Two Lessons in Ingenuity: Alfredo Rodríguez Trio & Tiempo Libre

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“Rodríguez came to the world of modern music via Havana, Cuba. At that time his life, by his own admission, was all about the music of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. Then, when he was a mere 15 years of age, an uncle gave him a copy of Keith Jarrett’s Koln Concert and the record changed his life. What imagination and what unending invention by Jarrett!”

Live Report by Raul da Gama

There must be something in and around the waters of Cuba for the generations that have drunk from these waters have and continue to produce musical artists of such astounding and unbridled genius that by their absolute numbers and in the quality of their work reasonable and elevated logic has been summarily destroyed. In recent decades this has been especially true of the pianists who have changed the course of music with the sheer magnificence of their ideas and execution. And then there is the unsurpassed technique with which they have tamed the keyboard of the piano caressing its keys; sometimes hammering it with glorious “killer tumbao” imposed upon a composition and displayed by dazzling runs and arpeggios, block chords or simply playing notes of such mystical power that listening to these feats has all but stopped the beating heart. The men of whom we speak have sometimes numbered among them geniuses such as Bebo and Chucho Valdés, Guillermo and Gonzálo Rubalcaba. Sometimes artists have arisen seemingly without precedent: Peruchín, Frank Emilio, Emiliano Salvador, Hilario Durán, Elio Villafranca, Harold López-Nussa, David Virelles and Dyramir Gonzalez to name but a few… And now there is another name to add to this seemingly never ending list: The absolutely self-effacing Alfredo Rodríguez.

Rodríguez came to the world of modern music via Havana, Cuba. There he graduated in pianoforte to the Conservatorio Amadeo Roldán, and then to the Instituto Superior de Arte. At that time his life, by his own admission, was all about the music of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. Then, when he was a mere 15 years of age, an uncle gave him a copy of Keith Jarrett’s Koln Concert and the record changed his life. What imagination and what unending invention by Jarrett! It seemed that for Rodríguez as well, the possibilities were limitless. It was the record that also brought the young pianist to the realization that ideas did not come from music alone, “but from everything that surrounds us”. Again, in 2006 his life changed once again when he was selected to play at the Montreux Jazz Festival and invited to a soirée at the home of its Founder and Director, Claude Nobs, for the particular pleasure of Quincy Jones. The latter musician was so impressed with the ideas and ingenuity of Alfredo Rodríguez that he asked the pianist to join him in the US, where Jones became not only a mentor, but a father figure to the émigré-pianist as well. The rest is, quite literally, history for not only was Rodríguez lionized for his rare genius, but the 26-year old also quickly made a critically-acclaimed first record in the US entitled Sounds of Space (Mack Avenue, March, 2012). Today Alfredo Rodríguez is lionized wherever he goes and performs.

It is just after eight o’clock and Mervon Mehta makes a brief announcement about the third instalment of ¡Qué Rica Cuba! Series, Jazz, at the Koerner Hall of the Royal Conservatory. He reveals very little about Alfredo Rodriguez and it is just as well. Rodriguez arrives—the last of three young musicians—stage door right. He pulls off his light sweater, loosens up by joining his hands inside out and loosening his fingers. Then he rubs his palms together, blows into them and places his left hand deep into the bass clef of the keyboard. He seems to be thinking; waiting also, for a sign from Elleggua. Then he unleashes a thunderous chord and as he depresses the hard pedal to create a long sustained group of notes he rolls his left hand over itself and plays a dark and dazzling series of notes—a mini canon, from which he shoots out a quick message at bassist Ricky Rodríguez and then towards the great drummer Henry Cole, who is the first to respond with a rapid tattoo that throws the music into a dizzying roll. And after a brief response from Cole to Rodríguez’s bold entreaties, the drummer smacks his snare with a series of rim-shots, which is, in turn, a cue for the pianist to invite a growling bassist to enter the proceedings and take the song away on a stretching adventure. All the time, Rodríguez adds to the song’s grave narrative with a thunderous bass-line melody, which he expands as chapter and verse unfolds.

When Alfredo Rodríguez plays he charts a course for the melody for “Silencio,” from his first album, Sounds of Space. His roaring left hand appears to create a perimeter of sorts as his right hand traces the shape of a giant parabola. This becomes the diffused boundary within which at imaginary place of absolute peace. “Silencio” proceeds to unfold within this musical paradigm. However at its centre lies a vortex where the music churns and stirs up a storm and this accentuates the inner silence. All the while Rodríguez’s body is dancing on the piano bench. His shoulders lift and fall as he seems to create a dancing shrug. But he is not the only one who is driven to dance by the melody. He draws in his bassist and calls drummer Henry Cole to participate in that interminable dance and Cole responds with earth-shattering rim-shots and a rat-a-tat melody of his own that plays out in a circular pattern beginning on his gruff tom-toms and ending up—a few bass drum bombs and crisp smashes on his largest cymbal later—on the singing snare drum. The trio go on seemingly for hours exploring every minute measure of space, exchanging notes, making musical comments, creating whorls of music until Cole brings the song back to its original rhythmic measure and the pianist, playing a majestic figure, closes it out.

