A Little Trip to Latin America: Rivers Bands Embrace the Rhythm at Annual Jazz Festival

Rivers audiences took a musical trip to Latin America on Saturday at the annual Rivers & RSC Jazz Festival. At the centerpiece of the day-long showcase for Rivers and RSC jazz bands, audiences heard from guest performer Oscar Stagnaro, a four-time Grammy Award winner, educator, and bass player on the faculty of Berklee College of Music. Stagnaro and his trio performed a Latin-inflected set with Maxim Lubarsky on piano and Mark Walker on drums. The program also served as a sendoff for Rivers’ upcoming jazz trip to Cuba in March, which will also include members of the Noble & Greenough School’s Big Band. 

The festivities began at 1:00 p.m., highlighting a variety of performers and ensembles from the Conservatory Program at The Rivers School, the Upper School and Middle School Big Bands, and several ensembles from The Rivers School Conservatory, for a total of nine ensembles in the first half of the day. At the podium were members of the Rivers and RSC jazz faculty: Bill Jones, Dan Loschen, Matt Stavrakas, Andy Voelker, and Rivers Jazz Chair Philippe Crettien. 

After a short dinner break for the performers, the evening program began with a set of three Charles Mingus arrangements performed by the Rivers Select 1 Combo. Highlighting different styles and meters, each piece gave ample opportunity to showcase the performers in improvised solos. In particular, the final piece, “Orange Was The Color Of Her Dress, Then Blue Silk,” gave the combo a chance to demonstrate mastery of the music, switching between slow, dreamy passages and impossibly fast virtuosic soloing from Arianna Martinez Cavero ’24 on violin, Jack Benson ’24 on trumpet, and Ethan Kasparian Weisman ’24 on saxophone. 

The Oscar Stagnaro Trio started off their set with swinging rhythms from Colombia in “Rabbi Vallenatowitz.” The three master musicians glided effortlessly through a variety of Latin music styles, from Peruvian jazz to tango to bossa nova. Most of the arrangements were Stagnaro’s own, a mix of original compositions or arrangements of existing tunes that were reimagined in different meters and styles, as Stagnaro shared with the audience between performances.

In a special moment, Rivers Jazz Director Philippe Crettien and Crettien’s opposite number at Nobles, Paul Lieberman, joined the band to perform “Minha Saudade,” a tune composed by the late João Donato, a legendary Brazilian jazz pianist who passed earlier this year. All five musicians had improvised solos—Crettien on saxophone, Lieberman on piccolo (switching from the flute), Stagnaro on bass, Lubarsky on piano, and Walker on drums.

For the last set, Rivers Big Band combined with guest Nobles Big Band for an extra big band, performing an original by Stagnaro and other music from Latin American styles. The two bands had had the opportunity to work together once before in a special master class with Stagnaro two weekends prior, as a warm-up for their joint trip to Cuba in March. Crettien and Lieberman took turns leading the group, with students from both schools featured on solos. 

On the program was a Stagnaro original, “Mariella’s Dream,” composed for his daughter in an almost cinematic and nostalgic mood. In an interview, Stagnaro described the piece as “a mixture of rhythms from Venezuela and Peru, with a Cuban vibe.” Joining the band were Ceci and Ali Giebutowski ’25 on vocals.

The evening ended with a twist: Head of School Ryan S. Dahlem jumped in as a surprise guest drummer for the high-energy finale, “E’s Flat, Ah’s Flat Too” by Charles Mingus—closing the festival on a high note, both literally and figuratively. 

It was a day that swung, bopped, and grooved to the many rhythms of jazz. And for the Big Band, it’s next stop Havana!
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