Border hopping to American jazz fame: the Alfredo Rodriguez story
After struggling for three years to leave Cuba and enter America legally, Alfredo Rodriguez found himself with only one option to pursue his dream of playing jazz in the U.S.: He had to cross the border. Driven by his passion for music and an offer to join legendary producer and music magnate Quincy Jones’ record label, Rodriguez knew that he had to try, even though it meant defecting from Cuba and leaving his friends and family behind.
But just as he was about to reach his goal, Rodriguez found himself in the hands of Mexican police. “They are really corrupt at the Mexican border and what they really want sometimes is just to stop you to get money,” he says, recalling the absurdity of the situation with a laugh. “After three or four hours of speaking with them they understood, or they realized that I didn’t have any money, and they let me go that day and I could cross the border in January of 2009.”
The Cuban native began his musical career at the age of 6. As a young man, he entered a conservatory and later studied music in college at Cuba’s Instituto Superior de Arte. He became influenced by several musical styles when he joined his father’s band. Performing daily on television and touring Cuba as well as Latin America, Rodriguez arranged and performed songs inspired by dance music and rock and roll—but it wasn’t until the age of 15 that he found his calling in jazz.
“I was given a CD of Keith Jarrett by my uncle,” explains Rodriguez, “and I was very impressed by the improvisation and I knew that was what I really wanted to do. [Jarrett] was just sitting at the piano and expressing who he was, you know, like completely open and free and I couldn’t do anything like that because I was playing Bach and Stravinsky and Beethoven. That really changed my point of view … and I became curious to see what I could do. I really loved that way to make music, so I started to find more and more about that.”
Just months after arriving in the U.S., he made his debut in front of an audience of 18,000 at the Playboy Jazz Festival in Hollywood—an accomplishment few performers can boast, especially at 23. “That was the first time that I played in front of 18,000 people,” says Rodriguez. “I’ve done bigger concerts after that … but for me, coming from Cuba, just my first concert in front of 18,000 people—that was something really.”
In his freshman effort, Sounds of Space, Rodriguez showcases his virtuosic approach to classical music—a percussive style combined with Cuban tonal inflections. “It is more of an interpretation of the sounds of my life and, of course the way I can translate those sounds is through my music,” says Rodriguez, “and so it is more of who I am, and the people and sounds that have surrounded me. Music for me is coming from every part, it’s coming from everything.”
From the mellow, honeyed “Sueno De Paseo” to the hectic freight train assault of “Crossing the Border”—written in the weeks following his journey to America—Sounds of Space covers a wide range of emotions. Rodriguez’s furious fingers play both complex rhythms and melodic lines to create endless layers for the ear to pick apart.
Even though he has an incredible level of technical ability, Rodriguez is adamant about using his skills to create an emotional connection with his audience. “Sometimes we focus more on the technique or notes, or harmony or melody,” he says. “The message is more important. It’s important to speak, to make a conversation. To interact with the people … I am saying, like you should play for the people … They should be a part of what you are trying to say. Because why if you don’t want them to be part [of it], why are you playing for them?”
Alfredo Rodriguez plays at 7 p.m. Monday, April 30, at Kuumbwa Jazz, 320 Cedar St. #2, Santa Cruz. Tickets are $22/adv, $25/door. For more info, call 427-2227.