Mario Rivera endures among the most gifted saxophonists in Latin jazz — a virtuoso talent equally proficient on tenor, soprano, alto, and baritone, he remains best remembered for his two-decade association with the legendary Tito Puente. Born July 22, 1939, in the Dominican Republic, he relocated from his native Santo Domingo to New York City in 1961, first working behind Puerto Rican vocalist Joe Valle. From 1963 to 1965, Rivera tenured in support of bandleader Tito Rodriguez — in the years to follow, he gigged behind Latin giants including Machito, Eddie Palmieri, and Mongo Santamaria, and also recorded with artists including Stanley Turrentine (1967’s New Time Shuffle) and Dizzy Gillespie (1975’s Afro-Cuban Jazz Moods). Rivera nevertheless earned his greatest renown during his long affiliation with Puente, which spanned from the early ’70s well into the 1990s — the partnership even included appearances in a pair of feature films, The Mambo Kings and Calle 54. Although he was first and foremost recognized for his skill as a saxophonist, Rivera eventually mastered a host of instruments including trumpet, piano, flute, vibraphone, drums, and congas. In 1988, he rejoined Gillespie as a member of the trumpeter’s United Nations Orchestra, and later served in the Chico O’Farrill Afro-Cuban Jazz Big Band. Despite his harried sideman schedule, Rivera found time to lead his own groups the Salsa Refugees and the Mario Rivera Sextet, and in 1996 issued El Commandante, his sole date as a leader. After a long battle with cancer, he died in New York City on August 10, 2007.
– by Jason Ankeny from