The Alfredo Rodriguez Trio on Tuesday, April 22 at Blue Whale Bar in Los Angeles. (Digital Girl Inc.)
When I became in 1995 the “official” translator for all the Cuban artists on DJ, author and iconic radio personality Tom Schnabel’s programs “Morning Becomes Eclectic” and later “Café LA” on Santa Monica radio station KCRW 89.9fm, I was able to meet many pianists from the island including Chucho Valdez and Gonzalo Rubalcaba.
Although their styles are different, they all share an influence and love of Afro-Cuban rhythms that are a big part of the magic and complexity of Cuban music – whether the popular or classical genres (including opera and zarzuela).
On Tuesday night at The Blue Whale bar located in little Tokyo, a standing room only crowd greeted one of Cuba’s youngest piano virtuosos Alfredo Rodriguez along with Puerto Rican musicians Ricardo Rodriguez (bass) and Henry Cole (drums), who make up The Alfredo Rodriguez Trio.
Born in Havana in 1985, Alfredo was trained at the Manuel Saumell Conservatory when he was 7 years old, then at the Amadeo Roldan Music Conservatory finishing his studies at the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA).
In 2006 he met iconic producer Quincy Jones while performing at Switzerland’s Montreux Jazz Festival after sending a recording of his work to the organizers. Since then, they have become friends and collaborators with Jones producing Alfredo’s first recording, Sounds of Space (2012), and his most current work, The Invasion Parade.
The concert began in a very unorthodox manner, with something resembling a DJ set with Alfredo wearing earphones playing a keyboard/synthesizer with a control panel above the piano keys. A morse code sound began to permeate the room with other sounds being introduced in layers while drummer Cole joined in.
This electronic potpourri of sounds soon morphed into a Cuban “comparsa” rhythm driven by the piano with the drums taking over the traditional tumbadora (conga drum) and other percussion roles in this traditional carnaval musical genre. While based on traditional musi,c the trio distorted, accelerated and basically improvised their interpretation in layers over the base structure.
Second on the set was a version of “Veinte años” by iconic Cuban female composer/musician Maria Teresa Vera. This song was originally an “habanera” music genre composition and it began with the piano over a soft layer of drums and bass. This was short lived as the piece increased in speed, volume and complexity as Alfredo showed why he is considered a piano virtuoso. The improvisation complexities and speed of his hands were incredible to watch and difficult at times because all you could see was a blur of fingers hitting the keys.
A more jazz based piece followed; it was more abstract in its composition and execution. It was a “dialogue” between all three instruments/musicians as though you were watching three friends “talking” about some particular idea or topic as it was happening in real time.
Coming from the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico, Cole and Ricardo showed mastery of their instruments and an obvious affinity and knowledge of the African based rhythms that permeates these songs that are featured in The Invasion Parade.
It is obvious that Alfredo and his gang are experimenting with technology, sounds as well as with influences like jazz, bebop and classical music in their work, while at the same time paying homage to the flavors and sounds of their respective countries Cuba and Puerto Rico.