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Billy Joel's saxman blows his own horn at long last

Digital First Media, @GraffonMusic

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Mark Rivera has clear memories of auditioning for Billy Joel's band in 1982.

Hooked up with Joel by then-guitarist David Brown, Rivera "played 'Only the Good Die Young' and then we did 'Just the Way You Are,' and at the end of the sax solo Billy stopped the band. I thought, 'Uh-oh...' I didn't know if I blew it or what.

"He came up to me and gave me a kiss and said, 'As long as you want this gig it's yours.' And he's held up to his end of the bargain."

So has Rivera, although playing with Joel is at this juncture just one of the multi-instrumentalist's endeavors on a resume that includes tenures with luminaries such as Elton John, Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Sam & Dave, Foreigner, Daryl Hall & John Oates, Paul Simon, Tony Bennett and more. Rivera played on Peter Gabriel hits such as "Sledgehammer" and "Big Time" and he's been the musical director for several incarnations of Ringo Starr's All-Starr Band.

And after all that, he's finally releasing his first solo album. On Feb. 18, Rivera will drop "Common Bond," an eclectic 10-song set that ranges from gritty rock to soul and psychedelia and features guest appearances by Joel and Starr, among others.

"It's basically something that's been in the works forever," says Rivera, a Brooklyn native who was turned on to saxophone by an uncle who also played the instrument and was educated at New York's Laguardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts (aka the "Fame" school), turning on to rock 'n' roll via the Beatles' first appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show."

"A couple of the songs were written back when I played 'Sledgehammer,' which was back in '86. But, you know, at the same time I was doing the gigs and all the other work, raising a family...

"I was just taking my time, man," he says with a laugh.

The album's wide range of style was natural for Rivera, who calls it "kind of a collection of all the ingredients of all the people I love." Yet he and co-producer Jimmy Bralower tried to make as "a record instead of just a collection of MP3s. It's something we think is a whole piece of work. It's for people who want ot hear something wtih a little more substance."

The guest appearances were also "no-brainers" for Rivera, though he admits that "finding the stones to ask them took a little bit" -- especially for his most famous employers. But Rivera says Joel was happy to play an organ solo on his version of Jimi Hendrix's "Spanish Castle Magic" -- "Billy's an amazing B3 player, but he seldom does it," Rivera notes -- while Starr plays drums on the original track "Money, Money, Money."

"that song was already cut," Rivera recalls, "and Jimmy said, 'Buddy, this would be a great one to have Ringo play on.' But how do you ask Ringo, 'Hey, would you play on one of my songs?' But when I asked him, he said, 'Do you think I could?' and I said, 'Yeah, I think you could' -- as if, right?"

Clearly, Rivera doesn't take the august musical company he keeps for granted.

"I never lose sight of the fact that I'm with Billy for 33 years, or that I'm on stage with Ringo, standing next to a guy who's part of the reason I started doing this thing," he notes. "So every night I kind of pitch myself. It's never gotten old. And when I'm playing or singing, there's like this emotional moat between me and the audience; all the concerns of my life, anything from family concerns or money situations, everything goes away except the five or six guys on stage because I'm so in the moment. It's spectacular."

Rivera plans to play select dates to promote "Common Bond," and Joel's currently schedule -- on show a month at New York's Madison Square Garden and select weekend dates around the country -- give him plenty of opportunity for that. "It's brilliant," Rivera says. "We're doing maybe five to seven shows a month. It's a very easy pace. His voice is incredible. He's stronger than ever. It's a great situation."

Rivera is also hopefully Joel will find his way back to the recording studio soon, too, even though he hasn't done a new pop album since 1993's "River of Dreams" or released an original pop composition since "All My Life in 2007.

"He's still got it in him -- are you kidding?" Rivera notes. "The guy has so much in him, but I think he's tired of people's expectations, and why should he have to deal with that? It's a thankless place to be. The guy's got a body of work that's beautiful. I think he's happy with it. He's a walking songbook.

"But I'd be surprised if he never wrote another amazing pop classic. It may not be as heavy-handed as 'You May Be Right,' but I think he could very easily write another 'Leave A Tender Moment Alone' or 'Just the Way You Are.' I can't speak for him, but I believe in my heart of hearts he's not done yet."

Billy Joel and Jon McLaughlin perform at 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 15, at The Palace, Lapeer Road at I-75, Auburn Hills. Some tickets remain at $35 and $69. Call 248-377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com. Mark Rivera, Joel's saxophonist, will perform Friday, Feb. 14, with Fifty Amp Fuse at the Uptown Grille, 3100 West Maple Road, Commerce Township. Call 248-960-3344 or visit www.uptowngrille.com.

Web Site: www.uptowngrille.com

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