Nov. 22 2013 12:00 AM

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


This story was corrected on Nov. 22 to say that David Rosin is a former teacher at Sexton High School.

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 Ive 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 Ive 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. Clichs 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, former 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 hadnt 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.”

“Its taken me a while to see music and a lot of experiences as circular,” he said. “I dont 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 doesnt 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 dont 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 Caf with Sean Dobbins at 6:30. He was pleased at the timing.

"Ill 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