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The Cry of Jay Rodriguez


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On an unseasonably warm February evening I set out from Brooklyn to catch the multi-instrumentalist Jay Rodriguez's band at Le Poisson Rouge. While walking from the West 4th Street subway station to the venue on Bleecker Street I recalled taking this exact route over 30 years ago to play a jam session in the same space, back when it was called The Village Gate. A remaining sign of The Gate is the original corner marquee out front above a CVS.

The Village Gate was a legendary venue full of jazz history. The main nightclub was downstairs, exactly where Le Poisson Rouge is now located. That's where "Salsa Meets Jazz"' happened and big acts played. Upstairs there was a small theater next to the atrium which was billed as the "Top O' the Gate." The session took place in the atrium which sat in a long narrow room with a shallow stage just big enough for a piano trio. The bar and tables lay parallel to the sidewalk behind a glass partition where one could people watch and listen to live jazz.

The Gate jam introduced me to a new and diverse group of musicians from all over the scene, many of whom were students. But it was saxophonist Arnie Lawrence who held court, organizing things and making sure everyone got a chance to play. He was a living legend, having worked with Dizzy Gillespie and other masters. Arnie was playing better than ever and he was especially positive having contributed to the establishment of a new jazz program at The New School. All the kids dug Arnie's approach and vibe. Quite often Spike Wilner and Larry Goldings were at the piano and there was always a revolving crew of great bassists and drummers too.

That's where I met Jay Rodriguez. Arnie had recruited him into his new program and Jay was thriving there. He was a few years younger than me and already playing a lot of horn. He had such bravura and was fun to hear and watch. Barrel chested, he held his horn up high and blew mightily until his cheeks puffed. His playing had all the elements I loved in a tenor player: emotion, intelligence, passion, dexterity, unpredictability and a rich tone filled with life.

All of that was on display when I stepped into the club to hear him last month. He was wrapping up a cadenza; a free style improvisation played at the end of a piece. Jay's style casts a wide net. In this brief flurry of solo playing on tenor he stuck to angular melodic motifs that tumbled and rolled into fast flurries quite reminiscent of John Coltrane's own 'sheets of sound.' After he wound things up, the band came in with a resounding chord and during the applause Jay began striding the stage with his soprano sax cueing the musicians with his eyes and body. He and percussionist Billy Martin began a duet. Martin playing pandeiro against Rodriguez's darting soprano sax. The two warbled together as if in a regal mating ritual that gently wound its way into the standard "Golden Earrings." The tone was set for the rest of the night; composition and order would coexist with spontaneous flights of freedom. Jay was in his zone.

The next day I spoke with Jay about the show and soon after that I visited him in his Brooklyn apartment in Gowanus, Brooklyn where he lives with his wife Neven, their son Nile, a cocker spaniel and a cat. Married for 23 years, Neven and Jay have an enduring partnership, strengthened by life's obstacles, including Jay's battle with addictions. He's overcome all that and at 50, despite a busy life on the road, he looks at least a decade younger.

His latest album Your Sound just dropped on Whaling City Sound and he spoke with me about how this release came to be.

"Matt Garrison called me and invited me over for a get together. Arturo O'Farrill was there. Sometimes in life we don't think people care. You know, as we get older we get a little jaded [Laughing]. People have their lives and we don't want to bother anybody. It comes in cycles and my manager said 'let's do this.'"

After listening to Your Sound it appeared to me that the modern music genius of Ornette Coleman had become more of an influence on Jay than I could remember.

"I've been playing with Al McDowell, Ornette's former bassist. Ornette's stuff is very deep and complex and very diatonic in one way, superimposition of triads and melodic stuff. You know when you have Bach and you can hear all the harmony in his lines? That's what I got from Ornette's thing, you could hear all the harmonies in his lines. Except, he was playing diatonically like the key didn't matter. So it has been an interesting thing over the last few years to explore that openness with Al, since he knows all of that phrasing so well."

For me the highlight of this album are Jay's compositions on which you can really hear his melodic imagination sing. During the opening track "Ghost Dancer/Congo Call," sinuous long phrases slither throughout the piece. Tenor saxophonist Billy Harper shadows Rodriguez's flute, sometimes in unison, sometimes in harmony. It seems like these lines are part of a long going conversation that began way back in time.

"It's haunted" Jay says when his fan turns on without explanation. Okaaay... I'm thinking, this is exactly what I want to hear.

I had checked out some videos of Jay playing with the Groove Collective back in the day and recognized a classic lick associated with the great saxophonist Steve Grossman. He touched on that same lick when I heard him at Le Poisson Rouge. I got a kick out of that because he made it sound as fresh as ever. That led us to discussing some favorite saxophonists from the 1980's and Michael Brecker came up. Jay recalled a phone call with the iconic tenor player in which Brecker said he was happy to be working a lot but was still searching for better results. Musically he still yearned for that 'cry.'

