Alfredo Rodriguez at the Jazz Standard: Cuban Piano Prodigy's NYC Debut
“ What's so interesting about this 23-year-old pianist? His daring defection from Cuba, his uncanny virtuosity--enough to pique the revered Quincy Jones--and his all-hands-on-deck enthusiasm at the keyboard, for starters. ”
New York, New York
is fond of saying that music has been his life since he was very young. The thing is, he's still very young.
But the story of this 23-year-old pianist's daring defection from Cuba, his uncanny virtuosityenough to pique the interest of Quincy Jonesand his all-hands-on-deck enthusiasm at the keyboard indicate that music will be his fiber for as long as his fingers can find their way to the ivory.
At his New York City debut on July 28, a sold-out gig at the Jazz Standard, Rodriguez' trio was keyed-in and chaotic, masterfully effortless at times and full of giddy growing pains at others. All in all, the performance was breathtakingand a study in contrasts.
His abundance of talent belied obvious jitters: crimped-up shoulders and stiff finger-punches sometimes overpowered the gentle tinkling Rodriguez was likely aiming for. His lush, contrapuntal solo arrangements stood at odds with the homage he paid to his earthy, Afro-Cuban rootsespecially blatant during the trio's jams over up-tempo Latin grooves. And Rodriguez danced in and out of this Latin feel with solos that obviously nodded to his bebop idolsBill Evans, Thelonious Monk, and Bud Powell.
Then there were Rodriguez' gracious smiles and genuine "thank you's" after each song. They took on a fresh resilience after his sorrowful, nostalgic rendition of "Abril," a tune that evokes his now-forbidden homeland. "That's a song that I wrote for my girlfriend," he told me in Spanish after the first set. "It has a lot to do with the month, as well. When I feel, when I live the month of April, I feel something like what I played ... It's not the same here in New York, but I wrote it in Cuba, and when I was in Cuba that is what I felt in the month of April."
The remark gets at the major contradiction in Rodriguez' life: his love for his country, his family, and all the things he grew up on versus the irrepressible need to grow beyond the boundaries of his homeland. "It was hard for me," he said of leaving Cuba. "I left my family, all my customs, my countryI love Cuba, of course."
Rodriguez' father, an Afro-Cuban singer also named Alfredo and famous in Cuba, raised him on music, enrolling his son in a top Havana music school at the age of seven. By the time he was 14, the young Alfredo was the pride of the conservatory, graduating with better grades than the school had ever seen. Rodriguez was already a local phenomenon when he sent a rough recording to Switzerland's Montreux Jazz Festival. What he considered a fanciful shot in the dark got him a spot at the eminent festival, where he caught the ear of legendary jazz musician and producer Quincy Jones.
For three years, Rodriguez and Jones corresponded while watching closely for any softening of the United States' rigid Cuba policies. Then in January, Rodriguez decided to leave his family and his longtime girlfriend for an uncertain fatehe made a go at crossing the border.
Rodriguez flew into the border city of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, but was apprehended at the airport under a recent Cuban policy restricting its citizens from coming even that close to the United States. A Mexican Federales officer grabbed him and thrust him into a dank holding room. Interrogation and intimidation dragged on for hours; Rodriguez insisted he was only in the country to perform, to travel with his family, to see the sightsbut the officer wasn't having it.
Finally, Rodriguez came clean, entrusting his fate to the officer: "Yes, I am trying to defect; music is my lifeblood; Quincy Jones is waiting for me in California; it's politics and politics only that stand between me and the world stage." The officer was astounded. He had never heard such candor from a fugitive, let alone a story like this. He left, then returned five minutes later. Rodriguez recalled: "They came and they said, 'Go outside, there's a cab waiting for you. You are going to [cross] the border because you told the truth.'"
Rodriguez met up with Jones and his staff, who organized a slew of gigs. After six long months away from his homeland, those plans finally brought him to the Mecca of jazz: Midtown Manhattan.
Was he nervous to be playing his first New York show? Of coursebut the question he'd rather be asked is, "Did that matter?"
"Music is life, it's feeling, and when I play I just play what I feel in this moment," he said. "It's perfectit's not a problem, being nervous, for me ... When I'm nervous I just play and it's great and if the people feel like I'm nervous, that's a great feeling too. It's not always happy or sad. That's music."