Thursday, August 23, 2007

Mario Rivera obituary

Miami Herald
Posted on Tue, Aug. 14, 2007
Mario Rivera, favorite sideman of music legends, dies
Mario Rivera's apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan was filled with musical instruments. Every room. Wall to wall.

When he hosted friends, at the ungodly hours when musicians go home from playing gigs, he'd encourage them, regardless of musical skills, to beat on drums, bang soft hammers on a xylophone, finger keyboards, pluck bass guitars, strum regular ones, blow on all manner of wind instruments, knock claves, rasp gourds, shake maracas and chekeres, jam.

''Go ahead!'', he'd say, ''¡cúrate!'', roughly translated, ``get your ya-yas out.''

If Rivera, who died in New York on Friday after a two-year battle with bone cancer, had not made a name for himself as one of the most sought-after sidemen in jazz and Latin jazz, he could have had a successful career as a music therapist.

Rivera, 68, had played with a who's who of jazz and Latin masters: Tito Puente, Machito, Eddie Palmieri, George Coleman, Dizzy Gillespie, Slide Hampton, Chico O'Farrill. He was in Miami in October, backing veteran Cuban piano master Bebo Valdés, with whom he also recorded a big-band CD.

Sidemen are the unsung heroes of music; they back legends but seldom become superstars. But Rivera was a legend on his own right.

His main ax was the saxophone and his riffs and solos are as good as any big name saxman's in any genre. For, yes, Rivera dominated all the musical languages. He could be an orquesta de salsa workhorse. Or an intense jazz combo artist. Or a big-band soulman. Or, his natural habitat, the linchpin of a Latin jazz group -- most notably, he was a mainstay of Tito Puente's Latin jazz ensembles.

''Mario was such a vital individual that death is nothing short of incongruous,'' says Latin jazz historian and producer Nat Chediak, who worked with Rivera on recordings as well as the music documentary Calle 54. As for his artistry, Chediak believes that ``there are few Latino musicians in jazz who can touch him.''

In 1993, Rivera made his own wonderful CD, El Comandante, a playful and infectious fusion of Dominican merengue and jazz.

Rivera was Dominican. Before the diaspora of the '80s, which transformed Washington Heights, north of Rivera's home, into Quisqueya Heights, the gifted musician was, along with Fania Records founder Johnny Pacheco, a prominent Dominican figure in a Latin scene dominated by Puerto Ricans and Cubans.

When merengue nudged salsa aside in the '80s and early '90s, major artists from the Dominican Republic doing New York concerts would go to Rivera's home to pay their respects to their countryman.

Artists of all backgrounds respected Rivera, for he was a musician's musician. And in the music world, as in all arts, crafts and professions, there is no greater honor than to have colleagues think you're great. In Mario Rivera's case, the greatest.

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