Artist Interview: Cuban Pianist Alfredo Rodríguez
Photo: Alfredo Rodríguez. Photo by Anna Webber.
Alfredo Rodríguez is a Cuban pianist and composer. He was born in Havana, Cuba, in 1985. With a well-known Cuban singer as his father, it is no wonder that he has been surrounded by music his entire life. He started studying at the Manuel Saumell Cuban Conservatory at the age of 7, and has been playing and creating music ever since.
Alfredo spent some time talking with us about his experiences in Cuba and in the United States, his thoughts about a musician’s life, and his upcoming work. He’ll perform in Ann Arbor on March 14, 2014 as part of a unique double-bill with Pedrito Martinez Group.
Annick Odom: We know that you’ve played in Ann Arbor and Detroit before, but we’re really excited to have you playing for the first time with UMS in March. Your work draws on jazz and Cuban music traditions. How do you balance these in your own music?
Alfredo Rodríguez: Well, I started as a part of his [my father’s] band when I was very young, about 13. We used to play popular music, music from the traditions of Cuba and his compositions as well. I combined that kind of performing, that kind of ambiance, with the classical school.
In Cuban music, there is a lot of improvisation, but I didn’t know much about improvisation in classical music at that time. My uncle gave me an album called The Köln Concert by Keith Jarrett [the legendary jazz pianist], and that got me into improvisation.
I was used to Cuban traditional music and classical composers like Johann Sebastian Bach, and also to Latin composers. After that CD though, I found the music of many of the pioneers of the be-bop era, a lot of different musicians, mostly from the United States. I was falling in love with the way those composers and instruments created music.
AO: We presented Keith Jarrett in 2000! What exactly about that recording drew you in so much? What made you so excited about improvisation?
AR: Well, my uncle gave me that CD with an idea in mind, because he was not very involved in piano music. He gave me that CD because he knew that I was very into that world. But I wasn’t expecting anything it. I just put it on. It was a great introduction for me because Keith Jarrett had that touch and that knowledge about classical music, and he shows a lot of those influences in his playing. It was a good introduction for me to improvisation and jazz music, too, of course.
AO: You said that you played a lot with your father while growing up and that you played a lot of popular music in Cuba. How would you say that you’ve individualized yourself from previous generations of musicians from Cuba?
AR: I guess I would say that [the musicians in my generation] are changing every day. We have different experiences every day. [My generation] grew up in a different situation than the generations before us in Cuba. We had different problems, different ways of living, [different] points of view. And of course those differences are the reasons that music changes too.
What I like to do with my music is to just express the present, just express how I am feeling, what I am going through in that exact moment. I guess what I am trying to say is that everybody always has something to say, and it is always different for everybody. And that kind of honesty is what I look for in terms of music, and in terms of living my life.
So it’s very simple for me, I just try to express who I am when I play my music and compose. I try and show my [Cuban] roots and also the transculturation that I have been living since I have been here in the United States.
AO: Do you find yourself playing any differently since you moved to the US or do you play pretty similarly to when you lived in Cuba?
AR: No, I’ve definitely changed. The United States is a different country with different culture, which has been a very positive process for me in terms of learning.
[Cuba] is an island, and due to the country’s political history we have been only around Cubans for more than 50 years. The culture that we have been creating for so many years is very unique and powerful because we are surrounded by Cubans, but at the same time, it’s contradictory because we haven’t had the opportunity to have confrontation and transculturation with different cultures.
I wanted to know different cultures and meet different people with different points of view so that I could incorporate all of that into myself and reflect it in my music.
AO: Let’s talk about your upcoming concert here in Ann Arbor. Who will be coming with you? What will you perform? Can you also talk a little bit about your upcoming album?
AR: Actually I am releasing my next album The Invasion Parade on March 4th, which is going to be very, very close to the concert [in Ann Arbor on March 14]. I am going to be featuring the same trio that I had for my album at the concert. We are featuring different artists, but the main trio that I perform with is Peter Slavov, a Bulgarian bass player, and Henry Cole, a drummer from Puerto Rico.
We are going to be performing the music on this upcoming album as well as music from the past. But to be honest, music is very natural and spontaneous for us, so we just like to play songs that will fit in the moment that we are living.
It’s difficult to say exactly what songs we’ll play or even what the music is going to sound like. I guess what I mean to say is that we have the message that we want to tell people: 70% of my music is improvisation, and the other part is rhythm. So it’s kind of unexpected, and in that way, we learn more from ourselves.
AO: You’re sharing the bill with Pedrito Martinez. Have you ever played with him before?
AR: It’s very funny because Pedrito is part of my album [The Invasion Parade], too. I love his playing! Pedrito is one of the musicians coming out of Cuba that I admire so much because of his incorporation of our culture into his vocals and percussion. And speaking of my album, it also features Esperenza Spalding, and horn players from Cuba and Puerto Rico. But yeah, speaking of Pedrito, we have a really, really close relationship in both in terms of music and friendship.
AO: It seems that you are already thinking a lot about the upcoming months, but where do you see your music going even further into the future?
AR: That is a good question. To be honest, I don’t think too much about the future. What I can share with you is something that I’ve been working on since the past, until today, which is creating music.
I am also currently writing a lot of music for the symphony. The premiere of my first symphonic work will be this year in November, and I will be performing one of my compositions with an orchestra at the Barcelona Jazz Festival. And I’m working on new music for my trio and my upcoming CDs.
I do it [compose music] because I just need it. It’s like water for me. If I am inspired, I write something. I’m just composing music, doing what I like to do. I feel very fortunate about that because I just have the opportunity to live from what I love to do, and I am very grateful for that.
Interested in more? Check out Alfredo’s new album or get tickets to his performance with Pedrito Martinez Group in Ann Arbor on March 14, 2014.