Q&A with Alfredo Rodríguez: Global References

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Pianist and bandleader Alfredo Rodríguez remembers living in Cuba, wishing he “could talk and play with American musicians.”

(Photo: Anna Webber)

It’s difficult not to think of political controversy surrounding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival when noticing the title of Alfredo Rodríguez’s latest disc, The Little Dream (Mack Avenue). Even though the 33-year-old pianist and composer wasn’t a child when he first arrived in the United States from Cuba, the contentious American policy hits close to home.

“I’m very happy to be in this country, because the United States has so many opportunities,” Rodríguez said. “The Little Dream comes from me wanting to provide inspiration to children. I believe that children are the hope for the world. I hope to help and inspire them to really behold their cultures for the better of humanity. I’m aiming for peace, community and mutual understanding, instead of separating children.”

For sure, The Little Dream beams with optimism as Rodríguez leads his agile trio mates—drummer Michael Olivera and bassist/guitarist Munir Hossn—through an inviting set of mostly originals that exhibit musical characteristics well beyond Cuba and the U.S. Rodríguez’s jubilant piano melody and Hossn’s spidery guitar accompaniment at the beginning of “Dawn” reveals African Highlife music as a touchstone, while the evocative “Silver Rain” prances to lithe rhythms and melodies one might expect to hear somewhere in the Middle East.

In an interview with DownBeat, Rodríguez talks about his global references on The Little Dream, explains why he opted to record with just a trio after featuring larger instrumentations on his previous discs—Sounds of Space, The Invasion Parade and Tocororo—and shared thoughts on the current relationship between the U.S. and Cuba.

The following his been edited for length and clarity.

Why did you opt to focus on the trio setting this time?
The trio has been the base for all of my CDs. But also on my CDs, I’ve had many collaborations. That’s something that I’m extremely happy about, because from them I’ve learned so much. But I wanted to have a CD with just the guys whom I’ve been touring with a lot.

How long has this trio been together?
[Drummer] Michael Olivera and I basically grew up playing music together in Havana. After I came to the United States, we didn’t play together for about four years. But since he’s been living in Europe for the past six years, we started playing together again.

Munir Hossn, the Brazilian bassist and guitarist-I’ve been playing with for almost four years. I met him through Michael; Munir is based in Paris. I’m happy that Munir plays electric bass and guitar, because I wanted to change the sound of my trio.

Talk about the nature of the songs and of the compositions on the album. “Dawn” and “Vamos Todos A Cantar” sound very South African.
We’ve been exploring a lot of music from different parts of Africa. A lot of that comes out through the electric guitar. Obviously, the Afro-Cuban music that I grew up with plays a strong role on the disc. Africa has such a strong presence in Cuban music, particularly the Yoruba. I love music from South Africa, Benin and Senegal so much, and I wanted to go deeper in the direction.

You’ve performed a few times in Africa, correct?
Not in Benin or Senegal, but I have played in South Africa three or four times-a couple of times at the Cape Town Jazz Festival and I’ve done concerts in Jo’burg. I wish that I could perform in other countries in Africa. I’m planning on doing some research and exploring the wonderful culture that Africa has. I’ve also been to Morocco—a couple of times.

Did your experience in Morocco shape any of the songs on the new album, like the melody and rhythm for “Silver Rain?”
The music is just a reflection of my life, because I consume a lot of music from different countries. I love folkloric music from just about every country. So, I’m sure, you’re hearing something that could sound like it came from Morocco.

Also through Munir, I’ve been listening to a lot of music from Lebanon. Munir has an interesting blend of cultures. Of course, there’s the Brazilian side. His mom’s [family] is from Lebanon. So, my goal in my music has been trying to combine all of our influences and musical heritages.

I’ve always tried to bring different people together from different cultures with my music. I really do believe that music is medicine for the soul.

What are your thoughts on the current relations between the U.S. and Cuba. Toward the end of the Obama administration, there seemed to be a thawing, but that’s ended with the Trump administration.
Because of what’s happening here in the United States regarding immigration, I think relations between the U.S. and Cuba are going to get worse. It was getting better. I was excited, because I saw some of my friends from Cuba come here. But now, I think relations are going to go back to the way it was before Obama.

I’m not happy about it, because I wish that Americans and Cubans could share our stories together easier. It’s difficult seeing people come from there to the United States, because I’ve been blocked from visiting Cuba. Last year, Havana was the host city for International Jazz Day. I was invited by the Thelonious Monk Institute, but the Cuban government said that I was one of those musicians who couldn’t come. It’s not the Cuban people who don’t want me to come back.

Still, I love it when American musicians come to Cuba to share their music and history. I remember living there and wishing that I could talk and play with American musicians.

How has working with Quincy Jones shaped your artistry and your view of the global jazz community?
Quincy is a legend. For a young musician like me, you can learn so much from just being by his side. Quincy taught me how to find beauty out of any kind of music—no matter what it is. He’s the most opened-minded music producer that I know. He lets you be yourself, which is something that’s very important for me. I just want to play music that I love. It’s been more than 10 years since I [met] him. He’s an extremely humble and giving person. I admire that a lot. His goal also is to bring people together; I just want to keep that goal in my music. DB


On Sale Now
August 2018
Vijay Iyer
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