Alfredo Rodriguez ambles onto stage, but that’s all the ‘ambling’ he would do for the rest of the night. Once he sits at the piano he is the epitome of a flibbertigibbet. His hands bounce up and down, and occasionally rise with sheer poise from the keyboard to accentuate particularly elongated slurred notes. But by and large, his hands fly up and down and round and about as he lifts the imaginary black dots off the imaginary page. There is no sheet music. He knows the songs well. His repertoire may not be very large at the moment, but it is growing as he explores more music in his short (so-far) music career that began in the early part of this century, escalated at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 2006, when he was spotted by Quincy Jones (and the rest is, of course, history).
“Never beat or pound your instrument – play it easily and gracefully”
The quote comes from Chick Corea and is Number 14 of his 16-point instruction sheet, presumably passed out at one of his master classes. Chick Corea’s commands would not be trifled at – not by his acolytes; not by anyone. However, Alfredo Rodriguez isn’t just anyone and while the young Havana-born New-York-based piano genius was often graceful and glided through his hour-long repertoire – at the Koerner Hall, The Royal Conservatory, Toronto, Canada on the 25th of November, 2017 – he also spent some time punishing the keys of the majestic Yamaha Concert Grand that he shared with the Panamanian-born Berklee professor and resident piano genius of the global music scene, Danilo Pérez. The contrasting styles of the two men was a sight to behold and held the audience spellbound for all of the two hours and a half on that cold night in the city.
Alfredo Rodriguez’s percussive attack is ferocious-looking – more ferocious-looking of any other pianist playing today – but magically, the keys are never destroyed, nor is the piano left out of tune after he’s finished a set. Watch him play carefully and you will work out why that is so. He strikes the notes no harder than Thelonious Monk, for instance. Mr Monk is the most famous ‘percussive’ pianist, whose revolutionary rhythmic attack has inspired (and will surely continue to inspire) a legion of musicians from generation to generation, to generation. On the evening of the 25th of November, Mr Rodriguez is joined by Ricky Rodriguez, a bassist he’s been seen a lot with these days. And it’s not difficult to see why. Mr Rodriguez has a plump, yet sharply-angled sound. The gorgeous, sharply-accented notes have a particularly viscous quality and they form sometimes wholly melodic phrases that echo in the woody belly of his superbly tuned bass. Yet tone is everything, whether pizzicato or con arco.
The last member of the night’s trio is a drummer who may not be as well-known to Toronto audiences, but ought to be: his name is Ferenc Nemeth. The drummer is a younger-generation musician from the Hungarian scene that produced legendary drummers such as Tommy Vig (also a vibraphonist) and Imre Koszegi. Watching Mr Nemeth play is like watching a musical Tai-chi performance. His arms carve the air in great arcs and his body twists and turns as he brings those arms down on the skins of the drums, disturbing the air but never the skins themselves. And yet he has the ability to extract what seem like a hundred thousand sounds – notes, really – with which he makes not only rhythmic, but also harmonic contributions to the music that the Alfredo Rodriguez Trio is playing tonight.
Always expect fireworks, even if you know Alfredo Rodriguez’s music well. As a result “The Invasion Parade” with which he begins his set sounds nothing like what it does on Mr Rodriguez’s second album, of the same name. Tonight’s piece is more spare, not only because it does not feature a saxophone (Román Filiú-O’Reilly played on the recording), but Alfredo Rodriguez makes more room for the epic rhythmic comparsa phrase to breathe as both bassist and drummer interpolate the melody with their respective voices. The sound of Ferenc Nemeth’s ride cymbals slices through the air often as the piece is kept together by Ricky Rodriguez who seems to sculpt the piece changing places with his boss often and with gathering drama. Explorations are long and deep.
Hilario Durán and David Virelles at Koerner Hall in Toronto
On Thursday, October 13, 2022, representing two generations of Cuban Piano Masters, Hilario Durán and David Virelles got together at Koerner Hall, one of the most magnificent concert venues in Toronto. They were celebrating the release (in Canada) of their new recording Front Street Duets (Alma Records), a project they started working on at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
Both artists were extremely happy of releasing their duet album after these past two years of the unimaginable worldwide health crisis. They were also excited to be in Toronto, and for being able to accommodate their busy schedules to perform their music in front of a very enthusiastic audience. Durán and Virelles expressed their utmost respect and admiration for each other. David from an early age considered Hilario as one of his musical heroes, a musical giant and influential figure in Cuba, in Canada and abroad. Hilario considers David as one of the most important Cuban pianist of his generation, a big star shining globally, from the highly competitive musical scene in New York.
The concert got started started with Epistrophy, the first tune copyrighted by Thelonious Monk, followed by Sophisticated Lady / In A Sentimental Mood, two compositions by Duke Ellington. Next, Durán and Virelles performed four tunes from their new album: 1. Danza Lucumí, (beautifully arranged by Virelles), a song written by Alejandro García Caturla, a Cuban composer who together with Amadeo Roldán, are considered the leaders of Afro-cubanismo, a nationalist musical trend that incorporates Afro-Cuban songs, rhythms, and dances. 2. Challenge, a new composition by Durán. 3. La Malanga (also arranged by Virelles), a composition by Calixto Varona, one of the most important composers from Santiago de Cuba from the XIX century. 4. Guajira For Two Pianos, the first track on the album Front Street Duet, a fiery composition written by Durán.
The first set came to an end with Airegin (an anadrome of Nigeria), a jazz standard composed by American saxophonist Sonny Rollins in 1954.
The second part of the concert started with a solo performance by David Virelles, Canción Estudio, composed by José Antonio “Ñico” Rojas, a prominent Cuban composer and guitarist, considered as one of the founders of the style of Cuban song called filin. Then it was Durán’s turn for an inspired solo performance of Autumn Nocturne (a notable composition written by Russian-born Josef Myrow with Kim Gannon). Durán had previously recorded this tune on his 1999 Justin Time Records release Habana Nocturna, a superb album that feature acclaimed saxophonist, flautist and bandleader Jane Bunnett, and drummer extraordinaire Horacio “El Negro” Hernández.
Next, both pianists performed a set of four pieces written by Hilario Durán for the recording Front Street Duets. 1. David’s Tumbao, a composition dedicated to David Virelles. Durán is well known for his fiery tumbao style when he’s playing. 2. Punto Cubano #1, inspired on the genre of Cuban music known as punto guajiro or punto cubano, a poetic art with music that became popular in the western and central regions of Cuba in the 17th century and consolidated as a genre in the 18th century. 3. Santos Suárez’s Memories pays tribute to the Havana neighbourhood where Durán grew up, where he fell in love with the piano and became a musician. It brings back cherished memories involving his upbringing, his family and close friends. 4. Milonga For Cuba, a very special tribute dedicated to the people who protested in Havana last summer 2021.
For the encore, Durán and Virelles interpreted a wonderful rendition of Body And Soul, a popular song and jazz standard written in 1930 with music by Johnny Green and lyrics by Edward Heyman, Robert Sour and Frank Eyton. Body and Soul is the track that closes the album Front Street Duets, and also brought to an end a tremendous musical night at Koerner Hall in Toronto.
Photographs by Danilo Navas
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