Sounds Of Space, the title of Cuban pianist and composer Alfredo Rodríguez’ debut recording, evokes images of science fiction. In truth, it’s about a far more personal adventure. “It’s about the space that surrounds us,” he explains. “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.”
A key player in Rodríguez’ extraordinary story is producer Quincy Jones, who co-produced Sounds Of Space with Rodríguez.
“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,” said Jones. “And he is one of the best.” In turn, for Rodríguez, 26, Jones has not only become a mentor and a teacher but “like a new father.” Still, such priceless endorsement can also create impossibly high expectations. But in Sounds Of Space, Rodríguez proves up to the challenge.
The album comprises 11 tracks composed and arranged by Rodríguez. It includes nods to Cuban masters such as Ernesto Lecuona, but also pianistic models such as Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk; it draws on the tradition, but it has a personal imprint. And now and then, Sounds Of Space is also shaped by nostalgia for a country left behind, so near yet so far.
Born in Havana, Cuba, the son of a popular singer, television presenter and entertainer of the same name, Rodríguez began his formal music education at seven. Percussion, not piano, was his first choice. “But…to choose what I wanted I had to wait until I was 10,” he explains. “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. But while his formal musical education was strictly classical, he also learned music “on the street,” or more precisely, on stage. “I didn’t play with many dance groups, but I played in my dad’s band since I was 14,” he says. “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. That was another great school for me. I was very lucky.”
The momentous discovery during that formative period, however, came packed on a CD. “When I was 15, my uncle gave me Keith Jarrett’s The Köln Concert,” he recalls. “That’s when I began to explore the idea of improvisation. Up to then it had been all Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, and I’m thankful to my teachers for it because without that I wouldn’t be the same pianist. But up to that point I didn’t know anything about improvisation. The Köln Concert changed my life. I realized that was what I wanted to do: just sit and play. And not only musical ideas; music doesn’t come only from music. It can reflect and speak to what surrounds us.”
In 2006, Rodríguez was selected to play at the Montreux Jazz Festival. While there, he was invited to a gathering at the house of the festivals’ founder and director, Claude Nobs, who asked him if he would play for Quincy Jones.
“And of course I said yes,” recalls Rodríguez. “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. 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.”
Still, a month later, back in Cuba, he received an email from Jones’ Vice President Adam Fell. “Then I knew this was serious. That’s when I decided I was coming to the U.S.”
In 2009, while in Mexico after playing some engagements with his father, who has lived there since 2008, Rodríguez made his move and flew to Laredo—where he was arrested and held by the border police.
“I had nothing: a suitcase with a sweater, a pair of jeans and my music,” he says. “And when they interviewed me I told them the truth: I was coming to stay. I wasn’t doing planning to do anything illicit. I was coming to write and play music, work with Quincy Jones and start my career. And I told them: ‘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.”
Few artists get to make their public debut professionally in the United States at the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl, opening for Wayne Shorter. And Rodríguez also made appearances at events such as the SXSW Music Festival, the Detroit Jazz Festival, Monterey Jazz Festival, Newport Jazz Festival and the San Francisco Jazz Festival, as well as performances at international festivals such as the North Sea Jazz Festival (Netherlands), Umbria (Italy), Montreux (Switzerland), Mawazine (Morocco), Mundo Latino (Brazil) and the Tag Heur Shanghai Jazz and Blues Week (China), among others.
Now, in Sounds Of Space, the arc of the music suggests a young artist looking back and forward, taking stock at the beginning of a new road.
The energetic “Qbafrica” mixes elements of avant-jazz with Afro-Cuban, Brazilian and African music, and “is titled in honor of Quincy, who was nicknamed ‘Q’ by Frank Sinatra. He’s been championing for years this notion of a global cultural unity. This piece is a tribute to that idea.”
“Sueño de Paseo” evokes walking again in the streets of Havana, while in “Y Bailaria La Negra? (a Ernesto Lecuona),” Rodríguez both pays tribute to—and teases—one of the grand masters of Cuban music as he playfully alludes to his piece “Y La Negra Bailaba?”
Meanwhile, “Cubop” celebrates Bud Powell, “one of my favorite pianists,” explains Rodríguez. “It’s my idea of how bop would have sounded in Cuba if he had been born there.”
The stunning virtuosic display in “April” suggests an impossible piano duet for solo piano, while pieces such as “Oxygen,” “Transculturation” and “Crossing the Border” are eloquent examples of Rodríguez’ idea of drawing on non-musical ideas and experiences for his music.
“I wrote ‘Crossing The Border’ the first week I lived in the States, and it reflects all the stress of that crossing,” he says. “That’s what I lived. That’s what I wanted to communicate.”
As for the title track, which starts with a quirky habanera cadence, it elicits from Rodríguez the story of the true original title of the song—and the record. “The original title comes from a quote about music by José Martí, a Cuban writer and poet whose work has really touched me and influenced my work,” explains Rodríguez. “Unfortunately, it didn’t sound as good in English as a title, so we chose a different tack. But Marti’s line says it all: ‘Lo verdadero es lo que no termina: y la música está perpetuamente palpitando en el espacio.’ That which is true never ends, and music is perpetually beating in space.”