and great sounding. 

Hard bop purists will enjoy "Little Giant," in which Rivera pays homage to Johnny Griffin with a tight, cooking jam, replete with the brisk tempo and soaring licks suited to the honoree. Behn Gillece adds a swinging vibraphone solo to the outstanding mix. 

The set wraps up with "Tinte Latino," a Rivera meditation on the idea of jazz, the quintessential American music, having deep African roots in South America. The set triumphs because it is what it sets out to be: a great new jazz record for people who love great old jazz records.

Track Listing: The Contender; El Pachuco; Don't...Can't...Won't...; Yesterdays; Para Los Muertos; My Cherie Amour; The Whit; Frida; Silver's Serenade; Little Giant; Tinte Latino.

Personnel: Diego Rivera: tenor & soprano saxophones; Greg Gisbert: trumpet; Michael Dease: trombone; Miki Hayama: piano; Rodney Whitaker: bass; Ulysses Owens Jr.: drums; Bria Skonberg: vocals; Behn Gillece: vibraphone; Andrew Swift: percussion.

Record Label: D Clef Records

Style: Straight-ahead/Mainstream


Detroit Free Press

KUVO Radio


October 2013 CD of the Month

Diego Rivera "The Contender" D Clef Records

Diego Rivera is a superb saxophonist who since 2002 has been on the faculty of Michigan State University of East Lansing, MI as an Assistant Professor of Jazz Studies, Saxophone, and Improvisation. For his second release as a leader, The Contender for D Clef Records, Diego has come out swingin’ for all eleven of the selections on the CD, eight of which he penned, he’s accompanied 2 of his M. S. U, colleagues, Rodney Whitaker on bass who also wrote the liner notes, trombonist Michael Dease who is the proprietor of the record label and Denver’s own, the superlative trumpeter Greg Gisbert. Rounding out the group; Miki Hayama on piano and Ulysses Owens Jr playing drums.

A native of Michigan, Diego has amassed an extensive list of credits since 1999 when he toured nationally with the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra. He’s enthusiasm and commitment to education has led to his appointment as Associate Conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s Civic Jazz Ensembles. However, his passion for composing, arranging and performing has never waned; he has been commissioned to write music for several major concerts and events as well as performing with the likes of Ellis Marsalis, Gerald Wilson, Christian McBride and Clark Terry-just to name several.  For The Contender, señor Rivera honors his Mexican heritage with songs he wrote representing his ethnicity, moreover he composed dedications to Johnny Griffin and Rodney Whitaker in addition to performing some refreshing new takes on jazz chestnuts.

This is an outstanding CD from start to finish, featuring a variety of sounds guaranteed to please even the most discerning jazz fans. Diego Rivera’s The Contender proves that he’ll soon be harvesting a new crop of aficionados as well as contending for top honors among saxophonists.


Hoy queremos recomendar los CDs. de 2 Jazzistas, quienes no son ampliamente conocidos todavía pero, que
son bastante buenos. Tenemos que admitir que solo los conocíamos de nombre y al escucharlos, quedamos sumamente
impresionados ! ... Uno es saxofonista y el otro guitarrista ...

a) en primer término, comentaremos el 2do. CD como líder del (ts/ss/comp) Chicano, Diego Rivera, quien nació en
Ann Arbor, MI (28-Nov-1977). Diego se crió en E. Lansing, MI, estudió en la Michigan State University de esa localidad
y ahora es Profesor Asistente de Saxofón y Estudios de Jazz, allí mismo ! ...

Sus influencias, como saxofonista, van desde Lester Young, pasando por Dexter Gordon y Joe Henderson, hasta
llegar a John Coltrane. Diego también agradece al (ts) Branford Marsalis, su Maestro y Mentor y como Diego es también
compositor (admira a Wayne Shorter) y en su rol de arreglador (está influído por Thad Jones y Oliver Nelson).
Y lean ahora lo que afirma "All About Jazz": "Diego Rivera is a bright new voice on the saxophone whose sound emerges
form the echoes of the past !"



