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Alfredo Rodriguez: Tocororo

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The tocororo, Cuba’s national bird, is a brightly plumed songbird that, according to legend, dies of sadness when caged. The political symbolism is obvious: Alfredo Rodriguez, a Cuban expatriate, emigrated to the U.S. in 2009; as he puts it on his website, “Cuba was my cage.” But this album is not a jeremiad or a manifesto; the overall feel is of life-affirming celebration. Along with co-producer Quincy Jones, Rodriguez creates an aural landscape that redeems longing and sorrow with uplift, militant in its refusal to succumb to bitterness or despair.

The opening track, Compay Segundo’s “Chan Chan,” is illustrative: Laced with trickster-like wit (juxtaposed rhythms, gaily colored textures), it’s also infused with forward-thrusting drive and darkened by deep sonorities, all over the course of a little more than two minutes, exemplifying the mix of improvisational play and disciplined rigor that characterizes this music.

Rodriguez’s keyboard work is richly imaginative both melodically and rhythmically; woodwind player Ariel Bringuez evinces similar dexterity, as does trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf. Percussionist Michael Olivera and bassists Reinier Elizarde (acoustic) and Richard Bona (electric) deftly negotiate the music’s complex, varied rhythmic demands. Those demands are not solely Latin or even jazz-like in nature: Maalouf’s “Kaleidoscope” dervish-dances in a Middle Eastern mode, and similar flavorings enrich the title tune, sung with aching emotional intensity by Indian vocalist Ganavya Doraiswamy.

Doraiswamy and the other featured vocalists-Antonio Lizana, the duo Ibeyi, Bona and Rodriguez himself-contribute fully as lead instruments with exemplary timbral and harmonic facility. The disc’s overriding themes-mourning and celebrating lost beauty while envisioning new freedoms-are manifested as eloquently in their singing as in the instrumental virtuosity that Rodriguez and his compatriots demonstrate throughout.

Originally Published