Island Stories

The Caribbean Jazz Project

By Mark Ruffin

“You don’t have to be Austrian to play Mozart,” is a favorite saying of Cuban saxophonist Pacquito D’Rivera. He vividly cites one of the bands he plays with, the Caribbean Jazz Project as a prime example. That group, whose new album is titled “Island Stories,” includes Dave Samuels on vibes and world class steel drum player Andy Narell.

“Andy is living proof of that theory,” explained D’Rivera of his San Francisco-bred partner. “The country of Trinidad has adopted him as their own. I bring more of the Cuban element and music from Venezuela, but I learn from Andy. He has more experience with the music of the English and French speaking islands than anyone alive not born in the Caribbean.”

If you’ve heard real steel drums in movies, on television or radio, chances are it was Narell, especially in the 80’s, when at one point he seemed ubiquitous. For many years, Narell was also an executive at Windham Hill Records and produced many of the artists on that label. His own records are released on his own Hip Pocket imprint and he is the leading steel drum clinician on college campuses.

“I am the project in the group,” the 49 year old D’Rivera said laughing through his thick accent. “Andy represents the Caribbean, Dave is the master jazz musician, and I’m the project. That’s the only way to put that. I’m open for ideas.”

Samuels does have a pretty impressive discography, recording and/or touring with everybody from piano great Oscar Peterson to rock legend Frank Zappa. He’s also a founding member of the pop/jazz group Spyro-Gyra among other achievements. Samuels is also responsible for the creation of the Caribbean Jazz Project.

“Dave had a budget to do a concert in Central Park Zoo,” D’Rivera remembered chuckling. “It was such a great experience to play with him and Andy that I called him the following day. I told him that we should do this more often. I told him that I loved his company and Andy’s playing and that we could have some fun together while we learn.”

Having the time of his life while learning is a discipline, D’Rivera picked up from Dizzy Gillespie, who many credit as the first musician to mix Latin and jazz music. The legendary trumpeter handpicked the Cuban to take over his United Nations Jazz Orchestra. That group has a new album titled “Live At Manchester” and it features a tribute to Gillespie.

“We felt sad remembering that he’s not with us anymore,” D’Rivera said of the recording. “But whenever you talk about Dizzy, you remember a lot of funny anecdotes, because, he was a lot of fun. Dizzy’s ear was also always open, especially to Latin music. He’s another great example of not being from Austria and playing Mozart,” D’Rivera laughed.

The Caribbean Jazz Project, so far, is the only group D’Rivera has been in that hasn’t won a Grammy. The U.N. Jazz Orchestra got one in 1991 right before Gillespie’s death. Irakere, the groundbreaking group D’Rivera defected from, garnered an award in the 70’s, but “Island Stories,”was overlooked this year.” D’Rivera’s own album, “Portaits of Cuba,” did win the Best Latin Jazz award in 1997. And in going over the nominees in that category this year, which included Mid-American musicians Roy Hargrove and Conrad Herwig, it was easy to see, theoretically speaking, D’Rivera was headed back to Austria.