On a hot but lovely cloudless Saturday at this year’s Detroit Jazz Festival I sat with a friend on the front steps of a stage listening to Diego Rivera’s quintet working its way though a set of jazz standards and original compositions. I had heard Rivera many times before and had been recently enjoying his latest CD, The Contender, but this particular performance was a highlight. The saxophonist is a versatile musician who divides his time between working as a professor at MSU, conducting clinics, and guesting with various orchestras, as well as composing and arranging music for himself and others. His new recording features a larger combo and offers a sample of his writing skills. But in the stripped-down classic quintet context on the Detroit waterfront stage, his focus was on the tenor saxophone, with a bit of soprano sax thrown in for variety.

Rivera is one of those players who seem to have been born to play the tenor. He started at a young age, and over the years it has become part of his body and being. He is also exceptionally skilled on the tricky soprano saxophone, which needs to be treated quite differently from the tenor. There is a mature assurance in his playing that comes not only from years of practice and performance but also from a clear sense of musical direction and artistic focus. Like so many players from the Detroit area, Rivera has a reverence for the modern jazz tradition, but his love of musical history does not hold him prisoner to faceless reproduction. Rather, it serves as a launching pad for development and original exploration of the future.

He favors a direct, robust tone that makes one think of the “tough” tenors, Johnny Griffin and Gene Ammons, and while he clearly considers John Coltrane a musical ancestor, he eschews direct imitation of that man’s tenor saxophone playing. Like Griffin and Ammons, he will sometimes bring in the warm, breathy timbres favored by Ben Webster, an even tougher player from a still earlier era. Even at the fastest tempos he explores harmony in a complex and sophisticated manner, but his keen melodic instincts guide these travels forward; his solos do not meander but follow a compositionally guided path. He can play as fast as anyone, but he seems focused on every note, so that there is no waste and filler in his improvisations. On The Contender, for example, more than half of the tunes are less than five minutes long, and his solos are concise and yet emotionally satisfying.

Rivera was raised and educated in East Lansing but was born in Ann Arbor. He returns to play at the Kerrytown Concert House on November 27 as part of the Jazz Masters Series curated by the longstanding trio of Tad Weed on piano, Kurt Krahnke on bass, and Sean Dobbins on drums–one of the best rhythm sections to be found anywhere. They’ll be joining Rivera tonight.