Because Paquito D'Rivera is such a compelling improviser, one greets a heavily arranged and orchestrated session like Portraits of Cuba with some apprehension. But as it turns out, such apprehension is unwarranted, for the Cuban saxman/clarinetist still has enough room to solo and say what needs to be said. With this 1996 session, which was arranged and conducted by Carlos Franzetti and finds D'Rivera backed by combinations of up to 14 musicians, D'Rivera envisioned an Afro-Cuban equivalent of Miles Davis' Sketches of Spain -- and, to be sure, there are some parallels. Franzetti's classical-influenced arrangements recall Gil Evans' work with Davis, and D'Rivera paints an orchestral jazz picture of Cuba much as Davis painted an orchestral jazz picture of Spain. The key phrase here is "jazz picture" -- D'Rivera approaches famous Cuban songs like Ignacio Pineiro's "Echale Salsita" and Ernesto Lecuona's "Como Arrullo de Palmas" from an instrumental jazz perspective; this is jazz with both Afro-Cuban and classical elements, but it's jazz first and foremost. Recorded in New York around the time of the infamous Blizzard of 1996 -- which dumped up to three feet of snow on parts of the Northeastern U.S. -- Portraits of Cuba is among D'Rivera's most essential recordings.
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AllMusic Review by Alex Henderson