The Cry of Jay Rodriguez

Michael Blake By

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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."


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