Su CD se llama "The Contender" (Grabado: 8-Ago y 1-Oct-2012 y Editado por D-Clef Records el 17-Sep-2013).
Acompañan a Diego, el (tp) Greg Gisbert, (tb) Micheal Dease (dueño también de sello D-Clef), la (p) Miki Hayama,
(bass) Rodney Whitaker y (bat) Ulysses Owens, Jr., auque en algunos cortes figuran el (vibes) Behn Gillece, la (voc)
Canadiense, Bria Skonberg y (perc) Australiano, Andrew Swift. Todos ellos hacen muy bien su trabajo, destacándose
Diego Rivera en (ts), Greg Gisbert (tp), Michael Dease (tb), como asimismo, una (p) muy poco conocida aún: Miki Hayama.

El CD trae 11 piezas: 8 son de D. Rivera y 1 de cada uno de: Jerome Kern, Horace Silver y Stevie Wonder. Por
otro lado, el CD tiene una excelente literatura, bien descriptiva, escrita por el bajista Rodney Whitaker. La grabación
empieza con un original de Rivera: "The Contender" y este arranque no puede ser mejor, dado que la pieza, el arreglo
y el gran solo de Rivera, ya anticipa todo lo bueno que viene después ! ... Y así, se van sucediendo "El Pachuco",
"Tinte Latino" y "Para Los Muertos" (los 3 son de Rivera), "Silver's Serenade" (del pianista Horace Silver), "Yesterdays"
(de Jerome Kern) y hasta "My Cherie Amour" (de Stevie Wonder), aunque les advierto que, prácticamente, la casi
totalidad del material del CD está my bien logrado ! ...

Hay que estar bien pendiente al desarrollo del saxofonista Diego Rivera (próximo a cumplir sus 36 años) quien,
sin duda alguna, es un Jazzista de calidad, con un fraseo seguro, bien articulado y creativo y con un gran sonido. Y
recuérdenlo como un Jazzista que conoce el pasado y la tradicióo jazzística pero, que también ya está pisando el futuro ! ...

Jazz Society of Oregon

The Contender; Diego Rivera, tenor and soprano saxophones.
Detroit based Rivera is one of those startling talents whose playing and writing grabs you immediately and holds on tight. With a cast of sizzling colleagues — including Greg Gisbert, trumpet, Michael Dease, trombone, Miki Hayama, piano, Rodney Whitaker, bass, and Ulysses Owens Jr., drums — Rivera states his case with the opening hard bop lines of the title tune. This is followed by “The Pachuco,” a rhythmic feast celebrating the flamboyant hip, in-charge cat in Latin culture. One of three standards on the album, Jerome Kern’s “Yesterdays,” receives a brisk treatment with Gisbert’s trumpet leading the way. Another familiar choice is Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour,” and Rivera and friends bring some life to it. “The Whit” is a Rivera blues and a good opportunity to hear Whitaker’s full-figured solo. “Silver’s Serenade” is a fine example of Horace Silver’s creativity, albeit not one of his best-known tunes. Once again, Gisbert’s fluid, muscular trumpet wins the day. On all these and several more, Rivera displays exciting technique, heady arranging skills, and chops, man, chops!
Clef Records; 2013, appx. 57 minutes.

The MetroTimes

Diego Rivera

I’m all jazzed up after the Detroit Jazz Festival this weekend, so I’m happy to listen to The Contender (Clef), the new CD fromDiego Rivera, Assistant Professor of Jazz Saxophone and Improvisation at Michigan State University. Lively and without compromise, Rivera’s playing is joyful and very free. His band is both tight and loose (somehow), and the cover of Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour” is glorious.