By now the trio is simmering. Rodríguez and Cole as well as Ricky Rodríguez play a teasingly familiar pattern involving piano, bass and drums: It is the first bars of “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás”. There is a velvety texture to the song and it brings to mind the delicious manner in which Nat “King” Cole enunciated the words. However, the pianist ramps up the pace of the song and delivers another Gatling gun tempo for the melody. One short verse later, the musicians are off and racing through the familiar melody, when suddenly, while Cole creates an explosive diversion, Rodríguez runs riot across the melody creating a series of lines that crisscross against each other as if they were making a cross-hatched pattern, chopping up the melody until it resembles something Thelonious Monk might play. Chords are mashed; rhythms are slanted and produce gasps from the cymbals. The song is de-constructed to such an extent that it resembles nothing that the composer Osvaldo Farrés had in mind; but has become something entirely new and of Alfredo Rodríguez’s making. The Art of De-construction continues when Rodríguez introduces that the trio will play Joseíto Fernández’s “Guantanamera”. And play they certainly do, but Rodriguez blocks the piano hammers so that when the strings are hit they sound as flat as a marimba; Cole, for his part clicks the fingers of both hands in rhythmic accompaniment occasionally knocking on the body of the snare and timpani with his knuckles. And Ricky Rodríguez plays con arco for a while before reverting to sensuous pizzicato figures. The tempo, unlike the one in which it were written is slowed down so the drama of the girl in the narrative is heightened. And then suddenly it is over, as suddenly as it started, leaving the audience gasping in wonder at the genius of the musicians who have completely re-imagined the classic while de-constructing it and re-building the song’s architecture anew. There is no time to recover from the tornado of ingenuity, for after a quick stretch part two of the lesson in ingenuity begins.

Tiempo Libre is a septet that came to Toronto via Havana, Cuba and Miami, where they are based. Theirs is an ingenuity of a different sort. Jorge Gómez, their musical director guides the septet between a vocal and instrumental group that makes music that is a magnificent collision between the baroque music of Johann Sebastian Bach. It was not a violent one, but rather one that produced a musical concussion that when the musicians recovered they realized that there is a great similarity between the contrapuntal, harmonic and motivic organisation and the adaptation of rhythms from abroad. In Bach’s case, he looked to Italy and France and with the influence with which Bach produced not only the Brandenburg Concertos, but also suites and minuets, cantatas, chorales and passions that were revered for their intellectual depth, technical command and artistic beauty. Like Bach, Tiempo Libre are able to manipulate their voices as well as the instruments that accompany them—namely the trumpet, tenor saxophone and piano –and tame these with overpowering and soaring voices—to create the soaring nature of Bach-like spirituality. Using the praise of the Orishas, which comes naturally to the Cuban Santería rituals Tiempo Libre creates a soaring musical architecture based on “guaguancó,” “son” “danzón and cha cha chá”, leaving the spiritual boleros to wrap around the styles of Bach’s sacred music.

However, by its very nature, Tiempo Libre is a free spirited group and while Afro Cuban music is driven by a complex set of rhythmic and harmonic invention just as Baroque music was, Tiempo Libre have found a way to add the Afro-Cuban content as rhythmic counterpoint to the multi counterpoint that they extract from Bach’s soaring spiritual music. As result Tiempo Libre and Bach meet somewhere in the rarefied realms where Bach’s vaunted and semi-religious music exists. Many musicians have tried to meld European counterpoint—some of them the giants of the music such as the late John Lewis and Modern Jazz Quartet. However, the scale has been expanded exponentially with the complex percussive elements provided by Afro-Cuban sound especially when trying to render Bach church music in the Afro-Cuban context—artistically—and that means calling upon the Orishas.

Here the ingenuity of Jorge Gómez’s thorough absorption of Bach’s devices and his own ability to find motivic devices that can crossover into the baroque context. The Calling of the Orishas and the ingenious use of the chékere at the hands of its most wonderful expert, Yosvany Terry this happens throughout: For instance the batá on Bach’s “Minuet in G.”

There is a superb element in this band and it is the voice of Joaquin “El Kid” Díaz. His powerful voice and daring doo when he annunciates the Afro-Cuban lyrics that describe the spiritual union with Bach are superb. Not only does he get it right as for as the proverbial collision of ideas is concerned, but he ends up edifying Bach and a glorious creator and mentor in all of their music. The presentation of the de-constructed baroque music in the form of Timba, that energetic music that brings Afro-Caribbean music to work in collusion with the baroque. And then there is the interplay of voices and instruments—all of which are played with magnificent integrity towards baroque as Afro-Caribbean music. Basses comply, horns make way for celebratory nature of the music, and at the end of the day Tiempo Libre and Alfredo Rodríguez must have done the same thing with polyphony and poly-rhythms, yet arrived at the same point via two dramatically objectives: one from a freer style and the other (Tiempo Libre), who chose to stay the course and play baroque music but innovate from within.

Thus there are two distinct styles from which ingenuity would be deduced, one full of Free and unbridled invention outside the elements of the box, meaning Alfredo Rodríguez and his trio and Tiempo Libre where change is wrought from within. Both are equally wondrous and both have succeeded in bringing the drama of two diametrically opposed and striking styles and manners of work, discipline and unbridled creativity and ingenuity that is wondrous; both are lessons in utter musical ingenuity.

Right after the concert Rubén Vázquez and his Latin Jazz Ensemble performed in the lobby, entertaining part of the audience who were still under the spell of the music on another fabulous night at Koerner Hall.

Photographs by Danilo Navas