Cuban pianist Alfredo Rodríguez, Quincy Jones co-produce groundbreaking ‘Sounds Of Space’
“It’s about the space that surrounds us. In this record, I wanted to introduce myself: here are the people, the places, and the sounds that have surrounded me, and made me who I am.” –Alfredo Rodríguez
Alfredo Rodríguez brings a lot to the jazz table. But the pianist and composer has been through a lot in his 26 years. Growing up in Havana, Cuba couldn’t have been easy. Having an entertainment industry giant such as his father (TV presenter, popular singer) certainly provided the creative outlet, on-the-job training, and fostering of such amazing music to offset such hardship.
Because this was Cuba, Rodríguez couldn’t just pick up the drum sticks and go to town. He had to wait for permission to receive formal music education in that chosen instrument, permission which came at age 10. But at age seven, he was okay to start with piano, biding his time. By the time he was allowed to learn percussion, the child prodigy stuck with what he knew and grew to love.
Rodríguez took to much formal learning in classical music and informal learning of other styles from his dad’s daily TV show, surrounded by famous Cuban performers. A teenaged Rodríguez soaked it all in. “I didn’t play with many dance groups, but I played in my dad’s band since I was 14,” he described in a DL Media press release. “And my dad presented a daily TV show and many famous Cuban musicians came through it and we had every type of music. I was still a kid, but had a chance to perform every day, and write arrangements for all kinds of music: boleros, rock ‘n roll, dance music — you name it. It is where I learned the discipline of being a professional musician.”
An uncle’s fortuitous gift — Keith Jarrett’s “The Köln Concert” — changed the 15-year-old Rodríguez’ life dramatically. Jarrett was doing things in this album that blew Rodríguez’ mind, things that had everything to do with improvisation, and would lead him away from Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, straight to jazz and U.S. record producer to the stars, Quincy Jones.
“He is very special and I do not say that easily because I have been surrounded by the best musicians in the world my entire life … and he is the best!” –Quincy Jones
A 2006 appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festival cemented Rodríguez’ destiny with Jones. At the home of festival founder/director Claude Nobs, Rodríguez was asked to perform special, just for Jones. “And of course I said yes. I remember I played an arrangement I had written of ‘I Love You’ by Cole Porter. And when I finished, Quincy said he liked it a lot and that he wanted to work with me,” Rodríguez continued. “That was amazing. That someone I admire so much would be interested in doing something with me was incredible. But I’m a realist, and while it was a nice idea, I thought it would be difficult. And it was.”
Jones wouldn’t quit on Rodríguez, despite the humongous red tape between them. Rodríguez was working gigs with his dad in Mexico, when, in 2009, the young piano player headed for the border, trying to make it to the States and producer Quincy Jones. The border police caught him in Laredo, arrested him, and nearly held him back from a momentous point in history. Rodríguez stood his ground, refusing to back down, and insisting he had nothing to hide; he was crossing the border come what may for music. The musician literally had nothing on him except for a spare pair of jeans, a sweater, his music, and his truth. “I told [border patrol]: ‘If you turn me back, I’ll be back tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that, until I can make it through.’ They talked among themselves, put me in cab and sent me on my way. That’s how I started my life in the United States.”
It turns out that Alfredo Rodríguez and Quincy Jones make beautiful music together. The co-producers worked hard on reflecting Rodríguez’ singular, conflicted voice in a kaleidoscope of past, present, future configurations that conjure up atonal, eclectic, hard-bop-sounding jazz mixes, and lush, classical treatments of atmospheric splendor.
“…Rodriguez’s grace under pressure and talent for finding emotional truth in the split-second fall of a piano key has brought him to the verge of an improbable success story.” –Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times
Sounds Of Space, released on March 27, 2012 with Mack Avenue Records, is aptly named. The 11 original compositions by Alfredo Rodríguez make ample use of sound and space, and musically summarize his experiences (like running for the U.S. border, missing Cuba) and influences (Cuban artist Ernesto Lecuona, shades of Monk, and of course, mentor Quincy Jones).
Dedicated to Jones, the piano-fluid hothouse energy of “Qbafrica” takes off in tumbling, frenetic, discordant notes that step to and recede just shy of melodic confusion. That Rodríguez pulls it off with his own tantalizing Afro-Cuban and Brazilian flourish is nothing short of masterfully original.
“Sueño de Paseo” is simply a beautiful, nostalgic and romantic rendering of what Havana was like back then, during his youth. It’s filled with lush, melodic, almost painfully fragile-sounding notes of yearning and loss in the slower tempo, the piano trades with what sounds like an other-worldly soprano sax.
Currently, Alfredo Rodríguez is enchanting all of Twitter with his Cuban cover of “Jingle Bells.” He says a holiday album’s in the works. Let’s hope so.