Local Saxophonist Chases
Albert Rivera could be forgiven for not being able to remember the piece he played at his first Carnegie Hall gig— he was only 12 years old at the time. And he’s played there twice since.
Now only 23, Rivera’s path from local prodigy to touring musician, recording artist and teacher has made for a thrilling trajectory, like a snippet of a solo played by his hero, jazz legend John Coltrane.
“It’s been fun, really cool,” Rivera said, in the relaxed, modest style that characterizes his personality but belies the passionate intensity with which he plays the tenor saxophone. The Norwood News sat down with him recently in his North Fordham apartment for a chat and impromptu jam session.
The first jazz rumblings stirred in him while he was a student at MS 118, where he played the clarinet in an orchestra. But even then, he said, “I felt like I was practicing for jazz.” Regardless of which instrument was in his hands, the talent shined through. After just a few years with the clarinet, he was playing the Bronx Borough-Wide Concert series, which showcases the skills of young local musicians. When that series hit Carnegie Hall twice in the late ‘90s, Rivera was onboard.
“It was just kind of random,” Rivera said of his finding his calling, since no one in his family showed this kind of affinity for music. He even found it a challenge convincing his mom that the life of a jazz musician would be the best career path. “She’s kind of old school,” he said.
But after borrowing a record from the Fordham Library, there was no going back: the flirtation with jazz became a lifetime love affair when he first heard Coltrane’s “Living Space.” “It just totally tripped me out,” he said. To this day, the modal style of jazz Coltrane and others pioneered in the 1960s remains his favored milieu as a composer and improviser.
His mentor at MS 118, Jeff Katin, encouraged him to switch to the bass clarinet for its relative similarity to the saxophone, and it was on this instrument that he played his third Carnegie Hall gig, with the New York Pops Orchestra. Then came the prestigious LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts.
The young saxophonist kept up his rigorous schedule of practicing six to eight hours a day, taught himself to read music and enrolled in New School University for the jazz program in 2001. Just as he was wrapping up his college career, he landed a teaching spot at the Litchfield Jazz Camp in Connecticut, a three-week summer program he had been attending as a student since 1999. This would prove to be a personal and professional milestone, as it provided the opportunity not only to develop his craft but to learn a new one: spreading his love for jazz to young minds.
Don Braden, the camp’s music director and an acclaimed tenor saxophonist who has toured with Freddy Hubbard and Tony Williams, described Rivera’s working style as a cross between his energetic improvisations and his mellow personality: relaxed, but with excitement and focus.
“He’s a really emotional player. He’s made a lot of progress,” Braden said. “Work ethic—aside from talent—is the most important thing ,and he’s got both. He’s a natural leader who can assess situations, and get people to do their best,” he said.
Braden added, in flawless jazz-speak, “He’s a real on-the-case kind of cat.”
He brings that same spirit to other teaching gigs at the New School and the Vermont Jazz Center Summer Workshop. When the News caught up with him, he was getting ready to head downtown to give an interactive concert for kids in Manhattan at the YMCA.
It was another chance, he said, “to show kids that if they’re into music there’s an alternative to hip-hop. And for a career, you don’t have to work at Burger King. You can follow your dream.”
Although he loves teaching, his real passion is playing and recording. He just finished his first studio CD, a collection of original compositions entitled Hope and Faith, with his band the Albert Rivera Quartet. His first album, First Steps, was a live recording culled from performances at the New School and Kavehaz, a Manhattan nightclub. If a big-time label came knocking, he’d be happy to sign, but right now he’s “cool” just teaching, playing and distributing his albums through his Web site, www.albertriverajazz.com.
As for the future, another colleague at the Litchfield Summer Jazz Camp, professional jazz musician Jimmy Greene, was happy to weigh in. “His future is very, very bright if he dedicates himself,” Greene said. “And if he maintains a persistent focus, the sky’s the limit—and I’m confident he will do all those things.”
And best of all, he’s won his mom over. “She supports me now—I’ve even gotten her to come to a few of my shows,” he said with a laugh.Features Index Page
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