CUBAN DEFECTOR GETTING RAVES IN INTERNATIONAL WORLD OF JAZZ
While he loves the land where he was raised and educated, Alfredo Rodriguez is a realist.
A young jazz pianist discovered at a European festival by eminent producer Quincy Jones, Rodriguez defected from his native Cuba to the United States so he could share his performing and composing talents with audiences around the world.
On Friday night, the 28-year-old Cuban prodigy makes his Napa Valley debut with an intimate performance in the lobby of the Lincoln Theater in Yountville, a month before he returns to the Bay Area for a series of shows at the new San Francisco Jazz Center. And tickets for the 7 p.m. performance by the Alfredo Rodriguez Trio are $20.
Rodriguez, now represented by prestigious IMG Artists in New York, is expected to present material from his new recording, “The Invasion Parade,” a mix of originals and classic Latin songs.
Born in Havana, Cuba, the son of a popular singer, television presenter and entertainer of the same name, Rodriguez began his formal music education when he was seven years old. Percussion, not piano, was his first choice. “But to choose what I wanted I had to wait until I was 10,” he recalled. “So I picked piano. By the time I could actually switch to percussion, I knew the piano was my path.”
He graduated to the Conservatorio Amadeo Roldán, and then to the Instituto Superior de Arte. He had a strictly formal classical musical education, and learned popular styles on stage, playing in his father’s orchestra from the age of 14. “I had a chance to perform every day, and write arrangements for all kinds of music — boleros, rock ‘n’ roll, dance music, you name it,” he says. “That is where I learned the discipline of being a professional musician.”
By the time he was 14, the young pianist was the pride of the conservatory, graduating with better grades than the school had ever seen.
He entered the world of jazz and improvisation at 15, when an uncle gave him Keith Jarrett’s recording, “The Köln Concert.” “Until then it had been all Bach, Mozart and Beethoven,” Rodriguez pointed out. “I didn’t know anything about improvisation. The Köln Concert changed my life.”
Rodriguez was already a local phenomenon when he sent a rough recording to the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. What he considered a fanciful shot in the dark got him a spot at the eminent festival in 2006, where he caught Jones’s ear.
While there, he was invited to a gathering at the house of the festival’s founder and director, Claude Nobs, who asked him if he would play for Jones.
“When I finished, Quincy said he liked it a lot and that he wanted to work with me,” Rodriguez vividly recalls. “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.”
For three years, Rodriguez and Jones corresponded while watching closely for any softening of the United States’ rigid policies toward Cuba. Then in January of 2009, Rodriguez decided to leave his family and his longtime girlfriend for an uncertain fate — he made a go at crossing the border.
While in Mexico after playing some engagements with his father, who lived there at the time, Rodriguez made his move with “nothing — a suitcase with a sweater, a pair of jeans and my music.”
Rodriguez flew into the border city of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, but was apprehended at the airport under a Cuban policy restricting its citizens from coming close to the United States. A Mexican Federal Police officer detained him, placing the young musician in a most unpleasant holding room. The subsequent interrogation dragged on for hours, with Rodriguez insisting he was in the country only to perform, to travel with his family, to see the sights. The officer didn’t buy the young man’s story.
Finally, Rodriguez came clean, entrusting his fate to the officer: “Yes, I am trying to defect,” he told the policeman. “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 surprised by the detainee’s candor. He left the room, 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.’”
Asylum granted, it wasn’t long before Rodriguez met up with Jones and his staff, who organized a slew of performances for the eager young talent.
A new day
Under Jones’ tutelage, Rodriguez’ star has been rising. Since arriving in this country five years ago, Rodriguez has appeared on prestigious stages such as the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl, the Gilmore Keyboard Festival, the Detroit, Newport, San Francisco, North Sea, Umbria and Vienna jazz festivals, as well as respected jazz rooms such as Ronnie Scott’s, Sculler’s, Yoshi’s, Jazz Standard, The Blue Note and Jazz Alley.
On his first tour in China, Rodriguez was asked to work with Academy Award winning Chinese composer Tan Dun, Grammy Award winning songwriter Siedah Garrett and Jones to compose the English-version theme song, “Better City, Better Life,” for the 2010 Shanghai World Expo. Not only that, he was asked to perform the song at the closing ceremony of the Shanghai International Film Festival, the first non-Chinese artist to be bestowed this honor.
His first recording, “Sounds of Space,” was released in 2011.
On “The Invasion Parade,” his follow-up recording released earlier this month, Rodriguez explores his memories of Cuba, the people and the culture he left behind — as well as where he finds himself today.
“When you live in your own country, you are immersed in that reality and you’re not necessarily conscious of all the different elements that make it what it is,” Rodriguez said. “I breathed Cuban music. Being outside that reality gives me a different perspective. Creating and playing this music has been like finding out who I am, all over again.
“I searched different styles, different rhythms of Cuban music,” he explains. “I explored Conga Santiaguera (a rhythm from Santiago, in Eastern Cuba), Afro-Cuban music and also música guajira (country music). I’m exploring the roots and searching for my own contribution to Cuban music.”
Co-produced by Jones, the record is composed of nine tracks including originals by Rodriguez as well as evergreens such as “Guantanamera,” Maria Teresa Vera’s “Veinte Años,” and “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás.”
Using the term “invasion” in the record title, Rodriguez says, “refers to the invasion of the streets by people who come out to participate and celebrate. In my mind it also has to do with an invasion of culture. I wrote and arranged the music but not everybody in the group is Cuban. We have Cubans but also Americans (Esperanza Spalding), a Puerto Rican (Henry Cole), a Bulgarian (bassist Peter Slavov) and it’s a mix of cultures in which everybody contributes … the invasion of ‘The Invasion Parade’ is a peaceful one, and an honest one … it’s a celebration to which all are invited, exactly like in the conga Santiaguera. That’s the message we want to send out.”
On the artist’s management company website, Jones said of the jazz pianist: “Alfredo 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. He is without doubt one of the best young pianists I’ve ever seen and with the enormous skills that he already possesses, his potential is limitless.”
Following a performance in Boston, a reviewer with the Boston Herald wrote: “Rodriguez proved himself one of the most original keyboard talents to come out of Cuba since Chucho Valdes and Gonzalo Rubalcaba. So striking was the nearly two-hour performance that the audience briefly sat in stunned silence at its end before erupting into a roaring ovation.”