"I think we gravitate to things that speak to us. That reminds me of summer days when my parents would play Charanga, a kind of Cuban music. A lot of Latin bands would play Salsa but also a lot of other kinds of music. It's also rhythm, it's like Ornette, I'd play clave but also find the notes inside the piano. I used to want the band to follow when I played through a chord but now I realize that doesn't matter anymore. We're in this place where we have this canvas we create and it is an amazing new thing to be able to do that. I think I've got a lot of that because of Al and Ornette. Because 99% of that has been self-acceptance. Self-acceptance as a musician, as a parent. That has been an amazing thing, knowing what you do, what your limitations are, what I have to work on. Craig Harris is really good at that. He brings the best out in everybody, understanding where someone is coming from really quickly without telling them what to play and accepting it and creating the right recipe on stage and letting it float. So it doesn't become about him. Craig Is very important to me, that's why I invited him to come [Harris sat in at LPR]. His presence reminds me what to do."

I asked Jay, what he thought about the onslaught of musicians showing off their chops on YouTube. And how, despite all his schooling, he avoided copying other musicians.

"I just didn't have the same discipline. It was a combination of different factors. I didn't have the aptitude for that or I didn't have the patience for that. I gravitated to things and transcribed little things that I used and grew from that. I was around a lot of kids who studied piano and they played the hell out of all these Cuban composers. Everyone was studying the classics around me, mostly girls, because at the time it was the girls who would study piano. These YouTube videos remind me of "recital time" and when everyone would perform their works for each other. Now it's like that for jazz. If you practice something really well then... bring out the cameras! People are using YouTube and think it's the same. I think there's a whole thing when there's a lot of young people copying but it's not necessarily about someone posting some new shit they came up with -creating controversy -it serves a different purpose. What I learned later on was: I'm not 'that' but I'm this!

We talked about self-acceptance and that took a long time, along with getting sober, it was like a new exploration of self and trying to find that one thing that made me want to play again. Like when my little boy gets up and is like, 'Daddy let's wrestle' and it's on man, that's the gig! That's the song that day. For people dealing with drug addiction, that thing disappears. So if I'm not going to do this, I want to relate to this world the way it was before I started this thing. Maybe there was a lot of growing up to do. A lot of emotional things that connect with the music. And that's when the whole humanity thing kicked in with how I relate to the world as a father, as a musician and what that means."

Jay and I spoke about many saxophonists whom we revere and also discussed the importance of having a mentor, a personal relationship with a master.

"Today I don't see it as much...I don't perceive it as much. I think that's been the journey. I'm still working...there's so much to work on. With Ornette you were with a master teaching orally, it was a very natural thing. He would rehearse all day, old school"

Jay's ability to play a lot of instruments is admirable. I told him about the time I got to play at Jazz at Lincoln Center. I took the gig because the other band on the bill had the master soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy in it and I wanted to meet him. I had a tenor and soprano sax and bass clarinet with me and he says, "man that's a lot of girlfriends." I thought of that when I saw Jay moving gracefully from the saxophones to flute to bass clarinet. Back in the day the studio scene in NYC was one of the few opportunities for freelance musicians to make a good living. Now that scene has pretty much dried up but there are more TV talk show bands than ever.

"Maybe it's our calling of sorts. We dealt with our circumstances. It's actually to our advantage because it strengthens our voice. I like that story about Lacy. I'm a big fan of the original Saturday Night Live band because they sound so great. I played with The Roots. It was really good to do it. I think we come from a generation where the music scene was different. When I was a kid there was this whole thing about doing studio work. I thought the only way to make money was to do everything and Paquito D'Rivera was like that, he's a ridiculous arranger and doubler, so this was my view, to be multi talented."

After we spoke I began to recollect about so many good times we had together. Sunny days in the city when a friend would pick us up and we'd drive around for hours listening to the radio and talking about music. Or how we'd set a rendezvous time on the uptown platform and ride up to Harlem then go back to his loft in the flower district and practice together. Jay was working with the top Salsa stars of the day including Tito Puente, Jose Alberto and Celia Cruz. Eventually he would be playing in Ray Barretto's band with whom he recorded a marvelous album called Ancestral Messages. He was also working with the gifted trumpeter Charlie Sepulveda who, on Jay's recommendation, took me in as his sub.

Some years went by and Jay got busier playing with the Groove Collective, Bill Ware, Medeski Martin & Wood and many other successful artists. I began playing in the Lounge Lizards and we didn't see much of each other for a long time. However there was a sax quartet gig that I'll never forget at St Mark's Church. He came in at the last minute with his old baritone sax. It was barely holding together and during the concert it completely stopped working. These things happen so we saxophonists often use whatever is available and improvise a repair to get through the gig. Jay asked out to the audience if anyone had a rubber band. A gentleman got up and walked up to the bandstand and pulled from his pocket what appeared to be a baseball sized roll of rubber bands. Rubber bands of every size and shape! It was just the type of luck that Jay would have. After that he played a solo that raised the roof. Maybe it was a little theatrical but he sure connected with that audience in a beautiful way.

He still dreams of having a music school where he was born in Barranquilla, Colombia. I always felt that Jay's talent was equally matched by his passion. He can tap into a mysterious kind of wisdom that allows one to grasp the essence of humanity. Even if that thing he speaks of can only be realized for a split second, it is far worth the effort, and more. As Jay so eloquently phrases it in his liner notes to Your Sound:

"There was a time long ago, I was told, that one could hear the murmur of the stars. This is what my song, 'your sound' is about. But that is just my sound and thoughts about it. We will all hear different things within. Listen for your sound in it.The sound in me is vibrating and speaking with the sound in you. 'Your Sound' is sacred. I wish you 'Your Sound' and your awareness of it in your terrestrial lifetime and beyond."

Photo credit: William Brown

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