Sophie Milman at Massey Hall – June 1, 2012


Massey Hall

Robi Botos

Massey Hall – the Old Lady of Shuter Street – is still a fine hall. The acoustics are warm (though a bit tubby); the seats are comfy (though a little elaborate); and even a capacity crowd of 2700 seems small by today’s standards.  Think back to all those concerts that have gone before – I know the public list…the TSO, Toronto Mendelssohn, Lightfoot.  But for me – The Band, Segovia, Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, Miles Davis, Pat Metheny… It seemed a perfect venue to admire the supple voice of Sophie Milman, preceded by a quick set of Robi Botos.  And it was…



Robi’s trio had a slightly different feel with the outstanding Larnell Lewis sitting in on drums, complementing the always-solid Attila Darvas on bass.  Lewis’ broad dynamic range and quick response time took Robi to another level at times, lifting the trio beyond the role of “opener” to a higher plane – a difficult task in a mere 35 minutes of playing.  After a suite of Robi’s own outstanding tunes, Louis Botos joined the group to sing their killer arrangement of Bacharach’s “Close To You”.  The tune, normally a cheesy clunker, becomes a great vehicle for Louis and a testament to the power of musical finesse in the hands of the Botos family.  The crowd responded and the mood was “up” – until a 20-minute setup delay poured some cold water on the proceedings.  Without an MC or any other presence, the event started feeling rather amateur.  Never mind – these things happen…

Sophie Milman

When the headliner eventually took the stage, the choice of opener could have been better.  “Speak Low”, the venerable Kurt Weill chestnut, was given a generally tuneless fourth-based drone treatment that leveled its romantic harmonies.  Fortunately, things came up steadily and the evening once again took flight.

Sophie Milmanhas a great voice.  She seems comfortable at any tempo, in any harmonic setting, in any style.  She may not be a purist’s “jazz” singer, but who really cares.  She can sing almost anything.  On this night, she was pushing the “Jazz” button, which meant quite a few standards with a couple of ethnic tunes and one pop effort thrown in for variety.  The band was drawn from near and far.  They were very talented and

Paul Shrofel

capable players who seemed to enjoy playing together: Paul Shrofel, pianist and bandleader; Perry Smithon guitar; Morgan Moore on bass;Jim Doxas on drums; Diego Riveraon reeds; and Louis Samao on accordion.  The rhythm section works together regularly with Sophie and also as the Paul Shrofel Trio in and around Montreal.  They played pretty much as one on this occasion, providing a unified backdrop to singer and soloists.  Doxas was tastefully hip with great skill with brushes, a must for ballads and Latin charts.  His short solos and trades were always inventive.  Moore was steady and unflashy, not a soloist in this context (except briefly on “Take Love Easy”) – more of a foundation.  His experience with Oliver Jones and Ranee Lee helped a lot.  The bandleader did everything well – authoritative time, sensitive accompaniment and interesting solos.

The major soloists provided some interesting foils for the vocals, without rocking the boat.

Diego Rivera

Diego Rivera, an Assistant Music Prof at Michigan State University, has a very impressive resume indeed.  He also really knows his way around the tenor and soprano. From his first solo spot, on “In The Moonlight” on tenor, he asserted a powerful presence, muscling through the changes with ease and invention.  His soprano sound (playing the slightly-curved neck variety) is clear and supple with no intonation issues (his “I Concentrate On You” solo was a particular treat). For his part, Perry Smith was very busy, playing the little string hooks and figures that the arrangements required, while occasionally stepping out for a stinging solo or two.  His technique is very impressive – very positional…he does a lot with very little apparent movement.  His sound is rooted in fusion, but it is clearly his own sound.  This context hardly gave him a chance to get wound up – let’s look for more from this developing player.

We counted 14 tunes in the extended set.  Many were standards taken from one or another of Ms Milman’s albums.  The list included: “So Long, You Fool”, “Do It Again”, “Look At Me Now”, “So Sorry” (a Feist tune), “Til There Was You”, “Ces Petites Riens”, “Day In Day Out”, “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”, “Agua De Beber”, “No More Blues”, “Ochi Chernye” (“Dark Eyes”), and “It Might As Well Be Spring”.  Ms Milman had a lot of fun and the audience was generally right with her.  She looked great and sounded even better.  Solos were of the one-chorus variety…intros were constrained and endings were crisp.  Everything cruised along in a good-natured surge of sound that could be labeled “light jazz” – if you were in the mood to label stuff.

The grand old theatre on Shuter Street is still an ideal venue for intimate music – it did Sophie proud!