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Ties that bind: Diego Rivera brings ‘Connections’ home for CD release


In MSU sax master Diego Rivera’s company, connections form organically, like crystals. The colors and shapes spiking out of his horn — deep blues, jagged reds, swirling purples — provoke an equally rich response from the musicians around him.

“I can provide that fixed point for everybody to plug into,” Rivera said. “If I’m doing my job, everybody else puts their own thing on the music, we kick into gear and go off together.”

The MSU sax master will throw a CD release party celebrating his new album, “Connections,” Saturday at Lansing’s Urban Beat. It’s part of a mini-tour of the Midwest that began last weekend, with dates in Ann Arbor, Kalamazoo and South Bend, Indiana, with an ever-evolving cast of musicians.

The delights of “Connections” are many, from Rivera’s silver-and-gold chemistry with trombone colleague Michael Dease to the lithe vibes of Behn Gillece.

The album has gotten great reviews in the jazz press and is already out of stock at Chicago’s iconic Dusty Groove record emporium. (Dusty Groove’s Web site calls it “a corker of a set.”)

“The record itself was kind of an event, because you have folks who have never played together,” Rivera said. The stellar ensemble on the CD also featured an energized Joe Magnarelli on trumpet, Markus Howell on alto sax and Jason Tieman on drums and rising star Endea Owens on bass.

Of course, Saturday’s release party will concentrate on Rivera’s arrangements of standards and his own compositions from the CD, but he’s not interested in replicating anything. There are new connections to be made.

“It’s not fun to be told to play like someone else,” Rivera said. “I hire musicians so they can play like themselves.”

Saturday’s gig at Urban Beat will feature Sequoia Snyder on piano, Liany Mateo on bass and Michael Reed on drums.

Rivera brings a remarkable range of moods and styles to “Connections,” but it never comes off as a mash-up. In “Nueva York,” he creases Cuban rhythms into bebop so cleanly the music hangs on you, lightly and brightly, like a crisp new suit. Rivera’s quiet confidence and musical depth are woven right into the fabric — and they rub off. (Or at least the confidence does.) Absorb the square-yet-hip geometry of “Nueva York” and you can walk into the toughest bar in town and fearlessly order a glass of buttermilk.

A tender, lyrical, back-to-the-center-of-it-all feeling suffuses the ballad “Mother’s Nature,” dedicated, not only to Rivera’s mother, but to his wife, and to all mothers.

Reviewers have long noted that if anything, Rivera is too disciplined, too reluctant to let loose and almost overly generous with his band mates, but he’s a searcher, not a show boater. He’s still finding his way deeper into the tunes as he lives with the music.

“I’m getting further and further away from my crutches and opening up,” he said.

He’s taking special pleasure in breathing more “emotional substance” into one of the album’s high points, his original composition “Ties That Bind.”

Rivera’s melody wavers like a bead of rain on a telephone wire, recalling the cloudy-day, pensive Blue Note music of 1960s Wayne Shorter.

“I wrote it mere days before the session, so I didn’t really have time to live with it,” he said. “Sometimes I write over my head. Getting the mood of the tune, the tone, was challenging for me, even though I had it in my head.”

The experience shows that even though Rivera is the source of the music on “Connections” — the “fixed point” — he’s still learning along with his band mates.

“The music didn’t come with a set of instructions,” he said. “You connected to it however you were going to connect to it. I like music like that.”

Diego Rivera CD Release Party

7:30 and 9:30 p.m. Sat., Oct. 5

Urban Beat

1213 Turner St., Lansing

$10 students, $15 in advance, $20 at the door



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