June 8 2011 12:00 AM

Diego Rivera’s suite ‘Spanish Tinge’ heats up Creole Gallery Saturday


“How many times have you heard this rhythm?”

Diego Rivera, home-grown East Lansing
jazzman and tenor sax colossus of the Michigan State University
Professors of Jazz, slapped the table in front of him and sang along:
“Dump, dahhh-dat, dump, dahh-dat.”

A man two tables away put down his tea. Damn thing has a wicked hook.

Lately, Rivera has been working with the periodic table of music: the building blocks of joy.

“Spanish Tinge,” a four-part suite of
Latin jazz premiering Saturday at the Creole Gallery, chases a series of
chain reactions that helped generate jazz over a century ago and are
still bubbling up.

Among Latin rhythms, H, the first
element, stands for habanera. The “dump, dahh-dat” of the infectious
Cuban dance is built into everything from Bizet’s “Carmen” to “St. Louis
Blues” to Bo Diddley.

“That’s what made the music danceable, gave it lilt,” Rivera said.

As far as Rivera is concerned, the tag “Latin jazz” is just plain redundant.

“The influences that come through the
Caribbean and Central and South America — it’s really just another
filtration, another version of the connection to Africa,” Rivera said.

Jazz was the reunion of two cousins that came from the same African family.

“One settled in the Caribbean, the other in North America,” Rivera said.

“At some point they met up again in New Orleans.”

Latin rhythms first hooked American
listeners at the 1884 World’s Fair in New Orleans. Mexico brought the
Eighth Cavalry Band, a many-horned monster with an armload of pop dance

“They played a lot of rhythms that had
come to Mexico through Cuba, Haiti and further south,” Rivera said.
“They were a hit. People loved this band.”

Overnight, publishers clamored for the
band’s arrangements. The band was so hot that some members stayed in New
Orleans, including one of Rivera’s heroes: Florencio Ramos, a Mexican
who became one of the first saxophonists in New Orleans.

Another Latino largely overlooked in jazz
history is Lorenzo Tio, Jr., a Mexican who came to New Orleans and
taught Sidney Bechet, Barney Bigard and many other early jazz greats. 

Rivera got the title of his suite from one of jazz’s founding fathers, Jelly Roll Morton.

“If you can’t manage to put tinges of
Spanish in your tunes, you will never be able to get the right
seasoning, I call it, for jazz,” Morton said.

The more you listen to jazz of any era,
the more you hear the “Spanish tinge.” The most venerated of early jazz
compositions, “St. Louis Blues,” is a two-tone sandwich with a spicy
habanera in the middle, wrapped in the earthy bread of the blues.

Saturday’s concert gives Rivera a chance to dig a core sample, not just through jazz history but through his own life.

“Being Latino, I’ve always had a strong affinity for anything Latino — culture, music, public policy, you name it,” he said.

Rivera grew up listening to Mexican and
South American music. Later, as a grad student at MSU and professor of
jazz, he steeped himself in the complexities of bebop and beyond.

The suite takes listeners along for that ride, beginning with “Sombras del pasado” (“Shadows of the Past”).

“I wanted to go for something that’s
melodically reminiscent of mariachi,” Rivera said. He wrote and
harmonized it for a trumpeter and himself.

“It sounds like two men sitting around and singing an old folk song.”

Suddenly, “Nuevo York” jumps into the frenzy of Afro-Cuban
jazz that took the East Coast jazz scene by storm in the 1950s. Latin
bandleaders like Mario Bauza and Machito joined with beboppers like
Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie to create a mind-blowing fusion of
intricate bebop solos, lush harmonies and thundering Latin rhythms.

To bottle that lava, Rivera wrote a melody that works as a rumba and a swing tune, so his bandmates could solo in both styles.

A more laid-back Latin music swept the
jazz and pop charts in the 1960s. Rivera’s “O moderno” (Portuguese for
“the modern” or “the hipster”) is a nod to languid Brazilian bossa and
samba rhythms, popularized by Antonio Carlos Jobim and sympathetic jazz
players, such as Stan Getz. 

Although Brazil is not a Spanish-speaking country, Rivera considers bossa and samba to be part in the Latin music world.

“Africa is the common element,” Rivera said. “All of these rhythms are tied closely with Africa.”

The last part of the suite, yet untitled,
could be called “Rivera’s Revenge.” It will dig into the reverse
influence of jazz on contemporary Latin musicians like Miguel Zenon and
David Sanchez.

“It’s hard to tell whether they’re
playing Puerto Rican music with a jazz flavor or jazz with a Puerto
Rican influence,” Rivera said. “The genre is evolving. It’s like hitting
a moving target.”

Diego Rivera’s ‘Spanish Tinge’
MSU Professors of Jazz
8 p.m. Saturday, June 11
Creole Gallery
1208 Turner St., Lansing
Tickets on sale at Elderly Instruments, 1100 N. Washington Ave. in Lansing, and Archives Book Shop, 519 W. Grand River Ave. in East Lansing, or by visiting www.stpconcerts.com