“Crossing the Border,” one of the many marvelous originals on Alfredo Rodríguez’s debut, Sounds of Space (Mack Avenue/Qwest), attempts to portray the most pivotal moment in the pianist’s life so far. Almost overloaded with energy, the solo piano excursion displays Rodríguez’s virtuosic prowess. He pounds out crisscrossing lines and shifts into an impromptu montuno romp, which eventually gives way to dark chords and a furious yet probing improvisation. Yet underneath all that technical extravagance is a story of courage.
Rodríguez wrote “Crossing the Border” in January 2009, just a week after arriving in the U.S. from Mexico, where he and his father, a singer, had resided after leaving their home in Havana, Cuba. The move was inspired in part by Quincy Jones, whom Rodríguez had met three years prior at the Montreux Jazz Festival.
With only the clothes he was wearing and a suitcase filled with sheet music, Rodríguez tried to enter the States, but faced pushback from the Mexican federal police at the Mexico-Texas border. After four hours of questioning, they let him through. “I just told them the truth: I’m here to pursue my dreams; I’m here to learn; I’m here because I want to play music,” says the 26-year-old from his home in Los Angeles. “With the truth, you can go anywhere in the world.” Rodríguez even told the federal police that if he wasn’t permitted entry he would try each following day until he succeeded: “I said that I was going to cross the border.”
Sounds of Space is remarkable in its ability to maintain both aesthetic diversity and emotional focus. Rodríguez is as moving on ballads like “Sueño de Paseo” and “April” as he is on knuckle-busters such as “Crossing,” “Qbafrica” (dedicated to Jones) and “Silence.” With other songs touching upon racial unity (“Transculturation”) and the transcendental beauty of the elements (“Oxygen” and “Fog”), Rodríguez says he wanted his debut to be more than just a showcase for pyrotechnics; for him, the collection of postmodern Latin jazz is a “personal adventure.” “It’s more about the space that has been surrounding me since I was born,” Rodríguez explains. “I wanted to transmit everything that I have learned [up to] this moment onto this CD.”
But one doesn’t need to be aware of all the subtexts to be transfixed by Sounds of Space; the music stands firmly on its own. And Rodríguez exhibits a sterling rapport with his bandmates, including clarinetist and saxophonist Ernesto Vega, bassists Gaston Joya and Peter Slavov, and drummers Francisco Mela and Michael Olivera. Rodríguez even deftly employs a chamber ensemble, the Santa Cecilia Quartet, on “Fog.”
Sounds of Space was co-produced by Rodríguez and Jones, who is now the pianist’s mentor. “Just speaking with Quincy, you are learning,” the pianist says. “The most beautiful lesson [he] taught me is to do whatever [artistically] I feel like I want to do. He really believes in my music and doesn’t want to change what I’m doing.”
“The relationship between the producer and the artist is about love first,” adds Jones. “Then, if you are aware of what the [artist’s] range is, you try to expand it if you need to. Alfredo doesn’t have much to expand upon, because he’s already there. He’s so sensitive and aware of what’s going on musically. He’s a complete 360 degrees musician. He knows how to orchestrate for symphony; he knows classical music; he knows salsa; he knows all of Cuba’s Yoruba roots, which came from Africa.”
Rodríguez certainly has a granite-solid musical foundation, which began in Cuba at age 6, when he attended the Manuel Saumell Elementary School of Music for classical studies. He continued his education at the Conservatorio Amadeo Roldán and the Instituto Superior de Arte. At 13, he started playing in his father’s band. But it wasn’t until age 15, when an uncle gave him a copy of Keith Jarrett’s 1975 masterpiece, The Köln Concert, that Rodríguez caught the jazz bug. “I completely fell in love with his open-minded ideas and with his improvisations,” Rodríguez recalls. Five years later, he was chosen to perform at the Montreux Jazz Festival. Since then, Rodríguez has played many top-drawer events, gigging with such figures as guitarist Lionel Loueke and bassist Richard Bona, and opening dates for McCoy Tyner and Wayne Shorter.
When asked if he misses his family in Cuba, understandably Rodríguez reveals a mix of melancholy and optimism. “We have always been a really close family. And I have all of their support,” he says. “They always taught me that one of the most important things in life is to pursue happiness.”