Alfredo Rodriguez at the Jazz Standard: Cuban Piano Prodigy's NYC Debut


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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.
Alfredo Rodriguez Trio
Jazz Standard
New York, New York
July 28,2009

Alfredo Rodriguez 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 virtuosity—enough to pique the interest of Quincy Jones—and 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 breathtaking—and 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 roots—especially 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 idols—Bill 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 country—I 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 fate—he 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 sights—but 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.

The Show

Was he nervous to be playing his first New York show? Of course—but 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 perfect—it'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."

This was group's first performance together, and the trio wobbled a bit on a cautious version of the standard "Body and Soul." But there was no lack of self-expression, and the responsive audience proved forgiving. Rodriguez started the rendition standing up, reaching into the piano to pluck its strings as bassist Charles Flores took a slow, ranging solo. After an impressionistic run through the melody, the pianist crafted a lyrical solo, culminating in upward-tumbling runs of 32nd notes reminiscent of virtuoso pianist Art Tatum. The tune drifted off with a modulating solo-piano outro.

Then the trio caught its stride—on a tune centered on stumbling. And stumble it did, but in just the right way. Drummer Dafnis Prieto began the Rodriguez composition "Oxygeno," cast in halting 7/8 time, with a show-stopping solo that brought listeners to their feet. He found a groove, and Rodriguez and Flores fell in. Afterward, the pianist explained the idea behind "Oxygeno" as the synergy he feels between living—breathing, in this case—and music. "I try to make my music sound as if it has life, you know?" he said. "It's called 'Oxygeno,' and it's about that—it's about respiration." Each measure contains an even four beats (breathing easy) then a jerky three (gasping).

In his solo, Rodriguez varied his entrance points, and explored the different spots within a measure where a line might peak or truncate. Prieto dropped a savvy string of bombs on the bass drum as Rodriguez tumbled forward. After this song, an old abuela in the front row came to the side of the stage and whispered something in Rodriguez' ear. Only the two of them know what she said, but it was clear she'd drawn a bit of invigorating oxygen from the vital music.

El futuro

Each song on Rodriguez' MySpace profile boasted fewer than 1,000 plays before the New York show. That's a paltry number for someone whom record labels are suddenly fighting over. But as soon as one label receives the pianist's approval, a debut album should be due in short order, according to Rodriguez: "Quincy's gonna be the producer of the CD, and it's gonna be great," he said.

The pianist, who played a high-profile show at the Newport Jazz Festival earlier this month, would like to make New York his home someday, but for now he's happy to soak up the benefits of Jones' inner circle in Los Angeles. (With Max Roach's son just one of the many people coming backstage to congratulate Rodriguez between sets at the Jazz Standard, this is a good circle to be in.)

Rodriguez celebrates the improvisational foundation of jazz, and he says it lets him inject life's very sights, sounds, and feelings into the music he plays. Consequently, his music is bound to grow and change as he does. But there's one thing that will stay at the heart of it: "I always play jazz music, okay, but I am Latin people—I just play my folklore," he said. "If we don't go to the roots we don't have the touch, we don't have the feeling, the accent. I like to go to the source, to the roots of my music in Cuba, and to the beginnings of African music, Latin music, or whatever. It's not that jazz is my 'favorite' music."

It's more that jazz sounds just like home, wherever that may be.

Photo credit

Bill Kirstein

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